Janne Sirén is the director of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, a 161-year-old institution with one of the most important collections of American Abstract Expressionism. He was named director in 2013 and guided the organization through a major building project in which the concept of partnership was the cornerstone of the process. Sirén joined Guggenheim President Emeritus Jennifer Stockman and Rail Consulting Editor Joachim Pissarro for a conversation about the history of the Buffalo AKG, the fascinating career path Sirén created to arrive where he is, and the visionary work that goes into building a venerable collection. A special thanks to Antonio Valverde, Co-Chair of the Buffalo AKG National Council, for his role in organizing the interview.
Joachim Pissarro: Can you tell us in a very broad way, what makes this institution not only very special, but unique, in fact, in the history of museums?
Janne Sirén: The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy was incorporated in 1862 during the American Civil War. At that time, there were only five other art museums in the United States: the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; the Brooklyn Museum; the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Next came the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the sixth-oldest art museum in the United States, which in the course of its 161-year history has operated under several different names. We are now known as the Buffalo AKG Art Museum.
The Buffalo AKG has been an artist-centric institution for 161 years, working with living artists from the very moment of the museum’s incorporation. Lars Gustaf Sellstedt, a painter of Swedish origin, was our first chief curator. In 1905, the museum received its first permanent home, which was funded by John J. Albright. In recognition of his generosity, the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy started doing business as the Albright Art Gallery. Fast forward about sixty years, and now, thanks to the generosity of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. the museum was able to expand into a new wing designed by Gordon Bunshaft, and renamed itself the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Add another sixty years, and it brings us to today, to 2023. Thanks to the generosity of the visionary art collector and business leader, Jeffrey Gundlach, who catalyzed a 230 million dollar capital campaign and the construction of a new free-standing building designed by OMA/Shohei Shigematsu, we are now the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. The “G” in our new name stands for Gundlach, but it also picks up on the “G” from our former name, “Gallery,” a nineteenth-century term for museums.
What makes the Buffalo AKG’s collection so special is that we have been a contemporary art museum long before the art world even thought of contemporary art in the terms in which we think of it today. The museum has been collecting the work of living artists for more than a century and a half. That means, for example, that when there were no museums in Manhattan, we were collecting French modernism during the first two decades of the twentieth century. MoMA was established in 1929 and the Whitney a few years later and the Guggenheim in 1937, if memory serves correctly, so the Buffalo AKG truly has this long history of working with and collecting the work of contemporary artists, and with a specific vision in mind: that vision being to discover the artistic revolutions of tomorrow before tomorrow thinks of them as such. That, of course, is a hard thing to do in any field of human endeavor. But it’s particularly difficult in the field of contemporary art, with respect to the work of living artists, because how do we know what the revolution of tomorrow will be before tomorrow has determined it as a revolution?
Visionary collectors, such as A. Conger Goodyear, the head of our art committee from 1912 through 1928, and Seymour H. Knox, Jr., President of the Board of Directors from 1938 to 1977, as well as visionary museum directors such as Cornelia Bentley Sage Quinton, the first woman director in the United States (director of the Albright Art Gallery from 1910 through 1924), perhaps even the world, and Gordon M. Smith, the director responsible for acquiring so many of our Abstract Expressionist, minimalist, and pop art masterpieces—these individuals, among others, have made this collection so special and so unique. The museum acquired Pollock’s Convergence (1952) in 1956, four years after it was painted. One of the great works by Rothko, Orange and Yellow, was painted in ’56 and acquired in ’56; Andy Warhol’s 100 Cans was painted in ’62, and acquired in ’63. That was, I think, one of the first Warhols to enter a museum collection in the United States. So, we have a legacy that goes all the way back to the mid-nineteenth century of collecting the work of living artists. And of course, it has taken individuals with a keen aesthetic sense and a good knack for where the next artistic revolution might lie to develop the Buffalo AKG’s collection.
Pissarro: As you know, I was a curator at The Museum of Modern Art. It’s a tiny detail typographically, but The Museum of Modern Art insists on capitalizing “The” because it claims to be the number one museum of modern art. You just explained that, in fact, this claim is not entirely founded.
Sirén: Well, dates don’t lie, and we each have our dates of incorporation. I think that one of the things that is important to keep in mind in this context is that while Buffalo may have been a booming center of commerce and an industrial epicenter in nineteenth-century America and all the way up to the 1950s, after the 1950s much of the heavy industry moved out. So, a city such as Buffalo, which was very wealthy and very much on the global map of art, culture, and commerce during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth sort of faded into the background in the decades following World War II.
Jennifer Stockman: I’m interested in your personal career, and I think being a museum director is probably one of the hardest jobs in the world, because you wear multiple hats and have to be well-informed about so many areas—it’s really overwhelming. You come from an artistic family in Finland. I know your great grandfather was one of the most important artists there. But how did you arrive at a place of knowing you wanted to be a museum director?
Sirén: Well, there was no master plan for me to become an art museum director. In fact, when I left Europe for America in 1989 to undertake undergraduate studies, I left with the very clear intent of having nothing to do with arts and culture. And that was probably because I come from three generations of artists: my great grandfather, Akseli Gallen-Kallela; my grandfather, Jorma Gallen-Kallela, who was one of the first Finnish officers to fall in battle in the Finnish Winter War against the Soviet Union in 1939; and then my mother, who was six years old when her father fell in battle. She, too, became an artist and an interior architect and worked in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I think I had had an overdose of the arts during my childhood and youth, and therefore, at the age of eighteen, I was very intent on carving a path, a different path for myself.
I was a political science major at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and had to take a mandatory art history course as an arts requirement. One of our assignments in that course, which was in the fall semester of my sophomore year, was to write a reaction paper to an art object of our choosing from antiquity through the end of the Middle Ages in the Worcester Art Museum. I picked a gothic column that had all these wonderful gargoyles and monsters jutting out from it, and submitted the paper. I didn’t think anything more about it until two weeks later when I received a little note in my PO Box. The note said something to the effect of, “please come to see me at my office hours,” signed Jody Ziegler. And so, I went to see Professor Ziegler, somewhat terrified about the prospect of having failed the paper and dropping my GPA and, as a potential consequence, being ousted off the crew team that I was on. That turned out not to be the case. What she said when I walked into her office, and after we began our conversation, was that it was the best piece of art history writing that she had read in something like two and a half decades of undergraduate teaching. And she had a clear plan in mind for me—she said, “You’re going to quit that silly crew team. You’re going to switch from political science to art history, and I will become your advisor.” She was very persuasive.
I took another art history course with her in the spring semester, and something clicked during that semester when we got to Impressionism and the works of Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and, Joachim, your great grandfather, Camille Pissarro. There was something mesmerizing about the artistic revolutions that these generations of Realists, the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists had brought to bear on the visual world that I could not resist. So I became an art history major, ended up taking around twenty art history or art history related courses at Holy Cross, some of which I designed myself with the help of my professors. Then it came time to think about what to do after completing my BA degree. At this point, I had become close with Professor Kermit Champa, who at the time was teaching at Brown University. Kermit was also a mentor to me, and he said, “Listen, I’d love to have you here at Brown.” I was immediately accepted upon submitting my application. But he said to me, “You have to go to New York City and you have to study with Linda Nochlin and Bob Rosenblum at the Institute of Fine Arts.”
Pissarro: This is the best answer we’ve ever had! [Laughter]
Sirén: I followed Kermit’s advice and immediately upon completing my BA started my studies at the Institute of Fine Arts in the fall of 1993 with Linda Nochlin, Bob Rosenblum, Jonathan Brown, Kirk Varnedoe, and many others. I finished my MA in two years and then my PhD in three and a half years. It took me a little longer because I had to stop my studies for a year to do my compulsory military service in Finland. I was an airborne ranger (Paratrooper Company of the Utti Jaeger Regiment).
What I wanted to do at that point was to teach. I knew the impact that Jody Ziegler and Virginia Raguin at Holy Cross and so many others at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts had had on my studies. I wanted to do what my teachers had done—be in a classroom and share the knowledge, really carve out a space in academia. My first job was as visiting assistant professor of art history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. I started teaching there in the fall of 2000, and I was a teacher for four years at the Hebrew University. I was offered a tenure track position at the end of it, but Hebrew was a little bit of a difficult academic language for me to learn. I studied Hebrew and learned to speak a little bit, but not the academic Hebrew that one would need in a classroom.
By 2004, I had come to the point where I felt that I wanted to return to the United States, which was—and is—my intellectual home. But remember, this moment in time was unfolding on the heels of September 11. I would be interviewed for positions in the US and attend College Art Association conferences, where these interviews are often conducted. It was very difficult at that point to get a green card. I had great recommendations from the Institute of Fine Arts, and they said they could write the recommendations, but they couldn’t change US immigration policies.
After one of these interview trips in the US, I returned to my office on Mount Scopus and there was a newspaper clipping in the fax machine from Finland that a friend of my parents had sent to me. It was the job announcement for the directorship of the Tampere Art Museum. I had not lived in my native Finland at that point for twenty-one years. The only times I had spent in Finland were during the summers, serendipitously, and then my military service, but for the first time now I translated my CV into Finnish and thought “well”—my wife and I were expecting our first child at the time—“well, maybe Finland might be a place where we could give it a shot during this transformational moment in our private lives.” Lo and behold, three months later, I was appointed to the position and became, I think, at the time, one of the youngest museum directors in Europe. I was thirty-four years old.
I was now a civil servant, reporting to the deputy mayor of the City of Tampere. I had one rule that I gave to myself: that I will learn all the different aspects of museum work, I will not be a corner office leader. I would paint walls; I did translation work for exhibition catalogues to help balance the museum’s budget; I did everything that all the departments in a museum would do. And I had one financial rule: never run a museum in the red. And I never have since starting in 2004. I’ve always run museums in the black. And that has been a guiding light for me because I have felt that my job is to empower curators and artists. And if a museum runs and operates in the black, curators and artists have operational freedom.
Pissarro: Janne, this is extraordinary, thank you. I want to switch directions now and talk about the new building project at the AKG. Your approach in choosing a particular architect is very interesting. You have really created a new type of relationship between the client and the architect. Can you explain how you have approached the notion of an architect competition and what you have established by naming an architect as a kind of partner?
Sirén: Sure, so fast forward from that moment that I started as a museum director in 2004 at the age of thirty-four. In 2007, I became director of the Helsinki Art Museum; and in 2012, I received a call from an American search consultant asking if I would like to put my hat in the ring for the eleventh directorship of what was then called the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Knowing the collection, I agreed affirmatively and was going through the interview process in the latter half of 2012 and the very beginning of 2013.
I quickly understood that the Board of Directors of the Albright Knox had a long-standing aspiration to add a new twenty-first-century wing or build a new architectural addition to the existing campus, which consisted of two museum buildings—well actually three, the third being used by staff and occasionally, back then, also for displays of art. What I also understood during that interview process and my first weeks and months here in Buffalo, is that while there was a strong desire to build and expand the facility and give more space to the museum’s remarkable collection, there was not a firm vision of what the community wanted. And I think it’s very important to understand a community’s aspirations, not just the aspirations of a board, or a museum staff. I took a timeout from pursuing a building project in the beginning of my tenure to understand the community’s aspirations. What does Buffalo want? What is Buffalo? What does the city want from its globally renowned art museum?
I spent eighteen initial months exploring that question and what I learned is that Buffalo has a long, proud heritage—a history that has its ups and downs. You cannot just helicopter-drop a new building here and expect everyone to fall in love with it. It became clear to me that if this project was going to be successful, both from a fundraising vantage point, but also from an architectural vantage point, it needed to be done as a collaboration with the community. So by the time we were gearing up to find an architect to work with, I proposed that we not run a traditional architectural design competition, where a number of architects get to submit their proposals in response to a request, but rather we write the request for proposals in such a way that it calls for a partnership to be born, as opposed to yielding a design that we will then build.
So in practical terms, we issued three design challenges: design a new building that has X number of square feet; design a new building of Y number of square feet; and then one that’s totally up to you, the architect, to conceive without following any of our parameters. We conveyed to the architects, also, that we are not planning to build what they are proposing in their responses; that we are really wanting to learn about their architectural thinking and how they might work as a partner with us. This is what the architects had to tackle. They also had to go through public meetings during their pitch process and they had to talk to the community and get to know Buffalo. And that was ultimately scripted into our contract with Shohei Shigematsu and OMA, which was the firm and the individual with whom we ultimately signed an agreement to design the next chapter in the Albright-Knox’s architectural history. But it really wasn’t about a design, it was about a partnership, and about Shohei and his team’s architectural thinking. The selection committee consisted of board members and staff members, but the process also included a lot of community stakeholder meetings.
Pissarro: Architects often tend to be married to their designs. What kind of responses did you get in hiring an architect with the pitch that the architect should not put their design first and foremost? Was that easy?
Sirén: Well, I think that the architects who were our finalists—Allied Works, BIG, Snøhetta, OMA, and Kulapat Yantrasast’s WHY architects—were all intrigued by the concept of designing a museum with the client and the community as close partners. They hadn’t necessarily done it before. I remember vividly hearing many of the individuals who were on those teams saying that it’s so refreshing to think of architecture in these terms.
We were very deliberate about the team with which we would partner. So, it was Shohei Shigematsu, Paxton Sheldahl, Lawrence Siu, and a couple of others, and that team is still together here designing, now finalizing the construction of the new museum. Bluntly put, we built a team of architects that was a partner to the museum and to the Buffalo community. And in the contractual agreement, we wrote that your job, your work with us, entails community meetings, town hall meetings, and interviews and encounters with the population of Buffalo.
Stockman: That sounds like a very unique approach. What would you say was the biggest challenge? What would you do differently today, looking back? I mean, you talked earlier about the visionary, and seeing the future. Your approach to this whole design idea sounds very futuristic. However, it also had to have been fraught with very interesting challenges.
Sirén: I have today so much more knowledge about questions of historic preservation than I did during the search for an architectural partner. And I have a more reasonable understanding of what an iterative design process actually means, and what it actually means when you’ve done one year of designing, and then you pivot entirely and start from scratch.
Stockman: That happened?
Sirén: That happened, yes. We had a totally different design direction in the beginning of the process from what we are now actually building. Shohei Shigematsu of OMA was appointed by the board as our architect partner in June of 2016. The work of designing the museum, campus, landscape, and new facility began in earnest in September of 2016. And that work continued through the following summer until we hit a wall. And that wall was that the proposal that OMA had been working on was seen by some as not sufficiently respective of the existing architectural fabric of the existing museum campus. We have the Robert and Elisabeth Wilmers Building, a neoclassical building designed by E.B. Green that was completed in 1905; and the Seymour H. Knox Building, a modernist building designed by Gordon Bunshaft and completed in 1962. And the first design on which OMA worked for a year, from the fall of 2016 through the summer of 2017, was felt by those to whom historic preservation and the architectural legacy of Buffalo is important—as it is to me and the team here—to be an affront against the historical fabric of the historic campus.
We had to have very fast, deliberate, decisive conversations with the State Historic Preservation Office and the Buffalo Preservation Board to understand where they were coming from. We worked to bring everybody to the table again, and then made a new design direction recommendation to our Board of Directors—and here I really salute our board leadership. They had the courage to say, “Okay, we’ve spent a year. We should now explore another direction. Our community wants it. We are building for the next century. This will take a year more, but we must give it the time it requires.” It was the smartest thing we could have done.
I don’t think we could have done it, pivoted from one design direction to a totally different one, if we hadn’t, from the very beginning, said, “We are looking for an architectural partner.” If we had just been glued to an original design, then that would have been the defining goalpost that we were running towards. Because we had chosen a partner, however, we could lean on that relationship and say, “So, I know you are committed to this design, but you’ve tried fourteen different iterations of it. And there are important issues with this design. Let’s address them. Let’s keep exploring.”
Today, everybody is more than happy that we made that course redirection back in 2017. Of course, with course redirections come financial questions and consequences. We had run in the summer of 2016 a lightning-fast capital campaign raising in eleven weeks $100 million. That may have sufficed, or almost sufficed for that earlier OMA proposal. When we pivoted towards an entirely freestanding building with a larger footprint and larger square footage for the galleries, it cost more. So I remember at the very moment when OMA and Shohei Shigematsu were announced as our partner, The Buffalo News running an article asking, “Can Albright-Knox raise $80 million?” Well, in September of 2016, they reported the Albright-Knox completed its capital campaign with $102 million raised. I can tell you today that the capital campaign ended up being $230 million. Fortunately, all the money has been raised.
Stockman: That’s fantastic, Janne. We haven’t talked about the similarity in climate between Helsinki and Buffalo. I don’t know if that was part of the hiring decision that brought you in in 2013, but it certainly was an amazing factor that saved a potentially terrible situation during the construction phase. Can you talk about that a little?
Sirén: As you know, we were hit by Winter Storm Elliott on the 23rd of December, 2022. Of course, this is a time when many individuals have plans for the holidays. The first decision I had to make when the storm’s intensity was manifest was to tell the museum team that was in charge of securing the museum to go home. The forecast was such that we were not sure when help could be delivered to the facilities if a team of staff members was stuck there. And there was the clear and present danger of a power outage, which turned out to be the case.
Meanwhile, there was five to six feet of snow piling up and hurricane-force winds were blowing. On the morning of the 24th of December—knowing the construction site well—I felt something had to be done. If, for example, the sump pumps that keep our basement areas that are full of sensitive equipment would stop operating, there would be flooding and perhaps incalculable damage as well as further construction delays. So, I made the decision on that morning to ski three miles to the museum. I am trained to operate in those types of winter conditions. But, of course, that training is from a few years back. And when you are dealing with that level of wind and freezing temperatures, you really cannot afford to make mistakes. Once you start to lose body temperature, however well trained you are, the consequences can be quite unfortunate, let’s say.
There were several cars stranded between where I live and the museum. And we had heard from the news that some people had been stuck in their cars. In fact, forty-seven people died in Western New York, some of them stranded in their cars, some of them stranded in their homes. So, every car I encountered stranded in these snow banks, I scraped the window just to, you know, ensure that no one was inside. And fortunately, I didn’t find anyone.
Eventually I made it to the museum and quickly started to organize an emergency generator to be brought to the site, which we managed to pull up to the back door of the museum the following day. But first we had to shovel six feet of snow. [Laughter] And anyway, it’s a long story, but we were able to prevent a major catastrophe on the construction site, which was at a very delicate point. The museum’s opening was shifted by three weeks due to Winter Storm Elliot. It was an interesting adventure, and one that I do not wish upon any of my colleagues.
Stockman: Wow, that is quite a story. Earlier you talked about visionary approaches to building a collection. The idea of the visionary is always magical to me, because how do people see into the future? And you wouldn’t be in your position Janne, if you didn’t have some of that ability. So what is the magic? How do you buy art? How do you know what will stand the test of time?
Sirén: I think different directors might answer that question differently. For me, the answer is that I’m really a generalist. I began my studies with the art of Ancient Egypt. I spent a year studying everything from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom, and then the Ptolemaic period. Then I studied the art of the Byzantine Empire. I studied Medieval art and Renaissance art at Holy Cross. I gradually made my way towards what we would call contemporary art today, but I’m a firm believer in training the eye through a historical understanding of the long arc of visuality. For me, human visuality begins with things like the Lascaux cave paintings.
I think that you have to look at art so much that your eyes are aching, but not just looking at what’s here and now, but looking also through a historical lens, because artists are looking at the world through a historical lens as well. They are building their explorations of the visual universe on history. That takes you up to a certain point, but what makes that visionary bit come to bear on the decisions we make about acquisition, I don’t really have my own words for it.
I just know it, it is a special sensation that cannot be described in words. I mean, I know that the sensation of “knowing it” comes from, in my case, literally decades of looking at art. I’ve been looking at art since I was zero years old, I suppose. And you know, I grew up in a home where turpentine and oil paints were more customary than milk cartons or packages of spaghetti. I’ve looked at a lot of art, and I think that looking trains the optical muscle. It also builds a lexicon of visual memories that helps in this process of evaluating new artworks that you haven’t seen before. For me, it’s almost a visceral feeling when I see something that I feel can stand the test of time—I just feel it. And, of course, that doesn’t mean that one doesn’t make mistakes.
Stockman: Is there one artist that you can mention that represents the future in your mind?
Sirén: There isn’t one I would mention here. I would say that I stand on the shoulders of giants. I look back, for example, to the work that Gordon Smith, the seventh director of the Buffalo AKG, did during his tenure from 1955 to 1973, alongside board president Seymour H. Knox Jr. The two were really a team. They really challenged each other. They brought masterpiece after masterpiece into the collection, and more than seven-hundred works were gifted by Seymour H. Knox Jr. and the Knox Foundation to the museum. I believe that real visionary work happens in and through partnerships. And this holds true also for the Buffalo AKG Art Museum’s campus that will be opening soon. Individuals can be visionaries. They can be visionaries, but real visionary work happens through partnerships.