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March 2004

Louis Grachos -
Moving Quickly to Create a Fresh Experience at the Albright-Knox

by Glen WHITE

Albright-Knox Art Gallery Director Louis Grachos is unquestionably a man on the go.

"We're really trying to increase the Gallery's presence in international art circles, so the last few months I've been to shows in New York (City), in Switzerland and the Venice (Italy) Biennial," Grachos said. "It's important for us to build relationships with top contemporary artists."

Then Grachos adds a few upcoming, closer-to-home destinations.

"Oh, and this weekend I'm going to Toronto to see my mom and dad and then I'm taking my son, James, to his Mite hockey game in Jamestown."

It's probably safe to say that Grachos, who grew up in Toronto equally immersed in studying art and playing hockey, is the only person on the planet attending both international art shows and Mite hockey games in the same week. Yet that's indicative of the fast pace Grachos likes, which also shows what he has accomplished in only a year on the job at the Albright-Knox.

After helping guide the Gallery through its presentation of Masterworks from The Phillips Collection last summer, Grachos has quickly put his own stamp on the Gallery's direction, increasing the focus on contemporary art and the use of the Albright-Knox's renowned permanent collection of modern and contemporary art.

The permanent collection was recently reinstalled and will be changed again regularly in the future. There have already been exhibitions of top contemporary artists such as Kara Walker and Janine Antoni, and an exhibition celebrating the design of the planned visitor center for Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House. A full slate of other compelling exhibitions is scheduled for 2004, including ones exploring the classic sculpture of Rodin and the compelling sculpture of various contemporary artists.

"I like to move quickly, and I think we've been able to do that by taking steps forward in many aspects of the Gallery's 2001 strategic plan. Our board and staff have been very supportive. We're really trying to make the Albright-Knox a fresher experience and more accessible to people," Grachos said, adding that he is working on a program to extend hours on Friday evenings around a changing program of cultural events.

Grachos' life story includes plenty of change and travel as well. He was born in Toronto in 1957, the elder of two children of James and Mary Grachos, who had met in Greece and immigrated to Canada to join other family members in 1954. James Grachos had worked as a mechanic for the United Nations in volatile Macedonia after World War II. Grachos'‚ sister, Victoria, was born in 1962.

The family first lived in urban East York and later suburban Scarborough—and the young Grachos was exposed to art at an early age through the area's impressive school art programs. Grachos said he was encouraged in art by his second-grade teacher, an Australian teaching in Canada on an exchange program.

"She was strict, but very supportive and I actually wrote to her a number of times after she returned to Australia," he said.

Then, as a freshman in high school, Grachos learned about art history and art museums through trips to both the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Albright-Knox. Those experiences lead Grachos to study art history at the University of Toronto even though by then he had given up aspirations for his own career as an artist. He then moved to New York in 1979 to complete his art history studies at New York University.

"In New York I was able to go to great museums and attend scores of gallery shows and I decided to see if my skills would allow me to work in a museum," Grachos said. "I also knew then that I enjoyed working with creative people and wanted to work with living artists as much as possible."

Grachos soon headed for San Francisco and completed the museum studies graduate certificate program at the Center for Museum Studies, John F. Kennedy University. He also worked as a research intern at the San Francisco Museum of Art.

In 1982 it was back to New York to work as a curatorial intern at the Whitney Museum of American Art, followed in 1983 by a brief stint in a similar position at the AGO in his native Toronto.

After returning to New York to work in a number of different positions, Grachos met Ann Kippen and the couple were married in 1986. In 1987, he landed the position that would give him broad experience in international art circles, associate director of the visual arts program and art gallery for the Americas Society, an organization founded and chaired by David Rockefeller.

"I was able to travel to Latin America and Brazil, among other places and this really helped me establish many contacts to help my career," Grachos said.

After three years with the Americas Society, Grachos became director of exhibitions for the Queens Museum of Art, but left after a year to become a curator at the Center for the Fine Arts in Miami. His timing was good, Grachos said, because Miami was beginning its renaissance as a cultural and arts center of the Americas. Grachos curated or coordinated more than 40 exhibitions in three years and became director of the museum, managing a staff of 32.

"He's really adventurous, finding a whole new edge of young art for the city," Jason Rubell, a Miami art dealer, told Interview magazine about Grachos. "Generally, the attitude is that exciting things in art are done in New York, Chicago or LA and that there's no reason to do them in Miami. But Louis had been great in getting out-of-state artists to come to Miami and he believes entirely in Florida artists, too."

Grachos left Miami for San Diego in 1994 to become curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he supervised all exhibitions, collections, publications, education and research. But it was at SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico, where Grachos became director and curator in 1996, that he really turned heads in art circles by establishing the international biennial exhibitions that drew the top young contemporary artists in the world to Santa Fe.

"In more than six years on the job in Santa Fe, Grachos proved himself an innovative programmer, able administrator and consummate diplomat," the Albuquerque Journal said in late 2002. "He built the organization's infrastructure pretty much from the ground up, created awareness for the institution and spearheaded a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation. Not bad for a guy who had the double whammy of coming from outside and bringing edgy, outside art to the city."

Now Grachos is focused on achieving similar successes for the Albright-Knox. "We're showcasing the exciting work of living artists and bringing those artists to the Gallery and to Buffalo. People are going to be able to see internationally recognized art complemented by our renowned permanent collection."

Grachos said he and his family couldn't be happier than to be in Buffalo. Last summer they bought a 1920s Arts-and-Crafts-style house in the Central Park area of North Buffalo.

"Ann was really attracted to the neighborhood," Grachos said. "There's a great quality of life here that we haven't had before of really feeling part of a neighborhood. Buffalo is tremendous because it has a big city dimension yet it feels warm and hospitable and its size is manageable."

James, 8, is attending Nardin Academy Elementary School and, of course, playing lots of hockey with the local Bisons team. Grachos said he was able to get James started in hockey in Santa Fe.

"The hockey gods have followed me around and, thankfully, there was a community rink in Santa Fe," said Grachos, who is once again playing organized hockey himself here in Buffalo as he did while living in Santa Fe, San Diego, Miami and New York.

Has he been to many Sabres games with James yet? "Too many. After the (Toronto) Maple Leafs, we love the Sabres," he laughs.

Glen White is account supervisor at Carr Marketing Communications, a nationally recognized strategic communications consulting firm based in Amherst.


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