Albright-Knox Art Gallery adapting in a digital-first world

With technology, renowned gallery aiming for increased accessibility to general public


With more aspects of the world becoming digital, traditional art galleries are finding themselves needing to adapt. Some galleries are even hurting, with many across the nation closing their doors.

Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG) is trying to keep up with the changing landscape, with new technology, apps, an active Instagram account, even stroller tours – all to expand and bring the museum experience to phones and tablets.

The world-renowned museum, located near Buffalo’s Elmwood Village, has been bolstering its virtual presence and pushing educational initiatives. The museum is trying to make itself relevant in a digitally-connected world.

Leading the initiative is AKAG Director Dr. Janne Sirén, whose expertise is connecting the general public with the arts via technology and education. Utilizing new technology and collaborating with technology firms has created new avenues of redefinition for the gallery.

“The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has made significant strides over the past few years,” said Kelly Carpenter, Albright-Knox’s digital media manager. “In using various web and mobile platforms to make the museum’s Fine Art, Digital Assets, Library, and Archives Collections more accessible to our on-site, both inside and outside the museum, and online audiences.”

Since Sirén took the helm of Albright-Knox in 2013, there have been several programsputting the museum on digital platforms and increasing youth interest. The AKAG Innovation Lab would spur on many of these programs, a move the museum says “expands the notion of what a twenty-first century museum can be.”

Initially, the lab was to start work in two “pods,” the first of which was the creation of the interactive mobile game app ArtGames 2.0. The second pod, called the Education Discovery Initiative, worked to come up with an overview of the present state of visual art education in the region, then become involved in revitalizing it.

Most notable of the youth programs is the Future Curators Program, which gives high school students an opportunity to be involved in the curatorial process. By exposing high school juniors and seniors to the museum field, AKAG hopes to spark young people’s interest beyond just observing and understanding art.

The creation of cohesive exhibitions is at the heart of this program.

“We’ve had some incredible young artists in this program over the years,” said Maria Scully-Morreale, Albright-Knox’s director of communications. “We work closely with teachers, making sure they have the information they need to talk about the program in the classroom and encourage students to participate.”

Being mentored throughout the program by AKAG staff and organizing their own exhibits, students are taught the concepts of artwork selection and exhibition layout design as well as creating effective wall text, in-gallery labels and press releases.

While these projects inherently have appeal to their audience, in a world where everyone is bombarded with information, one has to set one’s media presence apart.

“We use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as our main social channels and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses,” said Pamela Martin, digital content manager. “We regularly promote a variety of new exhibitions, events, and programs, each one targeted to a different segment of our audience.”

Martin says she has recognized the success that the Instagram account has seen compared to the other platforms, seeing both higher engagement rates and faster growth in followers.

“As a visual platform, it is particularly well suited to an organization that focuses on visual arts,” Martin said.

Andrew Mayer, AKAG communications coordinator, said the gallery’s social media presence has increased significantly over the last few years and allows it to speak directly to a younger audience.

Carpnter said social media platforms like Historypin, Tumblr and Instagram offered AKAG a “unique way to showcase the marrying of digital and physical materials.”

“It has given our audiences – who may not be able to visit the interior of our museum – the ability to interact with our Collections for free using a computer, smartphone, or tablet, wherever they are,” Carpenter said.

In terms of programming, AKAG’s re-launching of their 2001 Art Games app in the way of ArtGames 2.0 brings digital aspects into the art environment. The app serves as an educational experience in arts, comprised of eight different video games that are based on various works and artists in the museum collection.

The connection would be made when Dr. Laura Sommer, the Chair of Daemen College’s Visual & Performing Arts Program and overseer of the International Center for Excellence in Animation (ICEA), reached out to former AKAG board member Peggy Pierce Elfvin, who passed away in 2012.

“Our internal team on the Innovation Lab had already been toying with the idea of updating Art Games. That was a program available on the Internet that the AKAG developed internally over 10 years ago,” said Russell Davidson, innovation lab and special projects manager. “It had not been updated and was now so outdated, in terms of programming, most systems could not access it anymore. This invitation from the ICEA seemed like a perfect opportunity to develop something new and cutting-edge and that’s how the idea for ArtGames2.0 came about.”

As a partnership program with ICEA, Empire Visuals Effects and All Things Media, it is one of AKAG’s more technologically-forward programs.

The AKAG team, comprised of Davidson, Deputy Director Dr. Joe Lin-Hill, Curator of Education and Community Engagement Jessica DiPalma, Director of Publications Pam Hatley made up the core of the project.

In addition to Sommer, managing partner of Empire Visuals Ben Porcari would also be brought on to offer insight in programming and design, as well as his industry knowledge and contacts.

“Very early on, we realized we would need to contract with an outside developer in order to realize the scale of the project we wanted to undertake,” Davidson said. “Together, the team worked on putting together a plan which developed into a mobile application that included a suite of eight different games, with an additional four to be added later.”

The art pieces used for the project include Vincent van Gogh’s La Maison de la Crau (The Old Mill), Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. 11 and Do Ho Suh’s Karma, among others.

The three collaborators would begin drafting a request for proposals, which would be sent all over the world. Four firms would respond with proposals, but ultimately, All Things Media would be chosen.

It would be launched alongside the special exhibition Screen Play: Life in an Animated World. An exhibition that would feature the works of over 23 artists from around the world, which, when presented next to the newly created app, made for an event that connected attendees with a centuries worth of art.

The first step of this connection was made through the relatable medium of technology.

“Their firm had the necessary infrastructure and organization it would take to properly execute this project in the tight timeline we were working on,” Davidson said. “The app needed to be ready to launch right around the same time as the opening of an art in animation exhibition we had opening in June, called Screen Play: Life in an Animated World.”

The project would been seen as groundbreaking in the field, surpassing the previous ArtGames.

“Playing the games, kids were generally far more adept than their parents, and they were excited to see the real works of art here at the museum afterward,” Mayer said.

ArtGames2.0 would be followed up with a digitization project that AKAG undertook with the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Launched in November of 2013, it initially was an interactive tour in which AKAG’s outdoor sculpture collection and the historic downtown Buffalo streetscapes were reanimated.

The free app also included interactive time lines that explored the history of AKAG and Burchfield Penney.

Designed by Carpenter, it quelled fears that too much online content would be a deterrent to the public museum attendance. In actuality, the project increased the attendance of the general public interested in seeing the works that they saw on the digital platform.

“The main goal of all institutional activities is to enhance the understanding and appreciation of contemporary and modern art, and reach as many people as we can,” Carpenter said. “Yes, of course I would love everyone to come and see the Collection first hand, however, I recognize that this is not always possible.”

To make the gallery even more accessible, AKAG, with sponsorship from M&T Bank, has made the first Friday of every month free to the public from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Since 2011, the program has offered free admission for the twelve-hour period, with guided tours available for a fee.

The museum also offers various tours geared toward specific groups, such as veterans, the visually impaired and those with disabilities, even offering stroller tours.

“A lot of our visitors base is female, so we also offer stroller tours to mothers who might have kids,” Mayer said. “It’s a good way get kids here at a young age so they can appreciate art, it's also a great to enjoy art as a family.”

Also, while the museum tends to be closed on Mondays, it keeps its doors open for school groups.

“It got to the point where there would be hundreds of kids and it was a way to the alleviate some of the traffic,” Mayer said.

Enriching the art experience, AKAG offers yoga sessions every Saturday morning in their galleries. Usually done in small groups, the sessions see groups of 10 to 15.

With industries quickly realizing that societal trends are pushing commerce and attention to digital platforms, it’s not only important how quickly companies make the transition, but also with what level of tact.

Connecting with the general public, and more specifically the youth, is no small task, one that will continue to be facilitated by AKAG’s Future Curators Program, but has shown to be able to pique and nurture interest.

Albright-Knox is trying to become a leading presence in the move to a digitally-connected art community.

Kenneth Kashif Thomas is an arts editor and can be reached at