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Art by Design

The opening of the Sage College of Albany’s thoughtfully designed, generously funded Opalka Gallery heralds a new era for the evolving institution

By David Brickman

Leif Zurmuhlen

It was early 1997, and Jim Richard Wilson, the Junior College of Albany’s Rathbone Gallery director, faced a problem: He had agreed to receive and show part of an exhibition, Beta Israel, which had been curated by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and was traveling nationally.

But when the collection of rare art and artifacts was delivered to the 560-square-foot gallery, not only did the crated shipment fill the entire space—making unpacking, selection and installation virtually impossible—but Wilson had no secure place in which to store the three-quarters of the show that would remain packed during the four-week exhibition.

Fortunately, after a feverish phone search, Mark Schaming of the New York State Museum offered climate-controlled storage, and the show was saved.

Such a scenario likely will never play out in the Sage College of Albany’s Opalka Gallery, the region’s latest in a series of impressive new spaces devoted to art. Here, Wilson has a state-of-the-art receiving dock, an ample workroom and a 2,000-square-foot exhibition space—with climate control.

A lot of planning—and some luck—got Wilson his dream gallery. But planning has long been one of his strengths.

Before Wilson moved to the Capital Region from Southampton, Long Island, in 1986, he did his homework, making a research trip to the area and talking to people with his kind of interests before deciding whether it was the right move for him.

The same careful approach came into play nearly 15 years later, when Wilson took on the opportunity to guide the creation of the Opalka.

Leif Zurmuhlen

His first step was to tour other area gallery facilities and discuss their advantages—and problems—with the people who run them. He gleaned valuable lessons from other directors, such as Charles Stainback at Skidmore’s Tang Teaching Museum, who warned him about practicalities including low-hanging catwalks and vulnerable baseboard utility strips.

The result is a sparkling, $2.8 million edifice that was dedicated on Tuesday. It stands along New Scotland Avenue next to the campus’ year-old fine-arts building; together they comprise the Center for Visual Arts.

Both facilities are at the core of the current transition of this two-year liberal arts college into a four-year institution offering Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees. The campus, no longer known as the Junior College of Albany (but with a lingering reputation for offering open admission to drifting high school grads with ready tuition money) is looking more and more like the full-fledged institution it’s striving to be, and has ambitions to raise its admission standards higher.

The person responsible for the change, according to Wilson, is President Jeanne Neff. When Neff came on board in 1995, Wilson said, she was the first Sage president to tour the Albany campus building by building; he credits her with “recognizing strengths and putting resources to strengths.”

This meant, for example, seeing that the photography department’s physical plant, housed in the basement of Rathbone Hall, was inadequate—a problem she fixed immediately by having a new building made for it. Later, when the fine-arts building was created, photography moved again, leaving its new space to benefit the interior-design program.

“Jeanne Neff understood that the lifeblood of this campus [is] art majors,” Wilson says. By contrast, he recalls, “We’d been telling the previous president [Sara Chapman] for years [that we needed better facilities], and her response was, ‘At Princeton we sat on splintered chairs, and it made no impact on the quality of our education.’ ”

Flashback to 1998: The art and design faculty of Sage’s Albany campus was in the beginning stages of planning their long-awaited studio art facility, which was to be completed in 2001.

Wilson, meanwhile, was creating exhibitions in the cramped, steam-heated space of the Rathbone that were getting widespread attention. Among them were two national juried shows incorporating art and poetry, a series of groundbreaking exhibitions of Jewish art and artifacts, and several art and photography shows that traveled extensively after being initiated there.

As time went on, it became clear that there would be an institutional advantage to providing Wilson with more space and better climate control (similar issues led the Albany Institute of History and Art to recently shut down for more than two years and spend more than $17 million on renovations).

“At the time that the studio building was being created, there was the thought that there would be a larger gallery facility,” Wilson says. But where would they get the money for such a project?

Enter 54-year-old Chet Opalka, a research chemist and cofounder of Albany Molecular Research (which owns the patent on the active ingredient in the popular allergy medication Allegra), and now an independently wealthy private philanthropist with Sage connections.

Better to give: (l-r) Sage College President Jeanne H. Neff, Chet and Karen Opalka. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Opalka’s wife, Karen, a lifelong schoolteacher, had done graduate work at Sage, and their son, Jesse, was an alumnus of the two-year program at JCA. Opalka had been asked to join the board of directors of the colleges, and he began to see a need he could fill in the Albany campus’ developing art program.

“It just sort of evolved,” Opalka says. “Sage had built the [new] fine-arts building prior to that, and [a gallery] was part of the long-term plan, but it was quite an expensive proposition to consider.”

However, he adds, “It was a situation where we were able to free up the cash to make it happen.”

But why support a college art gallery? Opalka explains that he and Karen have always enjoyed art: “We often go to art galleries all over the place. We chose Sage because our son Jesse has always been interested in art. He went to JCA and got his two-year degree in graphic design. . . . Ultimately, he went to the Savannah College of Art and Design and got his Bachelor’s and Master’s. . . . The education he got at Sage, we thought, was fabulous.”

In the Opalkas, Wilson found more than supporters: He found willing collaborators who were enthusiastic but not trying to take over his project.

“Chet and Karen are the model of what patrons should be,” Wilson says. “They’re keenly interested, they’re amazingly supportive, and they’re extremely enthused—they’re excited about the project.”

But they’re also guided by a philosophy of exercising what Chet Opalka terms “influence without meddling.”

Still, the couple—who donated $2 million to the project—were hands-on patrons.

“We let the architects and the engineers do the main part of their job,” Chet says. “Where we contributed was a lot of the aesthetics of the building. . . . We insisted that they make it the right size and not cut corners in the space itself. [Also,] Karen and Jesse are great with color and design, and they contributed in that regard at various planning meetings [where] we got together with the architects.”

Among other contributions, Karen made color suggestions for the building’s lecture hall, and Jesse, who has his own design firm, created the Opalka Gallery logo, a sort of floating O on a grey background.

“They were intimately involved with the design of the building,” says Wilson, who delights in pointing out that his new workroom, where art is received, prepared for installation and packed for shipping, is itself twice the size of the former Rathbone Gallery:

“Chet is the reason I have that big work room. . . . Nobody can get money for hidden space, and I know of no one else who ever got given money for space the public would never see.”

The public does see the Opalkas’ name on the building and on the publicity materials for all its events. However, that wasn’t their idea.

“We didn’t get Chet to agree on naming this place for him until about a year and a half into the project,” Wilson says.

A side effect of the Opalkas’ passion for art galleries is that now the school has a leg up in getting accreditation and attracting students to its four-year program, which will go into effect next fall. To make the transition requires a charter change; this is in part overseen by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, which requires, for example, that students produce thesis shows before earning their BFA degrees.

It’s quite an upgrade, too: The College of Saint Rose is the only other Capital Region school offering the BFA, which is a more professional credential than a simple BA in art. Otherwise, to get similar training, one would need to travel as far as Boston, New York City, or Alfred University in western New York—so Sage will be entering a new level of competition for students.

“Upgraded facilities make it easier for us to do this,” says art and design chairman Terrence Tiernan, “and the gallery is a central part of [the process], too. It ties it all together.”

Though the department had not made the gallery its first priority, Tiernan and his administrative colleagues are reaping the benefits of it being there now.

“The gallery came on sooner than expected, and that has made it much easier to move forward with the academic changes,” he points out.

“This is another visible commitment to the art program,” Wilson concurs.

The community-oriented Opalkas, who also have put up money for enrichment programs in public schools and regularly make “angel” investments in local business startups, see the gallery from an outsider’s perspective.

“It fills a niche in the area,” says Chet. And it’s “an appropriate size to be able to really do what [Wilson] has in mind to be able to show . . . things that you would have to drive somewhere just to see.”

Architecturally, the Opalka Gallery is deceiving: Unlike the Tang, which draws a lot of attention to itself on its site in the center of Skidmore’s campus, the Opalka blends into its surroundings on University Heights, where new buildings seem to sprout like trees, including dormitories and other more utilitarian projects. Yet, at 7,400 square feet, the Opalka is bigger than the Tang, and it stands right next to the campus entrance, giving it an important presence for arriving students and staff, as well as the public.

Architect Paul Lewandowski of Albany-based Einhorn Yaffee Prescott created a building that is more functional than expressive. With significant, daily input from Wilson, the building has been designed to offer far more than it shows at first glance.

“The great advantage of this space is that I was in it from the beginning,” says Wilson—unlike Stainback, who arrived at the Tang after it had been built and, Wilson says, “had to almost work against the design.”

For his own part, Wilson says, “By working with the architect from the beginning, we could create a building that was beautiful as well as functional.”

It is an impressive structure, and it has a grace to it that may be difficult to find in more ambitious architectural works. For example, one knows without thinking about it exactly where the entrance to the Opalka is—facing the fine-arts building, where the two are joined by a short covered walkway—and the relative lack of ornamentation or flashiness to the design underscores the point that the art is inside the building—not the building itself.

A glass area at the back of the building facing onto New Scotland also beckons viewers to the gallery. This is both the result of a practical consideration—it incorporates an emergency exit door—and a nod to one of the features of the old Rathbone that Wilson and the public loved: an area of the gallery that thrust out like a glass-enclosed balcony, making the art visible from outside.

“If you don’t visually invite people,” says Wilson, “how can you expect them to want to come in?”

Glass panels are featured in other ways at the Opalka, including a large retractable divider, and natural light spills down from a clerestory that runs the length of the 2,000-square-foot, two-story-high exhibition space.

“All the glass is UV-filtering glass,” Wilson points out, “plus we have additional filtering shades so we can cut the light down to almost nothing. . . . That was one of my concerns. I wanted natural light. . . . But if we really need to dim the room, we can do it.”

This will allow, for example, the showing of light-sensitive material such as textiles, or the possibility of video installations right in the gallery space, eliminating the need for a separate viewing room.

The building also includes a reception area with catering kitchen, staff offices, and a 75-seat lecture hall with full projection booth. Even here, Wilson had his influence. He is proud to point out that fully 20 percent of the fold-away writing tablets on the seats are left-handed—as are Wilson, Tiernan and a preponderance of creative people well beyond the 10-to-12-percent rule of thumb.

The reception area, set off from the rest of the gallery by the ceiling-height moveable glass wall, features a futuristic-looking cloth scrim above (it cuts down on noise and improves the intimacy of the space) and a jaunty, circular desk the staff has dubbed “Elroy.” The floors are blond maple, adding a warmth that the industrial features of the building cry out for.

The inaugural exhibition, made up of work in all media by the 14 members of the art and design faculty, takes advantage of the flexibility provided by a number of caster-mounted room dividers that can be moved or removed as needed with a solid push.

Even the grounds have gotten special attention to detail.

Chet Opalka explains: “We had a very good friend of ours do the landscape. All of the rock out front came from our family property: my grandparents’ farm out in Saratoga County and our property . . . in Poestenkill. I don’t have a problem getting my hands dirty—I helped load [the boulders] on the truck!”

As for the results, the Opalkas couldn’t be happier.

“We love it—we absolutely love it,” raves Chet. “It really turned out far beyond our expectations. It’s a combination of the design itself and the skills of the workmanship involved in putting the whole thing together. Jim [Wilson] contributed a huge amount to the specifics associated with the project: the layout, the way it’s put together and so on. He did a tremendous amount of research talking to directors of other galleries to work out the details of this project.”

Wilson, in turn, credits the builder, Sano Rubin Construction: “[They] are fabulous. I can’t say enough how wonderful they were to work with.”

Perhaps the last word, though, should belong to Opalka, without whom this gallery surely would not exist. An unusual man by most any standard just for having given so much money, his dedication to this project sets an example we all can learn from.

“I could just disappear and live on a South Sea island,” he says, “but what benefit is that to society?”

Still, he could have picked a safe charity and left it at that. Why spend $2 million to build something totally new?

“You know, you do that sort of thing, you make an awful lot of people happy,” he says. “That’s one of the benefits of having money—you get to have the luxury of giving it away.”

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