opening of the Sage College of Albany’s thoughtfully designed,
generously funded Opalka Gallery heralds a new era for the
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.
lot of planning—and some luck—got Wilson his dream gallery.
But planning has long been one of his strengths.
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.
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
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.
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.’ ”
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).
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
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
to give: (l-r) Sage College President Jeanne H. Neff,
Chet and Karen Opalka.
Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
didn’t get Chet to agree on naming this place for him until
about a year and a half into the project,” Wilson says.
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
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.
gallery came on sooner than expected, and that has made it
much easier to move forward with the academic changes,” he
is another visible commitment to the art program,” Wilson
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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
As for the results, the Opalkas couldn’t be happier.
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
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?
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.”