Charles M. Kurtz, the museum’s first director, played a prominent role as an administrator, patron, and promoter of the arts in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During his tenure (January 1, 1905–March 21, 1909), Kurtz organized the museum’s first special exhibition at its Elmwood Avenue location, Selected Paintings by American Artists, in 1906; the first exhibition of contemporary German painting in the United States in 1907; and the first of many watercolor exhibitions at the museum. He was among the first art historians and museum professionals to recognize photography as an art form, and his efforts laid the groundwork for the first International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography, organized by Alfred Stieglitz and Kurtz’s successor, Cornelia Bentley Sage Quinton, in 1910.
Kurtz also developed and served as editor for the museum's first publications, the Academy Notes and the Blue Book, which became leading museum journals of the time. It was during his administration that the museum was first awarded yearly financial support from the City of Buffalo and County of Erie in recognition of its important role in and contributions to the Western New York community.