COURTESY GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM
Last month, Thomas Krens, the man who defined the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for two decades, announced he will no longer be running the place.
Like much of what Krens and the Guggenheim have proposed over that time, his public resignation was vague and tentative. Krens will stay on as an international adviser, and he will coordinate the construction of the planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a cultural complex of buildings designed by Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, with smaller structures by such younger architects as Greg Lynn, Ben van Berkel, and Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture. The Guggenheim shares its site with the Louvre’s grand Persian Gulf outpost.
As Krens gives up his day-to-day duties, he leaves a Guggenheim molded in his image and an indelible imprint on museums internationally. Krens pioneered the creation of international museum outposts with the high-profile Guggenheim Museum Bilbao that made Frank Gehry a mainstream celebrity. The Guggenheim now has some half-dozen outposts, depending on how you count them, and the practice has been copied by the State Hermitage Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and more recently, by the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou.
DAVID HEALD/COURTESY GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION
Krens gave the Guggenheim over to unlikely objects, like motorcycles and clothes, both in shows funded by interested manufacturers like BMW and Armani; cars by Cai Guo-Qiang are now in the 5th Avenue atrium. He also took art and high-profile architecture to gambling casinos in Las Vegas (with another project planned for a casino in Singapore, initiated without telling his trustees) and he transported art from under-funded Russian museums to western audiences that were eager to pay to see it.
Yet the man who sought “positions” in regions all over the world left some flops in his wake—in Rio de Janeiro, where public outcry over construction costs stymied a Guggenheim by Jean Nouvel; in Taiwan, where a Guggenheim master plan with buildings by Gehry and Hadid never got past the models; in downtown Manhattan, where a Gehry mega-museum died after 9/11; and in Guadalajara, Mexico, where a Guggenheim skyscraper by Enrique Norten hasn’t been mentioned again since its trumpeted announcement almost three years ago.
Sources close to the museum say that before Krens stepped down, the Guggenheim struggled to find a replacement for the museum’s director, Lisa Dennison, who left last summer for a job at Sotheby’s. Her job is still not filled. Now the Guggenheim may have to search for two executives, just as the Metropolitan Museum of Art is seeking to hire a replacement for outgoing director Philippe de Montebello.
Insiders say that the Guggenheim Board and any future director will refocus the museum away from expensive architectural globalism and toward its New York site and its neglected collection. The rhetoric echoes an approach suggested by Peter Lewis, the insurance tycoon and former board chairman, who left the board in 2005 after Krens refused to abandon plans for more expansion. Lewis was the Guggenheim’s most important donor since the death of its founder. After leaving, he kept his promise to fund the conservation of the Frank Lloyd Wright pavilion’s exterior on 5th Avenue. To date, the combined Guggenheim board has failed to match Lewis’ generosity.
Krens’ new role will free him to make deals and leverage real estate gambits with Guggenheim art, forgoing the administrative duties that were never his strength. It could also free him to work on behalf of other museums, and Krens could turn out to be an even bigger global brand than the institution he ran for 20 years. The architects, artists, and oligarchs in his circle are his personal capital, not the Guggenheim’s.
To believe Krens, cities are still lining up to build and run a Guggenheim, or something that looks like one. Yet back on 5th Avenue, the over-extended and under-endowed institution that Krens leaves behind is already scaring off potential successors.