Some of us have been predicting disaster for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum almost from the day that Thomas Krens became its director some 14 years ago. Yet even Mr. Krens’ fiercest critics couldn’t have known that the situation at the Guggenheim has, all through this period, been much more of a mess than they suspected. “Mess” was indeed the word used by the museum’s chairman, Peter B. Lewis, to describe the Guggenheim’s financial condition when he announced on Dec. 4 that they were now facing a radical retrenchment in programs, in staff and in the very existence of the institution itself. As Michael Kimmelman wrote in The New York Times on Dec. 6, “The age of the go-go Guggenheim was over.”
What Mr. Kimmelman failed to report, however, is that Mr. Krens has been selling works of art from the Guggenheim’s so-called “permanent” collection in a desperate attempt to support his spendthrift expansion programs here and abroad. According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal , “In all, the Guggenheim netted $10.1 million from art sales in 1999; $4.55 million in 2000.” Apparently, the figures for 2001-2 aren’t yet available, so we don’t yet know exactly what’s been sold. The works are said to be “minor” or “redundant” or otherwise dispensable, but until they’re publicly identified, there’s no reason to believe the Guggenheim’s word about this or anything else. Mr. Krens himself is anything but a connoisseur in such matters.
At the outset of his tenure at the Guggenheim, when he chose to act as his own curator in mounting a sprawling, badly selected exhibition of the German Neo-Expressionist painters whose work was then enjoying a short-lived vogue, it looked as if the problem posed by Mr. Krens’ appointment might be limited to aesthetic incompetence. For the director of an art museum, this is a lamentable failing-but not, alas, a rarity in the curatorial ranks. We weren’t yet in a position to take the measure of a far greater threat to the museum’s future: Mr. Krens’ tomorrow-the-world ambition to create an ever-expanding, ever-more-costly Guggenheim empire, with satellite museums in Europe, Asia and South America, not to mention the ill-fated attempt to set up shop at the casino in Las Vegas. And while the whole art world was applauding Frank Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, Mr. Krens was allowing Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark Guggenheim here in Manhattan to fall into shameful neglect.
The fact is that during Mr. Krens’ 14-year tenure as director of the Guggenheim, the museum virtually ceased to make a significant contribution to the art life of New York. Some of us are old enough to recall the days when the Guggenheim was a vital presence in the city. I don’t know where Michael Kimmelman was hanging out in the years preceding Mr. Krens’ tenure, but the Times critic was dead wrong in describing a “sleepy modern art museum with a crumbling landmark building before Mr. Krens arrived.” Before any of us had ever heard of Mr. Krens, in the years when the principal curators at the museum were Margit Rowell and Diane Waldman, the exhibitions devoted to Mark Rothko, Julio González, Joan Miró and a number of other modern masters were among the finest of their kind anywhere in the world, and so were the authoritative catalogs that accompanied them. “Sleepy” might be an apt description of Mr. Kimmelman’s memory of such matters, but it can hardly be applied to the Guggenheim in its pre-Krens period.
Why, in the face of this debacle-which is a cultural disaster for New York as well as a financial one for the museum-why, in the face of all this, Mr. Krens has not been given the boot remains to be explained, especially when so many members of the museum’s staff have lost their jobs as the direct result of his flagrant mismanagement. And we shouldn’t be misled by another of Mr. Kimmelman’s claims: “Now art has a chance to be front and center at the Guggenheim” as the result of the enforced retrenchment. There’s nothing in Mr. Krens’ record to support such an optimistic assessment. Until the Guggenheim’s board is prepared to clean house, the museum is likely to remain a casualty of Mr. Krens’ overreaching ambition. It’s somehow a perfect epitaph to the Krens era that the Guggenheim Hermitage branch in Las Vegas will soon be featuring yet another showing of the Norman Rockwell retrospective. Is this what the chief art critic of The Times has in mind when he writes that “Now art has a chance to be front and center at the Guggenheim”?
Follow Hilton Kramer via RSS.