Thomas Krens’ 17-year reign as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is, as of last week, officially over. For the better part of the last decade, Mr. Krens has been the museum director that the culturati has loved to loathe. And with good reason: Mr. Krens drew down his endowment to pay for operating expenses, created blockbuster exhibits for blockbuster’s sake, engaged in questionable de-accessioning-related accounting, and built the Guggenheim Bilbao, which helped usher in an era of destination architecture.
The Krens Era showed that museum directors could wander far from the traditionally ethical as long as their boards were compliant. While many of Mr. Krens’ peers copied his “innovations,” many more watched and said nothing. The Association of Art Museum Directors—a strong candidate for the most spineless, useless industry association in America—never sanctioned, censured or formally criticized Mr. Krens in any way.
In the end, Mr. Krens’ most lasting legacy is this: He made the building of synergies between nonprofit art museums and for-profit corporations acceptable to his peers. More than anything else, that’s made him the most influential museum director in America.
His protégé and deputy director, Lisa Dennison, a 27-year Guggenheim veteran, has been named director, effective Oct. 1. But will Krensian ways—particularly with Mr. Krens still ensconced as the head of the Guggenheim Foundation—continue at the Guggenheim?
Already, change is in the air. “My ambition is to double [what we spend on buying art] as quickly as possible,” Ms. Dennison said by phone last week. “There is no question that everyone’s priority is collection-building.”
Mr. Krens’ coziness with big business dates back to at least 1998, when the Guggenheim launched The Art of the Motorcycle, sponsored by BMW, which also gave Mr. Krens a motorcycle. (Mr. Krens returned the bike several years later.) Later, Mr. Krens became friendly with Giorgio Armani, who just happened to give $15 million to the museum just as the Guggenheim launched an Armani retrospective. In the ensuing years, Mr. Krens launched spectacle-driven shows filled with objects from Brazil, Mexico and now Russia. All of these shows existed primarily to help the Guggenheim build relationships with corporate interests in those countries—usually countries in which Mr. Krens wanted to build Guggenheim satellites.
(Mr. Krens’ The Aztec Empire gave me the biggest fright of my museum-going life: The Guggenheim turned off most of the lights in the exhibition spaces in an effort to make a—gasp—dramatic presentation! While walking through the show, I became aware of a set of stairs only after I had pitched myself into some probably priceless gold whatchamacallit. Art museums should let the art objects inspire awe, not the lighting design. But what else would you expect from a museum with no real previous experience with Aztec artifacts?)
Initially, other museum directors blasted Mr. Krens, criticizing the way a not-for-profit art museum was willing to allow corporations to seemingly dictate parts of its program. “They’re after the money,” said Philippe de Montebello, director the Metropolitan Museum of Art, concerning one of Mr. Krens’ deals. Mr. de Montebello and Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry both contributed pointed essays to a brainy bitch-slap of a book, Whose Muse?, a substantially anti-Krensian compilation of essays by museum directors.
Then something changed. Mr. Lowry and Mr. de Montebello turned from criticizing Mr. Krens to copying him. Plenty of other museum directors have as well.
On Dec. 14, Mr. Lowry’s MoMA will open an exhibit that Mr. Krens probably wishes he’d thought of: a retrospective of Pixar films and art. At least Mr. Krens would have fingered Giorgio Pixar for a check; MoMA has received no such donation.
But Mr. Lowry once campaigned against this kind of thing. In Whose Muse?, Mr. Lowry wrote: “[The Guggenheim] has focused its energies on becoming an entertainment center and appears to be no longer interested in or committed to the ideas and the art that gave birth to the museum at its founding.”
Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first director, wrote that MoMA would be the anti-Met, that it would show art “still too controversial for universal acceptance.” Pixar’s films, which have done $3.2 billion in global box office, are pretty widely accepted.
In the same essay, Mr. Lowry wrote that museums must have a “willingness to distinguish between art and fashion, between the circulation of ideas and their commercial exploitation.” Well, one way art might be commercially exploited is this: Works of art owned by a corporation might be loaned to a museum to create an exhibit with that corporation’s name plastered all over it. The corporation might advertise this exhibit heavily, benefiting from the association with a widely respected, just-opened art museum. That pretty much describes this past spring’s Contemporary Voices: Works from the UBS Art Collection. The show was “paid for” not with a $15 million cash gift, but with the donation to MoMA of some of the art in the show.
Even the Whitney Museum of American Art, which has engaged in none of the art-related shenanigans that have plagued the rest of New York’s major art museums, admits that a UBS-style show would at least be tempting. “We would have [such a show] considered, absolutely,” said director Adam Weinberg. “Whether we would have done it in the end, I don’t know.”
Mr. de Montebello is also guilty of criticizing Mr. Krens only to copy him. This spring, the Met showed a retrospective of fashions from Chanel. The exhibit was sponsored by Chanel. The Met’s annual Costume Institute Benefit Gala was co-chaired by designer Karl Lagerfeld of—yup—Chanel. The Met’s Web page, under a tab marked “educational programs,” directed visitors to a special Web site for the exhibition. That site was hosted on Chanel.com. Within four clicks of visiting, a visitor was instructed on how to purchase Chanel products. In a rebuke on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, art critic Lee Rosenbaum wrote: “[The Met] should be far stricter in drawing the line between scholarly presentation and commercial promotion.”
The zenith of Krensian corporate synergy has come at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where outgoing director Andrea Rich handed over a building to two entertainment corporations (Arts and Exhibitions International and right-wing billionaire Philip Anschutz’s AEG Live) and allowed them to launch a for-profit enterprise, the exhibit Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. The galleries in which the “Tut” is installed are owned by the people of Los Angeles County. By only fronting for corporations, Mr. Krens looks better by comparison—at least he didn’t hand over his museum. And neither did anyone else in New York; the closest the show will get to here is Philadelphia. Which seems about right.
Ms. Dennison didn’t become one of America’s hottest museum executives by saying impolitic things. In an interview last week, she said all the right things about Mr. Krens—but made it clear that her Guggenheim will be different.
She wants to bring actual art people into the upper level of Guggenheim donors, including onto the Guggenheim’s board. (Mr. Krens had focused on corporate types, a popular board-building technique in recent years. The J. Paul Getty Trust has done the same thing.) She may expand the Guggenheim’s curatorial structure and collecting focus to include architecture and design. She says that she’ll bring the Guggenheim’s collecting more in line with its exhibition practices.
That’s a notable change: Mr. Krens’ exhibition practices were notoriously bipolar, but he explained them by saying that he programmed to build the Guggenheim “brand,” and that the museum’s strong attendance numbers were a function of that brand-building.
But Mr. Krens’ over-the-top Matthew Barney show, widely lauded by critics, drew a self-reported average of 3,151 visitors a day. That’s actually fewer visitors than an exhibition of paintings from the permanent collection drew the same year, and about the same number of visitors that a minimalism show had the next year. A Norman Rockwell exhibit drew only about 15 percent more customers—whoops, viewers—than Brazil. If there is indeed some type of “branding” that joins together Benedictine altars, Glenn Ligon text paintings and the Saturday Evening Post, it’d be lovely to know what it is.
What those numbers really reveal is this: You could line the Guggenheim’s ramp with spitting llamas and about 3,000 people per day would still show up to gawk at the surrounding building.
Some of the changes at Ms. Dennison’s Guggenheim will clearly be tonal. Under Mr. Krens, big blockbuster shows were mandated from the top and curatorial enterprise was scant. “I think our curators probably deserve more visibility and prominence than they get, whatever the reasons,” said Ms. Dennison. “I sometimes feel like if you said to me, ‘Who are the top five curators at MoMA?’ I could say, ‘Blah, blah and blah.’ I don’t feel the man on the street in Chelsea can name the top five curators at the Guggenheim.
“We have a unique curatorial structure: We’re five museums in five locations, and we have a team that doesn’t have to sit at their desks in New York and program one museum. I would like the person on the street at Pastis to be able to name our top five curators.”
Ms. Dennison also talked about the Guggenheim’s collection, which had been substantially neglected in Mr. Krens’ later years. When Mr. Krens came to the Guggenheim as director, he expanded the collection into photography and media arts—the right move. But in recent years, as Mr. Krens became an entrepreneurial Phileas Fogg, the Gugg’s acquisition expenditures languished.
In fiscal years 2001 to 2003, the Guggenheim spent an average of fewer than a million dollars per year on acquisitions, half to a fifth as much as comparable museums such as the Whitney, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. (In 2004, the Guggenheim’s 2004 numbers were more in line with its peers.)
Given Ms. Dennison’s commitment to collection-building, one way she might accomplish those goals is by going after Los Angeles collector and philanthropist Eli Broad, whose collection of contemporary art may be the best available collection of its type in the country. The two have a pre-existing relationship: Before taking the Guggenheim directorship, Ms. Dennison had a Broad-driven offer to skip to the West Coast and run a Broad-driven contemporary-art space at LACMA.
“You know that collection is not committed to any museum,” Ms. Dennison said with a knowing laugh. “Well, uh, I haven’t had that discussion [with Mr. Broad] yet, but it would be an opportunity I’d love to have. Of course, the big issue with collections is space. And the more space you have, the more you have the ability to attract those collections.”
There is no room at the moment in New York to show Mr. Broad’s collection. But: “Our collection was at the Guggenheim Bilbao,” Mr. Broad said. “We’re open to anything. I’m open to any discussions.”
Right now, the Guggenheim is more a tourist stop than it is a local institution. It didn’t get around to beginning a repair job on its crumbling landmark Frank Lloyd Wright building until this year. Museum membership is so low that a museum spokesman wouldn’t even release the numbers upon request. “There’s definitely room for improvement,” Ms. Dennison said.
Under Mr. Krens, the Guggenheim seemed less interested in being locally vital than in being marginally relevant globally. The Guggenheim’s hoped-for and actual satellite expansion into Las Vegas, Berlin, Bilbao, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, Guadalajara, Mexico and Taichung, Taiwan, received more attention than virtually anything the Guggenheim did on Fifth Avenue.
Those mostly-failures will be an afterthought. Bilbao is a lovely building, but it’s a one-off. No American not-for-profit museum has found a way to make satellite expansion work—ultimately not even the Guggenheim. Bilbao is less an example of Mr. Krens’ success than an exception to his failure. Ms. Dennison’s tenure will be measured entirely by what she does—or doesn’t do—in New York.