What Ever Happened to Tom Krens?

The Museum Expansionist Par Excellence is M.I.A., but His Legacy Lives On

Compare this to the poor job done by the Whitney Museum of American Art. It is the owner of a fantastic brutalist Marcel Breuer masterpiece, a building that sadly has less than half the attendance of the Guggenheim, and 80 percent of its visitors are mere New Yorkers. To add insult to injury, the museum is abandoning its flagship on Park Avenue and renting it out to the Metropolitan Museum, because the Whitney is pouring all its resources into a newer, bigger, downtown Whitney designed by Renzo Piano, the volume of which will allow the Whitney to show more of its vast collection.

If bigger doesn’t result in better, the Whitney will have done New York a terrible disservice, one that could have been easily avoided if only it had raised funds by selling a few artworks out of its vast holdings. Isn’t the Breuer building a work of art, one that is more meaningful to the museum’s identity than any painting could ever be? Imagine if it had the vision to leave the “uptown Whitney” as a true museum of American Art, the only one in New York, where the museum’s amazing collection of Ash Can artists like Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler and George Bellows would be on permanent display. Would I care if the downtown museum were cut in half? Absolutely not. There is plenty of museum quality free art to see downtown in all the Chelsea galleries; who needs to pay good money to see any more of it?

But “de-accessioning”—the selling of artworks from the collection—is a no-no in the museum world. It’s also another rule that Mr. Krens broke early in his tenure. Back in 1990 he raised $47 million by selling off a Kandinsky, a Chagall and a Modigliani (the museum had several other works by these artists) and he acquired the fantastic Count Panza collection of minimalist art, thus making a quantum leap for the Guggenheim’s collection. Sadly, though, his programming overall veered so far from the museum’s original mission of showing “non-objective painting” (think Kandinsky) that it was hard to tell what to expect from him, other than the promise of a spectacle.

The other pieces to Mr. Krens’s museum formula include making space for plenty of restaurants and nice, big gift shops, and putting lots of emphasis on logos and advertising. And, of course, putting on mega blockbuster shows complete with celebrities, politicians and corporate sponsors. This very same formula worked like a charm for another art world giant, the dealer Larry Gagosian. He opened satellite galleries around the world and brought show business glamour to the stodgy and conservative gallery system, thus swallowing up many of the best artists in the world and providing collectors with a one-stop destination for almost all their art needs.

But money is what a gallery thrives on, whereas in the American museum world, fund-raising is a semi-secret part of every director’s job. Our museums run on private donations, so finding collectors or socially motivated patrons to pay the tab is a large part of every director’s responsibility, as it is in the world of private education and cultural institutions of all kinds. That’s in large part why our cultural institutions suffer outside of large cities like New York and Los Angeles. In bureaucratic old Europe this conflict doesn’t exist because museums are funded by the government and museum directors work for the state, so they are free to focus on the art, not on fund-raising. But in the U.S., with little state or federal support of the arts, museum folks are condemned to a life of panhandling wealthy patrons, to sell them a seat on their the board or to get them to host benefit dinners, cocktail parties and anything else that’ll bring in the tax-deductible bucks.

I’m not saying that the European system is always better—state-run institutions tend to become bureaucratic and didactic—but it is not fraught with the types of conflicts of interest that took down Tom Krens. Mr. Krens was guilty of finding every possible way to shortcut the fund-raising conundrum, and though he never was able to replace mega donor Peter Lewis, he did secure corporate and government sponsorship from Deutsche Bank, BMW, Hugo Boss and Armani, as well as municipalities like Bilbao and even whole countries like Brazil and China.

Sadly for everyone he eventually dead-ended, and the board finally pushed him out, by giving him a highly paid consultancy on a massive Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project. But his consulting contract was eventually dropped when hubris once again got the better of him, a sad ending to what has to be one of the most exciting and inspiring museum director sagas of the past 50 years.

Tom Krens succeeded in changing the art world forever, and, since his tenure at the Guggenheim, numerous new museums have been built as architectural monuments—Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi in Rome and Sanaa’s New Museum in New York, to name just two. These new cathedrals of architecture where some art will hang are inevitably focused on attendance, tourist traffic and boosting the local economy. The “bigger is better” mentality prevails to this day, even though many of the new buildings are oversize and over budget and end up looking like misguided monuments of excess.

Was this change for the good? The question matters not: change is inevitable because the museum system in this country was and is still in need of some shake up. Until a part of our state and federal tax money goes toward supporting the arts, it’s impossible to avoid conflicts of interest. Mayor Bloomberg understands this, and he’s quietly been New York’s number one patron, but that’s not enough. In the end Mr. Krens’s legacy will remain, and the status and respect he deserves as a museum visionary will one day prevail. I can only hope he finds a way to rise again and show the stodgy museum world a new twist on the very formula he created. Does “art” suffer when the attendance and the spectacle take center stage? Of course it does, but one way or another, the show must go on.