What Ever Happened to Tom Krens?

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

Krens. (Patrick McMullan)

Last fall it was reported that the great Tom Krens was off the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi project, which seemed like big news because Mr. Krens was the creative mind and promoter of the project, but what’s even more strange is that we haven’t heard boo from the art world’s consummate museum showman since.

The Whitney Museum of American Art will soon abandon its architectural landmark on Park Avenue (it will be rented out to the Metropolitan Museum) because the Whitney is creating a new building downtown. The Dia Foundation just completed an $11.5 million purchase of a new building site in Chelsea (it will be the site of an all-new N.Y.C. Dia). All this construction makes me think of Tom Krens, the man who changed the Guggenheim forever, and influenced the world of museum construction in our town and around the world. Tom Krens has gone M.I.A., so it’s time to wind back the clock and think about his tremendous fall from grace, and what it might teach us about these other initiatives.

Back in ’97 Mr. Krens, the Guggenheim’s towering, N.F.L.-linebacker-size director, was at the top of his game. He had just launched the hugely successful Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao and in so doing had changed the art world forever. Quite an achievement for a guy from modest beginnings. After all, the young Mr. Krens was running only a little museum at Williams College in the late ’70s when he completed his M.B.A. at Yale: he cleverly leveraged it into a consultancy at the Guggenheim, eventually succeeding in getting himself hired as director.

He didn’t have a strong art historical background (he was originally an artist, not an art historian), and, thinking back, I can only wonder how desperate the Guggenheim board must have been in 1988 when they fired their exhausted director Thomas Messer and brought in a virtual neophyte to reposition the institution and fill its empty coffers. Fill them he did, by raising the endowment from $20 million to over a $100 million.

In the end, his arrogant manner and John Wayne swagger pissed off his major donor, Peter Lewis, who lasted 11 years as chairman of the board and gave over $70 million. Mr. Lewis felt the museum should focus on housekeeping at its base in New York rather than opening more Guggenheim branches around the world, and in a showdown befitting a true Western movie he threatened the board with an ultimatum: either Mr. Krens goes or he would.

In a shocker, the board stuck with Mr. Krens, though with their main patron gone—Mr. Lewis left the board in 2005—the Guggenheim’s budget was dealt a serious blow. Blockbuster shows were one way to get financing, and Mr. Krens did them in a big way, with motorcycle shows sponsored by BMW and a fashion show sponsored by Armani, as well as shows from Brazil, China and India. He found sponsors for a branch in Berlin (care of Deutsche Bank), and another branch housed and paid for by a Las Vegas casino (now closed) and he never stopped hunting for financing to open everywhere and anywhere he could.

Though Mr. Lewis rightly anticipated that Mr. Krens’s vision would eventually crash, a global vision is what made Mr. Krens special, and it’s what he’ll always be remembered for. With Bilbao Mr. Krens rewrote the recipe for a successful museum, taking his cue from the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece in New York that is the Guggenheim’s historic home and talisman. In a nod to Wright’s genius, Mr. Krens put architectural spectacle first, by hiring Mr. Gehry and giving him free rein. He then put fund-raising second, by getting a local government to foot the entire bill, and he put brand building third, by creating a Spanish flagship that he could use to showcase his vision and pitch governments, corporations and anyone else who might pony up for future Guggenheim branches around the world.

What of art, I hear you say? Well, museum building at the end of the 20th century was in need of a makeover, and, right or wrong, the funding sources dictated that art alone wasn’t enough. Mr. Krens anticipated the need to boost attendance and create a tourist destination as well as an identity and a global brand. Let’s not forget that Bilbao is a crummy postindustrial dump in the center of Spain (almost as bad as Flint, Mich.)—the kind of place you wouldn’t go even on a paid vacation. But the Bilbao museum became the monumental success that changed the museum world forever, and it still boasts attendance of over a million people a year. I had the pleasure of touring the place in the fall of ’99 as a guest of Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller. We got the full celebrity tour from Mr. Gehry, including lighting up the flame throwers that spurt out of the water fountains. This was followed up by a little motorcycle spin with Mr. Krens and celebrity guests Jeremy Irons, Lawrence Fishburne and Lauren Hutton, all sponsored, of course, by BMW.

None of it had anything to do with “art.” It was about marketing, fund-raising and architecture as spectacle. I can barely remember the Warhol exhibit inside the museum, perhaps because it was dwarfed by the eccentric spaces that Mr. Gehry’s titanium-skin “baked Alaska” structure provided. Who cared, since no one was there to see the art. We were there to see the new “wonder of the world,” and to party. I wasn’t just overcome; I was overwhelmed by the ambition, the imagination and the chutzpah of this new godless cathedral.

In the years that followed, Mr. Krens tried to create new satellite Guggenheims around the world, including a huge one in lower Manhattan that never got off the ground. But despite the roadblocks, Frank Gehry became the most lauded and famous architect of our time. Sadly, I find much of his recent work grossly overrated, and though it was a great formula for Bilbao, it’s not a recipe that will work as well anywhere else. The fact that other museums have sought to hire Mr. Gehry over and over again to create their own “Bilbao monument” is a guaranteed recipe for failure, because what made Mr. Gehry’s building great was its newness, its originality, so by definition to copy the formula is to miss the point.

For these reasons and many more, the Abu Dhabi Gehry-Guggenheim museum will be at best a facsimile, and the two new proposed French Gehry museums, one in Arles and another in Paris (for Louis Vuitton’s Bernard Arnault), will also flop, if they ever see the light of day. It’s actually quite sad because there are so many great architects working today (think Herzog and de Meuron, Peter Zumthor, Thomas Mayne … ), it’s the perfect time to let some others have a go.

But there’s more to Mr. Krens’s formula than just a flashy building. First and foremost he understood the value of his own New York building’s identity. He restored and elevated the profile of the amazing Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece on Fifth Avenue, a building that never even pretended to be a great museum but succeeds 150 percent as architectural monument. Reliable sources tell me that, thanks to Mr. Krens’s branding strategy, 80 percent of the museum’s current New York visitors are foreign, and they flock in every year irrespective of what’s on view.

What Ever Happened to Tom Krens?