Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, post-Krens?

This thought in from Steven Kaplan in Manhattan

Thomas Krens will step down after nearly twenty years as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and the search for his successor has officially begun. This announcement is barely two days old, but the art pundits are already circling like hawks high above the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, gliding over the thermal gradients for indications of future trends, while also hunting smaller anecdotal tidbits to feast upon.

If the age of Krens is soon to recede in our collective rear view mirror, how will it be remembered? As a period when the establishment of a coherent aesthetic identity for the museum took a back seat to the art of the deal? When international franchising and corporate sponsorship became overriding determinants of exhibition content? When fashion, architecture and other borrowed interests reigned at the expense of the art itself? Or did Krens manage to create a system of patronage and power that will endure? Was he in fact a visionary, an advocate of his own peculiar manifest destiny: always expanding, always seeking out new funding, always ready to open his doors if the price was right, while placing greater and greater financial demands upon his board of trustees, who perhaps finally had
no choice but to mutiny?

Gehry_Guggenheim_Abu_Dhabi_.jpgPart of the answer will be determined by the policies and personae of his successors. In particular there remains the legacy of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the jewel of his franchising effort, “35 percent larger than Bilbao”. A major mission for Krens (and starchitect Frank Gehry) is the completion of this monolith in the desert. It is the fulfillment of his expansionist dream and his ultimate expression of museum realpolitik. Because when domestic benefactors such as Peter B. Lewis balked at the huge cost of funding the satellite projects, Krens did an end run and appealed directly to the oil-rich sheiks — in much the same way that the banks have recently looked to UAE money to bail them out of the mortgage crisis.

The Guggenheim is presently committed to building their satellite in Abu Dhabi. But as the museum reassesses its priorities, considers its post-Krens identity, and examines its finite resources, one can imagine a revision of this decision. Especially in light of the Emirates’ policies of not allowing entry to Israeli passport-holders and their censorship of gay content and nudity in the art to be exhibited.

The final decision of whether or not to proceed is reserved to the museum’s board of trustees. But I would pose the following questions to ArtWorld Salon readers: Should institutional initiatives be reconsidered in light of new economic realities and new leadership? Should the leftover projects of an old regime be cleared out, to allow the new director a “clean slate”? And might the fate of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi give us some indication of how museums will operate in a post-Krens era?

2 thoughts on “Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, post-Krens?”

  1. Our thoughts about museum directors and global enterprises have already moved on long ago, and the fate of Abu Dhabi (whatever it may be) is of little consequence to the art world at large. Krens ceased to be an influential force shortly after the fallout of the New York Guggenheim project, the Brazil Guggenheim fiasco, and the mediocre outcome of the Las Vegas branch.

    Nonetheless, I think there is still much to be discussed in regards of the lessons from the Krens legacy and the way it balances in the scope of history. Pundits love to hate Krens, and I am sure they will sorely miss him now, for it will be hard to find another great villain to color our generally dull cast of characters in the artworld. But I would argue that (at the risk of get tomatoes thrown at me), not all of his legacy will be regarded as negative.

    Krens is an arrogant, egomaniacal entrepreneur who happened to be in the art field, and to him, art was always a pretext to make museums, and not the other way around. It would be hard to defend the specific artistic or scholarly contribution of the Guggenheim branches in their respective sites (did Bilbao produce any memorable or influential exhibition over the last decade?). This is because, by and large, the Guggenheims where made for the tourist class, not for the art world, which is another reason Krens was never truly respected amongst his peers.

    What the Krens experiment forced to the foreground, though, was the inevitable debate of how museums will evolve in the global reality, or if they should die altogether and just turn into Egyptian tombs. How he answered that question was, I think, flawed in that it focused too much on real estate and star architects and too little on substance. But the apparent failure of the global network of museums in the way it was originally conceived by Krens does not mean that there may not be a way in the future to make museums function in a global context.

    Having worked at the Krens Guggenheim for seven years as a senior staffer, I had the luxury of being a close witness of the rise and fall of his era. Krens inherited a museum preceded by Thomas Messer, a well-liked old-school, modernist and soft-spoken director. But for all his qualities, the sense was that the museum had stalled, the Frank Lloyd Wright building was falling apart, and was out of touch with contemporary art ( Messer was known for not caring much for it. )When Krens came on board, he immediately started a campaign to make the museum cool again. From the onset, Krens directed the Gwathmey Siegel expansion of the museum. He also deaccessioned and sold a painting from the collection to buy the entire Panza collection, which caused horror and shock, and gave everyone a good preface of what was to be expected his leadership.

    I got there right after the opening of Bilbao, when everything felt possible- at the end of the 90s, the Guggenheim brand was considered the defining force of the new global museum. When we would attend the all-staff meetings where Krens would unveil his infinite and dazzling list of new museum projects, the tone was as if the Guggenheim had become the Microsoft of culture. That corporate culture he created was at times eccentric, Enron-esque, audacious, dynamic, dysfunctional, shady, youthful, shameless, and stunning: when else will we ever see a museum director bringing an entire XVIIth century Brazilian Baroque altar to New York and put it in the middle of the museum? After all those years, he never even remembered my name- he never cared about anyone but himself. But I have to say that I will miss parts of that ambition. I bet that the new director of the Guggenheim will be the anti-Krens: fiscally conservative and focused on quality. I just hope that we may not get the wrong morale from the story and that the Krens experiment may not make us validate the notion that the artworld has to stay secluded in its bubble, afraid of attempting to truly matter in the global era.

    Pablo Helguera

  2. Pablo is right, Krens bashing is great sport. I have indulged in it before on these pages. The chattering classes need a villain, and Krens fits the role perfectly: arrogant and technocratic, a pirate who is shameless in his insatiable appetite for real estate and starchitecture, for concentrating on the shiny outer shell while ignoring the essential connoisseurship, for spinning off deal after deal like a victim of corporate Tourette’s Syndrome. For playing fast and loose with the delicate cultural legacy entrusted to him.

    But now that he has publicly resigned, the gloating loses much of its allure. Talk of a “Thomas Krens Countdown Clock”, when the departure date is not yet set and the successor still unnamed, is not just rude, it seems beside the point. The task ahead is to salvage those aspects of museum culture that can be of value — audacity, showmanship, synergy, thinking outside the (white) box — while never again losing sight of the central mission, of actually mounting art exhibitions for a core art audience. The reaction to Krens’ excesses will most likely lead to a successor who is “fiscally conservative and focused on quality”. At the moment, that is decidedly what the museum needs.

    I have to disagree about “the fate of Abu Dhabi” being “of little consequence to the art world at large”. The project is emblematic of the expedience and insensitivity of the Krens era, of rushing to cut a deal and then worrying about the contradictions later. It might need to be repudiated on those very grounds, as a ritual cleansing before the Guggenheim can return to its bona fides. It is difficult to imagine certain freedoms we tend to associate with the creation and appreciation of art, minor things like freedom of speech and expression, being compromised by the limitations of a fundamentalist, racist, sexist regime. Cultural difference is one thing, intolerance quite another. If the UAE is unable to admit the existence of homosexuality or the state of Israel, and unwilling to allow representations of nudity (and what else?), then it has no business hosting an international art museum. And said museum has no reason to abandon its principles, certainly not just because oil is at an all time high and money is being offered.

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