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December 6, 2002

An Era Ends for the Guggenheim


Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim Museum's director, put the best spin he could on Wednesday's announcement of a $12 million gift to the institution from Peter B. Lewis, its chairman. Mr. Lewis, he said, satisfied with the plans for the museum in 2003, "was moved to give" the money. "This is a good news story," Mr. Krens added.

But Mr. Lewis was frank. The Guggenheim had been overly ambitious, overly expansive. Mr. Krens's original spending proposal had been unacceptable. More slashing was needed. The final budget would be half what the museum spent several years ago. Having given the Guggenheim $62 million since he joined the board in 1993, Mr. Lewis had exhausted his patience and generosity. "There was a mess," he said about how finances had been managed at the museum, which "had first used yesterday's reserves and then used tomorrow's optimism." The blame was partly his, he admitted. Now either change would come or someone would go.

You could almost hear the door shut on an era. The age of the go-go Guggenheim was over. Echoes of Wall Street: the museum had marketed itself as a new kind of cultural institution in the 1990's, which it was. A sleepy modern art museum with a crumbling landmark building before Mr. Krens arrived, it became an international brand name and lightning rod under his management. Cash flowed in from projects like the Bilbao museum, then was quickly spent to cover expanded costs and grander plans. The museum was leveraging its future.

And inevitably, having mimicked the businesses of the era, with the hype about global networking, cutting-edge growth and a new economy, Mr. Krens's dream, like the bubble of the dot.coms, burst. Global culture sounded inevitable a few years ago all those plane-hopping travelers and multinational collaborations. But Sept. 11 put an end to that. The world became more divided, people less willing to travel, the American public poorer, more attuned to protecting itself and what it has.

Mr. Krens was right in one sense. Arts institutions are not really different from other businesses, at least not when they act like them. They are just as vulnerable.

So the Guggenheim is retrenching. Mr. Lewis says the budget is balanced for the time being. "The financial situation at the museum is solid," he said. Meanwhile, staff cuts have been appalling and betray not just misplaced optimism but reckless growth. More than half the staff is gone, down from 391 to 181. We might ask, at what cost to the public programs? What is left when the go-go is gone?

The exhibition schedule, while not defunct, seems as if it is on life support. The SoHo branch, which brought some good shows to town and answered detractors who said Mr. Krens was interested only in expanding elsewhere, closed last December. Before Sept. 11, when the Guggenheim was already facing serious money troubles, Mr. Krens had hoped the new branch in Las Vegas would pump cash into the institution. But it opened after Sept. 11 just as high-end tourism evaporated.

Forget, now and maybe forever, new branches in Salzburg or Brazil or Tokyo or China or Korea; forget the proposed downtown Guggenheim by Frank Gehry. "If Frank Gehry designs a public-service building that gets built in downtown New York, I am willing to contribute the last 25 percent," Mr. Lewis said. "But there are conditions. First, that no energy is committed to do anything about this now."

Notice the phrase "public-service building" instead of museum. Mr. Krens, after 9/11, was already talking about another kind of downtown project, a place smaller and less expensive, perhaps, something the Guggenheim could share with other cultural organizations, which, he added, might or might not involve Mr. Gehry. Now Mr. Krens will have to back off even from that modified position if he wants to keep Mr. Lewis happy, which he had better do, while Mr. Lewis's commitment to Mr. Gehry sounds more solid than his commitment to a new Guggenheim or even to Mr. Krens.

Nothing suggests more strongly that a cultural moment has ended than the indefinite postponement of that downtown project. There will be widespread gloating. Mr. Krens has made enemies, including other museum directors who distrust his corporate model for a nonprofit institution; who resent the way he appeals to nontraditional donors and corporations; who dislike his partnerships with financially pressed museums like the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, alliances that disrupted the old system of international collaboration, which had of course benefited the museums run by the disgruntled directors.

Why, they asked, was a modern art museum showing old master paintings and African art in the first place?

And there will be finger-wagging among critics who attacked Mr. Krens's megashows, who questioned his coziness with sponsors and his taste in art, who found him arrogant, aloof. No success goes unpunished in the New York art world. His predicament is a typical New York story in that respect.

People forget he took over a small museum that was already in financial distress. He found creative ways to install art in it. The collection grew. He expanded and rejuvenated the Guggenheim in Venice, which was sleepy if not moribund, and he brought about Bilbao, an architectural marvel, although already perhaps becoming dated. Most interestingly, he raised the question whether a museum must be a particular building or can it be an idea, an institution of variable size and locale.

And there have also been many good exhibitions, not just in New York but at branches in Berlin and elsewhere, big and small ones, along with the terrible shows, which his detractors fixate on, like the Giorgio Armani show. That was inexcusable, a short-sighted exchange of cash for dignity, the high price of irresponsible management and a leverage mentality, although not an event so different from what many other museums do to raise money and attract crowds without inciting the same hostility.

Mr. Krens's success always depended on the perception of success, keeping more and more balls in the air. It is what attracted speculators. Drop a ball, however, and the illusion fades. What now becomes of a museum whose identity is inextricably linked with expansion, mobility, global interchange and a new economy?

Mr. Krens complains that his shows and acquisitions are received less warmly, more skeptically, because critics dislike him and his plans for the museums. Would they have treated the motorcycle exhibition in 1998 or the Ellsworth Kelly retrospective in 1996 differently, he has asked, had the shows been at the Met or the Modern? But he and his plans have dominated and shaped everything that has happened at the Guggenheim. Mr. Lewis's threatened shake-up if the finances didn't improve raises an extraordinary thought: what would the Guggenheim be without Mr. Krens? His shrinking staff remains in his shadow. His curators have not had the opportunity to define the institution.

So this is actually an opportunity for the museum. Bigger is not better; better is better. That's a lesson of the present economy. The obsession of museums elsewhere with expansion and brand-name architecture, fostered by Mr. Krens's example, is an insidious legacy of the 90's.

Harder than building a new building or keeping a museum financially afloat is figuring out what art matters and why, then making the best aesthetic case for art in public. Now art has a chance to be front and center at the Guggenheim. Call it traditional values. It is how all museums and museum directors are judged. Mr. Krens and his institution will be no exception.

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