The New York Times
June 30, 2002

Note: This is the original text article with images from the NYT article and additional images to illustrate the museum and its collection. --Martin Irvine

Is the Go-Go Guggenheim Going, Going . . .


The most talked-about show by a living artist in New York this spring was one that failed to open. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum caused a ruckus when it postponed a survey of Matthew Barney, an esteemed sculptor and filmmaker whose work extracts a surprising grandeur from subjects like satyrs, car wrecks and homicidal dentists. But this time the uproar did not involve morally offended sensibilities. It was simply a matter of saving money. Kasimir Malevich and James Rosenquist, slated for major retrospectives later this year, were also bumped from the Guggenheim's calendar.

Guggenheim Museum, New York

Thomas Krens, Guggenheim Museum
Photo: NYT

There have been other cutbacks since November, when the museum's director, Thomas Krens, delivered some sobering news to his board of trustees. In the wake of disappointing returns from recent projects, the Fifth Avenue museum's annual operating budget would be chopped to $25.9 million this year from $49 million last year. To this end, he was laying off 79 employees, about a fifth of the staff. Moreover, the Guggenheim SoHo, a downtown outpost that had commanded a loyal following in the art world in its nine years of existence, was closing immediately.

What made the news so startling is that Krens, 55, is not just one more beleaguered arts administrator grousing about N.E.A. cuts and fickle trustees. He's so large and emblematic a figure you might even say that the 90's art scene began on the day in July 1988 he joined the Guggenheim. He was the guy with a business degree from Yale who rode a motorcycle to work, spoke of Chagall and Klee as ''content'' and invented the concept of the global museum. Among his achievements is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, that curvy, titanium-clad masterwork designed by Frank Gehry in the north of Spain. He is also responsible for Guggenheim offshoots in Berlin and, of all places, Las Vegas, where last October the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino unveiled two ambitious art museums in a setting that includes loudly singing gondoliers paddling along indoor canals. While postmodernists cheerfully ponder the significance of displaying authentic art in a fake Venice, modernists prefer the real Venice, where Krens has doubled the space of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

His priorities are clear. Even now, despite the cuts in staff and exhibitions, the museum continues on its expansionist course. Among its planned projects is a $680 million Gehry building on stilts above the East River in Lower Manhattan. It may seem illogical, if not perfectly impossible, that a museum that is shelving shows to save money would be undertaking such an architectural extravagance. On the other hand, perhaps the museum has embellished its exterior at the expense of its interior. In lieu of its planned exhibitions, the museum will leave ''Moving Pictures,'' an assembly of 180 photographs and videos from its permanent collection, up until next year.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Motorcycle Show, Guggenheim, NY
Photo: NYT

Model of Gehry's new lower Manhattan Guggenheim. Additional images.


Some charge that Krens has broken faith with art. The critic Jerry Saltz, writing recently in The Village Voice, called for Krens's resignation and went on to say, ''The trustees and board members who helped him twist this institution into a kind of GuggEnron should go as well.''

Is Krens an egomaniac who squandered the museum's resources on a quest to expand his empire? Or is he instead a brilliant, misunderstood radical who inherited an institution with a relatively small endowment and stagnant program and wanted to try something more daring than mounting the umpteenth Picasso show? Either way, Krens could not have succeeded were it not for a general social bias that favors architecture over art.

''It's easier to raise money for a building than a show,'' he told me recently. A tall, bespectacled man with a graying beard, he was in his airy office, which is dominated by an oversize dark granite table. ''A building is permanent.''

Moreover, a building, unlike a painting, is essentially populist. A building can be a marketing tool, an icon for a city and a mass sensation. It is bigger than a work of art, and less mysterious. ''The people who give money have a sense of confidence about the worth of a building,'' says the artist Frank Stella. ''They know they're not being cheated. They don't want to spend $60 million on a Van Gogh because secretly they think the real estate is worth it and the painting is not.''

Interior museum space,
Guggenheim, NY

Critics once predicted that the age of reproduction would fill the world with a surfeit of images and spawn ''the museum without walls,'' as Andre Malraux put it. But instead we have the opposite phenomenon: the museum that is just walls. Museums that once competed to acquire the finest pictures, to own the most expressive Rembrandts, the most classical Cezannes, now compete to inhabit the most spectacular buildings. This trend may owe its origins to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, a landmark white spiral that can feel like an indoor mountain, requiring viewers to hike its ramps, carrying them upward on a gently winding path that extends for a quarter of a mile. It is the model for the current spate of museums conceived as star-turn design statements, and it is also a cautionary tale.

There are many ways to assess the growth of a museum, but probably the simplest is to look at an annual report. The Guggenheim, however, did not publish one last year. Why not? ''They're superfluous,'' Betsy Ennis, the museum's director of public affairs said.

The museum's endowment has declined in recent years, from $55.6 million in 1998, to $38.9 million at the end of 2001. An endowment consists of savings that produce interest and should not be spent. While donors have continued to write checks to the Guggenheim's endowment, Krens has regularly dipped into it, mainly to cover operating expenses. Records show that $9.7 million was removed from the endowment in 1999; $13.6 million in 2000; and another $13 million last year.

To be sure, all this has occurred with the approval of the museum's 26 trustees, who have an institutional personality of their own. Unlike the socially radiant art collectors who serve on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the trustees of the Guggenheim, by their own description, tend to be big-money types who admire Krens's risky entrepreneurial approach.

Typical, perhaps, is Jack Wadsworth, a soft-spoken Kentucky native who serves as chairman of the museum's executive and finance committee, and who for years headed the Asian division of Morgan Stanley, in Hong Kong. When we met one day at the museum, he waved his fist in the air and said with a grave expression: ''China is the coming power of the 21st century. Japan is over.'' He would like to see a Guggenheim in China and has already convened with officials from the Shanghai Museum.

''People who want to be socially established are attracted to the Met board, but people who want to have fun are attracted to the Guggenheim,'' says Stephen Swid, chairman of Knoll International furniture and a longtime Guggenheim trustee. ''The Museum of Modern Art has David Rockefeller, who sits down with the trustees -- $5 million, $20 million, that's what they give. You have to understand that David Rockefeller is an American icon. But we're like from the shtetl.''

He was referring to Solomon R. Guggenheim, the copper magnate who founded the museum, in 1937, with his German mistress, the Baroness Hilla Rebay. She is routinely maligned as a pushy shrew but was also an accomplished artist. Before he met the baroness, Guggenheim collected Old Masters in curly gold frames, but she converted him to modern art, as well as to her dotty ideas about the imminent spiritual utopia. Businessmen, the baroness believed, needed abstract painting, ''as it carries them away from the tiresome rush of the earth.''

The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, as the Guggenheim was initially called, mingled pictures by Klee and Kandinsky with piped-in organ music, mostly Bach. It did not allow sculptures, which were deemed too ''material'' and insufficiently mystical. Not long after the museum opened in a former car showroom on East 54th Street, its founders commissioned a Wisconsin-born architect to design a temple for their collection. Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece took so long to complete that by the time the building was unveiled, on Oct. 21, 1959, both he and Guggenheim had died.

Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28, 1912
Guggenheim Museum

Piet Mondrian, Tableau no. 2, 1913
Guggenheim Museum

''That building, for me, is a special prize,'' Peter B. Lewis, the current chairman of the museum, noted recently. The head of Progressive Insurance in Cleveland, Lewis is the museum's most ecstatic benefactor; his gifts include a $250 million matching pledge for the new building downtown. We met in his sunny pied-a-terre on the Upper West Side, where I admired a purple-hued abstraction by William Baziotes.

''I buy pictures,'' Lewis protested. ''Don't call me a collector. I really don't know about art. I love creativity. I love artists, their lifestyle and attitude. How does a businessperson from Cleveland who doesn't want to read books about art connect with the art scene?'' Suddenly, with a quick apology, he removed his artificial leg and placed it across his lap, explaining he felt more comfortable that way. Asked how he lost a limb, he replied dismissively, ''Oh, just doing stupid macho things.''

Lewis became chairman in 1998, when, according to sources, he outbid the museum's president, Ronald O. Perelman, the head of Revlon. Perelman had pledged $20 million to the museum, in exchange for which the rotunda was named for him. But some of the trustees found him imperious. One day, sources say, he called a board meeting at his midtown office, claiming to be too busy to come to the museum. Then he failed to show up for the meeting. Lewis offered to surpass Perelman's pledge and give the museum $50 million if the board would vote to make him chairman, above Perelman, who then left. ''I bought myself the job,'' Lewis said jokingly.

All of that occurs in private, but even in the public realm the Guggenheim can seem astoundingly freewheeling. One has only to remember the notorious Armani show in 2000 that turned the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda into an Italian fashion bazaar and left the museum, which accepted a $15 million pledge from the designer, in a cloud of ethical ambiguity. More recently, ''Brazil: Body and Soul,'' which according to sources cost more than $7 million, was sponsored by Friends of BrasilConnects, an organization headed by Edemar Cid Ferreira, a banker who is supporting a yearlong, $2 million feasibility study to explore the possibility of building a Guggenheim offshoot in Rio.

Critics accuse Krens of renting out the museum's exhibition space to raise money for his expansion plans. In 1999, the ''Sensation'' show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art erupted into controversy in part because the museum had failed to disclose a $160,000 pledge from Charles Saatchi, the owner of the works in the show. But what was unknown at the time is that Saatchi had hoped to do the show at the Guggenheim and Krens had asked for even more money. I was told by Saatchi that he scrapped the idea after Krens said the show would require a ''donation'' of $1 million.

Asked about that deal one evening when we were having drinks in a hotel bar, Krens denied talking about money with Saatchi. He chuckled merrily and kicked my foot, as if we were somehow in this together. Then he deadpanned, ''Oh, no, we never do exhibitions for money.''

It was precisely at that point that I decided Krens must somehow enjoy such provocations. He is commonly described as diffident and aloof, but at times he can seem unruly, like a combative adolescent with a taste for subversion.

He appears to enjoy lambasting his colleagues. He called one prominent museum director a ''child molester,'' for no apparent reason. On another occasion, he said he doesn't believe in trying to please people, because ''then you become David Ross,'' the former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In reference to the Armani show, Krens said by way of defense: ''The Met put on the Versace show six months after his death. That's necrophilia. And then they exhibited Jackie Kennedy's underwear.''

When the subject turned to his past, Krens became inordinately reserved. He balked at the prospect of disclosing such basic information as his age and birthplace, attributing his reticence to his 6-foot-5-inch height. ''You stand out in fourth grade,'' he said. ''You just want to conceal yourself.''

It was odd to think that he has a reputation as an operator, a wheeler-dealer, for he lacks the smoothness, the easy sociability, that characterizes most museum directors. Though much has been made of his business degree, Krens in fact began his career as an artist enamored of the stark geometries of Minimalism. In 1971, he was hired by Williams College, his alma mater, to teach painting. Later he founded Mass MOCA, a picturesque sprawl of red-brick factories in North Adams, Mass., commonly billed as the largest museum of contemporary art in the world. In addition to oversize buildings, he has a penchant for footlong Cuban cigars and BMW motorcycles, expressions of a bluntly outlined masculinity. ''Tom resonates more with buildings than with pictures,'' Peter Lewis told me.

It makes sense that he landed at the Guggenheim, the most recognizable museum building in the world. When Wright's inverted ziggurat was first unveiled, it was denounced as an enemy of art, mainly because its walls curved and paintings do not. Even so, the building was an instant hit, and it remains more familiar than the art inside it. There is no one painting that represents the Guggenheim the way, say, Van Gogh's ''Starry Night'' represents the Museum of Modern Art or Seurat's ''Sunday on La Grande Jatte'' the Art Institute of Chicago. As Krens says, ''The Frank Lloyd Wright building is the greatest work in the collection.''

For all his love of buildings, Krens does understand that something, preferably art, must go inside them. One day he gave me a three-page printout listing 109 exhibitions the museum mounted from 1990 to 2000. Among them were ''The Great Utopia'' and ''The Italian Metamorphosis,'' art extravaganzas whose substance matched their size. Moreover, the museum remains unrivaled in its commitment to Pop Art, having hosted memorable retrospectives by Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine.

It also has Robert Rosenblum, who is not a Pop artist but often seems like one. A senior curator, eminent Picasso scholar and professor of art history at New York University, he is also a playful revisionist who believes that the story of 20th-century art needs to be retold. Shows like ''Norman Rockwell,'' ''Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916): Danish Painter of Solitude and Light'' and ''1900: Art at the Crossroads'' were tours de force of canon-bashing art history.

Yet none of this reflects anything as deliberate as a philosophy, a mission or even an argument on the part of the Guggenheim. ''The exhibits are totally unpredictable,'' Rosenblum said recently over lunch at a SoHo restaurant. A wry man of 74 who looks the part of the foggy academic, he said he finds it curious that he never sits down with Krens to discuss curatorial goals. ''It's sort of like the president or the pope -- there's no direct contact,'' he said. ''I don't even have an office there. The museum is so decentralized. We're like Moonies. We're all over the world and you never know where we will show up.''

Rosenblum reports to Lisa Dennison, the museum's deputy director and chief curator. A quick, elegant woman of 49, she is, as she says, ''the lone survivor of the two Toms,'' referring to Krens as well as to his predecessor, Thomas M. Messer, a Czech native who presided over the museum in a conservative, Old World style for 27 years. ''Messer was not interested in contemporary art,'' Dennison recalled, adding that Krens deserves credit for substantially enlarging the scale and scope of the collection; some 2,300 paintings, photographs, videos and other mostly contemporary objects have been acquired by the museum under his direction.

Yet even in the matter of acquisitions, the Guggenheim favors a brazen approach whose workings are never disclosed to the public. When an artist is given a solo exhibition, Dennison said, there is an ''expectation'' that he or she will give something back. Typical, perhaps, is Francesco Clemente, the Italian Neo-Expressionist known for his lush figure paintings. At the time of his 1999 retrospective, he gave the museum ''Scissors and Butterflies,'' a brand-new picture delivered from his studio. ''What I like about Krens is that when he begins something, he goes all the way,'' Clemente said.

It was peer pressure that led Ellsworth Kelly, who had a retrospective in 1996, to donate his ''Orange/Red Relief,'' an early painting that juxtaposes two solid rectangles of color. He made the gift, he told me, after Krens coyly mentioned to him, ''You know, Roy has given us two works.'' He was referring to Roy Lichtenstein, whose gifts include ''Grrrrrrrrrrr!!,'' a picture of a growling dog that might be seen as a reflection of the artist's feelings about museums.

Has any artist ever refused to give the museum a gift? When I posed the question to Dennison, she cited Helen Frankenthaler, the subject of a small, inspired show in 1998. It focused on her ''Mountains and Sea,'' an abstract painting that has the liquid feeling of a watercolor and is commonly cited as the source of the Color Field movement of the 1960's. ''It looked like we were going to get something,'' Dennison said, ''but nothing transpired.''

The tone of her comment might seem surprising. A museum is supposed to serve the interests of art instead of devising ways for artists to serve it. But that's an easy criticism, and it fails to confront a larger and less tractable problem: How are museums supposed to stay afloat? Without conflict of interest in the art world, there would be no interest in the art world. American museum directors and their deputies are caught in a situation where costs are escalating, income from admissions is not adequate to pay the bills and the government isn't as generous as it is in Europe. Who should pay for culture in America?

Viewed in this context, the Guggenheim can seem like a model of frankness and American pragmatism. At times it's crass, but on the plus side, it is free of piety. It does not pretend that art is religion or that the museum is church. You can even say that the Guggenheim is more open about what has become standard policy at other museums.

Take, for instance, the Museum of Modern Art, whose galleries on West 53rd Street will be shuttered until 2005 for a massive expansion. An inaugural show at its new outpost in Queens, ''AUTObodies,'' features classic cars and has been compared with the Guggenheim's infamous ''Art of the Motorcycle.''

Moreover, Krens suggests that the Modern knows how to turn a profit even when it is closed. ''They're sending their collection to Berlin,'' he told me. ''They wouldn't do it unless they made money. I would be very surprised if MOMA did not make $20 million in fees over the next two years.''

A few days later, I called Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Modern. ''I never comment on what we spend or receive,'' he said. ''We lend our collection to sister institutions, and the context is important. If someone offered us $10 million to do a show in a casino, I wouldn't do it.''

It is easy to poke fun at the Guggenheim's recent incursion into Las Vegas, but who can deny that it represents a strike against snobbery? Or so I thought one April morning as I strolled the halls of the Venetian, an upscale hotel and casino that replicates the waterlogged sights of Venice in the Nevada desert. The hotel thrills to what theorists like Baudrillard call ''hyperrealization,'' the replacement of real objects and experiences by manufactured simulacra. Here, you can ride a gondola on an indoor Grand Canal, cross a fake Rialto Bridge and gaze at not-awful copies of Veronese murals as you settle your room bill at the front desk.

The hotel also has its two art museums, one small, the other big, neither an imitation of anything in Italy but wholly authentic, not-for-profit arts institutions operated by the Guggenheim.

Model of the Guggenheim Las Vegas designed by Rem Koolhaas. Photo: David Heald

They were designed by Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect known for his inventive use of industrial materials. ''If his name were Sid Schwartz,'' Steve Wynn, the hotel developer, told me only half-jokingly, ''no one would want him.''

He did a handsome job in Vegas. The so-called Jewel Box offers a rotating display of about 40 pictures, half of them from Russia's State Hermitage Museum, which, since the fall of Communism, has been casting about for new sources of income. Hence it hopefully shipped off such masterworks as Picasso's ''Three Women'' (1908) and Matisse's ''Still Life with 'Dance''' (1909), which, in Vegas, are hung with magnets on walls of oxidized Cor-Ten steel, a material associated with Richard Serra's ''Tilted Arc,'' not to mention skyscrapers. The space feels impressively solid and is reminiscent of a bank vault, as if to wryly underscore the astronomical value of the paintings.

The second museum in the hotel, the so-called Big Box, is less inviting. At 63,700 square feet, it's so huge you could fit the entire Frank Lloyd Wright building inside of it. And what fills it? Filler. By this I mean ''The Art of the Motorcycle,'' the show of 100-plus choppers that was unveiled in New York in 1998 and that here is made to serve as a backdrop to the show's voluptuous design. Done by Frank Gehry, it consists of ceiling-high metal curves and chain-link curtains that might be seen as a riff on his museum in Bilbao. It brings Bilbao's swooping exterior indoors.

The Guggenheim's financial straits have not been allayed by the Vegas venture, which was expected to be a cash cow - admission to each museum is a steep $15, or $25 for a ''combo'' ticket -- but is barely turning a profit. As Jack Wadsworth said, ''It has not turned out to be the boon we thought it would be.'' Although people think the Venetian is funneling money into the museum, in fact it's the other way around. The Guggenheim pays about $50,000 a month in rent to the hotel, Krens told me, and he needs about $6 million annually to keep the Vegas museums alive. That money covers salaries for a staff of 100, which includes guards, publicists and salespeople in the gift shop, but not a single curator. ''Curatorial development takes place in New York,'' Krens said, employing his usual high-tech idiom, ''and we have a strong operational synergy.''

Despite the setbacks, Krens remains consumed by what he calls the Manhattan Project, which, happily, has nothing to do with atomic bombs. In 2000, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani made a show of support for the proposed museum, pledging $68 million from the city, half of it in cash, the other half in land, some 15 acres just east of Wall Street. ''The development of downtown was an issue before 9/11,'' Krens said, ''and now there's an even greater opportunity for a new cultural district.''

Surely no one agrees more than Laurie Beckelman, the museum's deputy director, in charge of special projects. A former chairwoman of the city landmarks preservation commission, she first met Krens when the Guggenheim was granted landmark status in 1992. ''We will have to run the complete gantlet of tests and demonstrate that the new museum will not have an adverse impact on the aquatic resources,'' she told me, referring to a current environmental review.

Her office is at 575 Broadway, at Prince Street, in the same historic loft building whose first two floors housed the Guggenheim SoHo before it was permanently closed in December. The street-level space is now a Prada emporium and has undergone a $40 million renovation by Rem Koolhaas. As Andy Warhol prophesied, ''All department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores.''

Founded in 1992, the SoHo Guggenheim was a spirited place, exhibiting a mix of European legends like Max Beckmann and young artists working in video and other new media. But it was unable to draw enough visitors to break even, perhaps because its architecture was not sufficiently prepossessing. As Krens says, ''It wasn't big enough to be its own space.''

Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain
Frank Gehry, Architect

By stark contrast, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is unquestionably its own space.

It looks like a set for a science-fiction movie, a silvery, undulating spaceship that happened to land on a hillside in Spain. From some angles, it suggests an inflated medieval castle and is reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg's ''soft'' sculptures, whose rounded, pillowy forms it recycles. The museum can be seen as a Pop Art sculpture writ inordinately large. Unveiled in 1997, it turned remote Bilbao into a world capital of what planners call ''cultural tourism,'' or what used to be known simply as culture.

Guggenheim Bilbao, interior

Guggenheim, Bilbao
Interior gallery with Richard Serra's "Serpent"

Stepping inside one April morning, I waited for my eyes to adjust to the light and prepared to see art. But instead I found more architecture: throngs of Spaniards were clustered around toy-size models of houses, offices, a shopping complex, a bus stop and the museum in Bilbao itself. The works were part of ''Frank Gehry, Architect,'' which was exhibited last year at the Guggenheim in New York, where it drew 397,032 visitors, more than any other show in the history of the museum.

''We're in a time right now when the architect kind of rules,'' the sculptor Richard Serra said recently, ''and the art is kind of a sideshow.'' In an interview on PBS with Charlie Rose, he also contended, referring to Gehry: ''I draw better in my sculpture than he draws in his architecture. Frank is parading right now, and so are all of these mouthpiece critics that, you know, support him as 'The Artist.' . . . Hogwash. Don't believe it.''

Gehry, who is 73 and based in Los Angeles, has considered Serra a close friend for decades and was stunned when he watched the show. ''Richard has apologized to me,'' Gehry told me, ''but I wish he would apologize publicly.''

Even so, the Bilbao museum is famous for its inhospitability to art. The main gallery, at 430 feet long, swallows up the works displayed in it, draining them of presence and scale. How could Gehry justify this?

''I designed that gallery with a system of walls,'' he replied in a grieved tone. ''But Tom'' -- naturally, he meant Krens -- won't put them in. It's Tom who likes the big space. I am tired of taking the rap. Please tell Tom that for $1.98, I can put in three walls!''

Walls or no walls, it is clear that the traditional notion of museums as neutral spaces -- spaces that defer to art instead of visually competing with it -- is being abandoned. And, in fact, it should be. We are now in the midst of a golden age for museum architecture, and there is no reason to regret the loss of the White Box, the belief that art is pure and needs to be contemplated in rooms untainted by any vestige of life, except, perhaps, for a potted plant. This is nonsense. Historically, art has required viewers to squint, crane their necks and sneeze from the dust. One has only to recall the friezes on the Parthenon, or the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, to know that countless masterworks have conveyed their magic despite the distractions of architecture.

Still, churches and Greek temples were designed for worship, and what is it we worship now? The museum building boom, which began before Sept.11 and continues despite it, raises the question of whether the rapidly increasing square footage of art museums will at some point exceed the rate at which artists can produce paintings and sculptures to fill them.

This does not seem likely. The supply of museum-quality art on this planet is vast. The problem is that museums often lack the financial resources to acquire it. The Guggenheim is like a man who puts up the biggest house on the block and then realizes he doesn't have any money left to furnish it. If American museums are to survive what may seem like overexpansion, they need to understand that their goals and sensibilities now run counter to those of the people they serve, who visit museums in the hope of learning something new or feeling something new. But increasingly they are finding nobody home.

Deborah Solomon, a regular contributor to the magazine, is at work on a biography of Norman Rockwell.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company