The news that Thomas Krens will depart as director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation was as startling as it was sudden.
Now that his critics have their way, what will become of the Guggenheim?
Krens, 61, has been a lightening rod for much of his 20-year tenure. He attracted criticism for overly commercial shows and “franchising” the Guggenheim “brand” in elaborate branches planned worldwide that have largely failed to materialise.
The board may feel he didn’t tend the New York garden well enough – raising too little cash and adding too little to the core collection – while crusading for a Frank Gehry-designed cultureplex halfway around the world.
His expansive and controversial vision for the museum will be hard to undo, though, assuming the board wants to.
His departure, of course, coincides with the ascendancy of his world view.
He not only conjured up the proposed Abu Dhabi Guggenheim (a project he will continue to run for the foundation as he remains senior advisor for international affairs at the foundation), he persuaded the UAE authorities to make culture the centrepiece of its location, the $27 billion (Dh99bn) Saadiyat Island development.
The Guggenheim – along with the Louvre, a performing-arts complex, a maritime museum and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, all designed by celebrity architects – will dominate the development’s skyline.
These museums set some critics’ teeth grinding. (The Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, at 30,000 square metres, will be a third larger than the branch in Bilbao, Spain). It’s showmanship and spectacle, not art, they say. Krens has never apologised for wanting to astonish visitors.
Indeed, the great size of these institutions accommodates a hunger for art in the rapidly developing parts of the world. (In China, they are building museums before they have collections.)
Krens identified a desire for spectacle among artists, not just architects. It has always been a big factor in art, though banished for decades by the modernist era’s early austerity. Now it has returned as a defining character of contemporary art.
Krens made the entrance plaza of the Guggenheim Bilbao available for Jeff Koons’s crowd-pleasing, flower-bedecked giant Puppy, yet other museums have done so too.
The ultra-tasteful new Broad wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art allocated its largest space for a single artist to – Koons.
Did Krens invent Cai Guo-Qiang, whose somersaulting sedans dangle today in the New York Guggenheim’s spiral?
No, the art market and public appetite did. Yet by understanding what was possible in the Frank Lloyd Wright building, Krens made Cai and others possible.
Before Krens, the New York building was regarded as a curatorial black hole. He and savvy curators have shown that a wide variety of works can thrive.
“Artists get tired of interacting with the same old white cubes,” said Gehry, architect of Bilbao and Abu Dhabi, in a recent conversation.
For artists, sculptural architectural spaces, he noted, “are a new kind of provocation. They allow you to change your language and move you somewhere else”.
Krens recognised early that art need not be confined to antiseptic rooms that mount every piece in lonely, worship-inducing splendour. Encouraging art to engage with architecture, and vice versa, is another way of saying art and artists can engage with visitors.
Symphony orchestras would love to have the audiences that museums enjoy these days.
Krens’s view is not for everyone. Yet, at its best, it’s amazing how alive his approach to art can be.
Returning to the sleepy pre-Krens past is not an option for the Guggenheim. His high-wire act will be an extremely hard one to follow. (Bloomberg)