Guggenheim director explains transformation of foundation

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Guggenheim director explains transformation of foundation

Thomas Krens, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, is credited with transforming the organization into a truly international institution. Forbes magazine has written that he is “rewriting the rules of how museums are run.”
Mr. Krens dramatically enhanced the visibility of the Guggenheim and increased attendance from 450,000 in 1990 to almost 3 million currently. Newsweek wrote that his “aggressive, global approach may be what high culture needs to survive in our world.”
Mr. Krens visited the National Museum of Korea on Monday, as part of a celebration of the museum’s first anniversary, to deliver a lecture titled, “Museum Architecture and Museums’ Futures.”
“A public art museum is an 18th century idea,” said Mr. Krens, explaining the reason for the foundation’s transformation. “In other words, the art museum as we know is more or less obsolete.”
Most collections now in museums previously belonged to monarchs, he said, and in France after the Revolution, people demanded that they be shown to the public. Thus palaces like the Louvre became museums.
Mr. Krens said that one of his foundation’s biggest problems had been a lack of capacity, as only 60 years after it opened, it already had too much art to show. Only 2 percent of its entire collection has been shown. There was no choice but to expand, as many paintings by such revered artists as Kandinsky, Pollock and Giacometti could not be displayed. He also said the museum was unable to show large-scale art, and the cost of running institutions was escalating and unsustainable.
To solve its problems, the foundation set a goal to “build an international network of museums with access to world-class collections and a wide variety of galleries with size located in prominent international locations,” Mr. Krens said.
By doing that, the foundation was able to increase its economy of scale and better utilize its resources. “Operating two museums is more cost-effective than operating one,” he said.
Mr. Krens was appointed the director of the foundation in 1988. Under his tenure, the foundation has formed a global network of cultural facilities and alliances with major museums. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by Frank O. Gehry, opened in October 1997; in November 1997 the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, designed by Richard Gluckman, was opened as a result of a joint venture between the foundation and Deutsche Bank. The Guggenheim Hermitage Museum Las Vegas, designed by Rem Koolhaas, opened in October 2001.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation owns the New York, Venice, and Las Vegas museums and provides curatorial direction and management services to the Bilbao and Berlin museums, with which it shares collections and programs. In total, the attendance at five museums surpasses 2.5 million visitors each year.
The foundation also added 4,000 artworks to its collection from styles including Impressionism, Expressionism, Minimalism and international contemporary arts.
The success of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao gave the foundation’s expansion a major boost. Bilbao city proposed the project, not the foundation.
“We were invited to this decaying industrial town in the northern part of Spain in 1991,” Mr. Krens said. “Initially I thought it was a terrible idea. I didn’t know where the city was located. I didn’t think they understood the amount of resources required.”
He said he told Jose Antonio Ardanza, the Basque president, to build a museum on the scale of the “Sydney Opera House or Centre Pompidou or even larger” would cost $375 million including licensing and acquisitions.
“Then the president said, ‘You have a deal,’” Mr. Krens said.
According to Mr. Krens, the Bilbao museum spent $291 million in operating costs between 1998 and 2005, including $80 million for art acquisition. In that period, the museum attracted 9.2 million visitors and 4,500 jobs were created.
Mr. Krens said he is currently in discussions with the National Museum of Korea to hold exhibitions at Guggenheim museums of Korean architecture and art.
“One of my favorite pieces of architecture is the Jongmyo ancestral shrine. I was fascinated by the sensitivity of Korean architecture,” he said, adding that he had a picture of the shrine hanging in his office.

by Limb Jae-un
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