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What Ever Happened to Tom Krens?
September 6, 2011

Last fall it was reported that the great Tom Krens was off the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi project, which seemed like big news because Mr. Krens was the creative mind and promoter of the project, but what’s even more strange is that we haven’t heard boo from the art world’s consummate museum showman since.

 

The Whitney Museum of American Art will soon abandon its architectural landmark on Madison Avenue (it will be rented out to the Metropolitan Museum) because the Whitney is creating a new building downtown. The Dia Foundation just completed an $11.5 million purchase of a new building site in Chelsea (it will be the site of an all-new N.Y.C. Dia). All this construction makes me think of Tom Krens, the man who changed the Guggenheim forever, and influenced the world of museum construction in our town and around the world. Tom Krens has gone M.I.A., so it’s time to wind back the clock and think about his tremendous fall from grace, and what it might teach us about these other initiatives.

 

Back in ’97 Mr. Krens, the Guggenheim’s towering, N.F.L.-linebacker-size director, was at the top of his game. He had just launched the hugely successful Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao and in so doing had changed the art world forever. Quite an achievement for a guy from modest beginnings. After all, the young Mr. Krens was running only a little museum at Williams College in the late ’70s when he completed his M.B.A. at Yale: he cleverly leveraged it into a consultancy at the Guggenheim, eventually succeeding in getting himself hired as director.

 

He didn’t have a strong art historical background (he was originally an artist, not an art historian), and, thinking back, I can only wonder how desperate the Guggenheim board must have been in 1988 when they fired their exhausted director Thomas Messer and brought in a virtual neophyte to reposition the institution and fill its empty coffers. Fill them he did, by raising the endowment from $20 million to over a $100 million.

 

In the end, his arrogant manner and John Wayne swagger pissed off his major donor, Peter Lewis, who lasted 11 years as chairman of the board and gave over $70 million. Mr. Lewis felt the museum should focus on housekeeping at its base in New York rather than opening more Guggenheim branches around the world, and in a showdown befitting a true Western movie he threatened the board with an ultimatum: either Mr. Krens goes or he would.

 

In a shocker, the board stuck with Mr. Krens, though with their main patron gone—Mr. Lewis left the board in 2005—the Guggenheim’s budget was dealt a serious blow. Blockbuster shows were one way to get financing, and Mr. Krens did them in a big way, with motorcycle shows sponsored by BMW and a fashion show sponsored by Armani, as well as shows from Brazil, China and India. He found sponsors for a branch in Berlin (care of Deutsche Bank), and another branch housed and paid for by a Las Vegas casino (now closed) and he never stopped hunting for financing to open everywhere and anywhere he could.

 

Though Mr. Lewis rightly anticipated that Mr. Krens’s vision would eventually crash, a global vision is what made Mr. Krens special, and it’s what he’ll always be remembered for. With Bilbao Mr. Krens rewrote the recipe for a successful museum, taking his cue from the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece in New York that is the Guggenheim’s historic home and talisman. In a nod to Wright’s genius, Mr. Krens put architectural spectacle first, by hiring Mr. Gehry and giving him free rein. He then put fund-raising second, by getting a local government to foot the entire bill, and he put brand building third, by creating a Spanish flagship that he could use to showcase his vision and pitch governments, corporations and anyone else who might pony up for future Guggenheim branches around the world.

 

What of art, I hear you say? Well, museum building at the end of the 20th century was in need of a makeover, and, right or wrong, the funding sources dictated that art alone wasn’t enough. Mr. Krens anticipated the need to boost attendance and create a tourist destination as well as an identity and a global brand. Let’s not forget that Bilbao is a crummy postindustrial dump in the center of Spain (almost as bad as Flint, Mich.)—the kind of place you wouldn’t go even on a paid vacation. But the Bilbao museum became the monumental success that changed the museum world forever, and it still boasts attendance of over a million people a year. I had the pleasure of touring the place in the fall of ’99 as a guest of Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller. We got the full celebrity tour from Mr. Gehry, including lighting up the flame throwers that spurt out of the water fountains. This was followed up by a little motorcycle spin with Mr. Krens and celebrity guests Jeremy Irons, Lawrence Fishburne and Lauren Hutton, all sponsored, of course, by BMW.

 

None of it had anything to do with “art.” It was about marketing, fund-raising and architecture as spectacle. I can barely remember the Warhol exhibit inside the museum, perhaps because it was dwarfed by the eccentric spaces that Mr. Gehry’s titanium-skin “baked Alaska” structure provided. Who cared, since no one was there to see the art. We were there to see the new “wonder of the world,” and to party. I wasn’t just overcome; I was overwhelmed by the ambition, the imagination and the chutzpah of this new godless cathedral.

 

In the years that followed, Mr. Krens tried to create new satellite Guggenheims around the world, including a huge one in lower Manhattan that never got off the ground. But despite the roadblocks, Frank Gehry became the most lauded and famous architect of our time. Sadly, I find much of his recent work grossly overrated, and though it was a great formula for Bilbao, it’s not a recipe that will work as well anywhere else. The fact that other museums have sought to hire Mr. Gehry over and over again to create their own “Bilbao monument” is a guaranteed recipe for failure, because what made Mr. Gehry’s building great was its newness, its originality, so by definition to copy the formula is to miss the point.

 

For these reasons and many more, the Abu Dhabi Gehry-Guggenheim museum will be at best a facsimile, and the two new proposed French Gehry museums, one in Arles and another in Paris (for Louis Vuitton’s Bernard Arnault), will also flop, if they ever see the light of day. It’s actually quite sad because there are so many great architects working today (think Herzog and de Meuron, Peter Zumthor, Thomas Mayne … ), it’s the perfect time to let some others have a go.

 

But there’s more to Mr. Krens’s formula than just a flashy building. First and foremost he understood the value of his own New York building’s identity. He restored and elevated the profile of the amazing Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece on Fifth Avenue, a building that never even pretended to be a great museum but succeeds 150 percent as architectural monument. Reliable sources tell me that, thanks to Mr. Krens’s branding strategy, 80 percent of the museum’s current New York visitors are foreign, and they flock in every year irrespective of what’s on view.

 

Compare this to the poor job done by the Whitney Museum of American Art. It is the owner of a fantastic brutalist Marcel Breuer masterpiece, a building that sadly has less than half the attendance of the Guggenheim, and 80 percent of its visitors are mere New Yorkers. To add insult to injury, the museum is abandoning its flagship on Park Avenue and renting it out to the Metropolitan Museum, because the Whitney is pouring all its resources into a newer, bigger, downtown Whitney designed by Renzo Piano, the volume of which will allow the Whitney to show more of its vast collection.

 

If bigger doesn’t result in better, the Whitney will have done New York a terrible disservice, one that could have been easily avoided if only it had raised funds by selling a few artworks out of its vast holdings. Isn’t the Breuer building a work of art, one that is more meaningful to the museum’s identity than any painting could ever be? Imagine if it had the vision to leave the “uptown Whitney” as a true museum of American Art, the only one in New York, where the museum’s amazing collection of Ash Can artists like Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler and George Bellows would be on permanent display. Would I care if the downtown museum were cut in half? Absolutely not. There is plenty of museum quality free art to see downtown in all the Chelsea galleries; who needs to pay good money to see any more of it?

 

But “de-accessioning”—the selling of artworks from the collection—is a no-no in the museum world. It’s also another rule that Mr. Krens broke early in his tenure. Back in 1990 he raised $47 million by selling off a Kandinsky, a Chagall and a Modigliani (the museum had several other works by these artists) and he acquired the fantastic Count Panza collection of minimalist art, thus making a quantum leap for the Guggenheim’s collection. Sadly, though, his programming overall veered so far from the museum’s original mission of showing “non-objective painting” (think Kandinsky) that it was hard to tell what to expect from him, other than the promise of a spectacle.

 

The other pieces to Mr. Krens’s museum formula include making space for plenty of restaurants and nice, big gift shops, and putting lots of emphasis on logos and advertising. And, of course, putting on mega blockbuster shows complete with celebrities, politicians and corporate sponsors. This very same formula worked like a charm for another art world giant, the dealer Larry Gagosian. He opened satellite galleries around the world and brought show business glamour to the stodgy and conservative gallery system, thus swallowing up many of the best artists in the world and providing collectors with a one-stop destination for almost all their art needs.

 

But money is what a gallery thrives on, whereas in the American museum world, fund-raising is a semi-secret part of every director’s job. Our museums run on private donations, so finding collectors or socially motivated patrons to pay the tab is a large part of every director’s responsibility, as it is in the world of private education and cultural institutions of all kinds. That’s in large part why our cultural institutions suffer outside of large cities like New York and Los Angeles. In bureaucratic old Europe this conflict doesn’t exist because museums are funded by the government and museum directors work for the state, so they are free to focus on the art, not on fund-raising. But in the U.S., with little state or federal support of the arts, museum folks are condemned to a life of panhandling wealthy patrons, to sell them a seat on their the board or to get them to host benefit dinners, cocktail parties and anything else that’ll bring in the tax-deductible bucks.

 

I’m not saying that the European system is always better—state-run institutions tend to become bureaucratic and didactic—but it is not fraught with the types of conflicts of interest that took down Tom Krens. Mr. Krens was guilty of finding every possible way to shortcut the fund-raising conundrum, and though he never was able to replace mega donor Peter Lewis, he did secure corporate and government sponsorship from Deutsche Bank, BMW, Hugo Boss and Armani, as well as municipalities like Bilbao and even whole countries like Brazil and China.

 

Sadly for everyone he eventually dead-ended, and the board finally pushed him out, by giving him a highly paid consultancy on a massive Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project. But his consulting contract was eventually dropped when hubris once again got the better of him, a sad ending to what has to be one of the most exciting and inspiring museum director sagas of the past 50 years.

 

Tom Krens succeeded in changing the art world forever, and, since his tenure at the Guggenheim, numerous new museums have been built as architectural monuments—Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi in Rome and Sanaa’s New Museum in New York, to name just two. These new cathedrals of architecture where some art will hang are inevitably focused on attendance, tourist traffic and boosting the local economy. The “bigger is better” mentality prevails to this day, even though many of the new buildings are oversize and over budget and end up looking like misguided monuments of excess.

 

Was this change for the good? The question matters not: change is inevitable because the museum system in this country was and is still in need of some shake up. Until a part of our state and federal tax money goes toward supporting the arts, it’s impossible to avoid conflicts of interest. Mayor Bloomberg understands this, and he’s quietly been New York’s number one patron, but that’s not enough. In the end Mr. Krens’s legacy will remain, and the status and respect he deserves as a museum visionary will one day prevail. I can only hope he finds a way to rise again and show the stodgy museum world a new twist on the very formula he created. Does “art” suffer when the attendance and the spectacle take center stage? Of course it does, but one way or another, the show must go on.