Museums no longer are “the extended and recycled palaces of the 18th century,” Thomas Krens, thecontroversial director of New York City’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, told a Washington audience Sunday.
“Museums now hold the populist point of view,” Mr. Krens said in a talk about the future of art museums at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. “Museums have to grapple with a new complexity. The encyclopedic public art museum was [the 18th centurys] idea. The audience is essential and museums [have] served the masses more and more.”
Mr. Krens, 53, demonstrated how he implemented a 1990s strategic plan for strengthening the Guggenheim as an international presence, a global reach that has drawn some criticism. The director holds academic degrees in political economy and business as well as art. He joined the Guggenheim after teaching at Williams College in Williams- town, Mass., and heading that institution’s Museum of Art.
“I’ve been in the trenches the last few years. We’ve been trying to reshape the institutions and ready them for the future,” Mr. Krens said.
One of the ways he has done this at the Guggenheim is to tie the museum into the global economy. “Museums must do this to survive and flourish,” he said.
Mr. Krens is a big man with big ideas, and he quickly won over the 300-member audience with his towering persona and provocative views. He shot a fast rat-a-tat of slides showing the Guggenheims and their affiliates.
The slides included the dramatic Guggenheim Bilbao, designed in 1997 by architect Frank Gehry as a gleaming, titanium-glass-and-limestone colossus set at the Spanish city’s industrial waterfront.
“We did this by going into a joint venture with Bilbao’s government,” he said. “They had to think of dollars generated by tourism and culture. Bilbao is Spain’s banking and shipping center, and they needed people flocking to their city.”
The Guggenheim includes branches in New York’s Soho neighborhood; Venice, Italy; Berlin; and Las Vegas. He also has forged a partnership with St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum and mentioned an alliance with MassMoCA, the sprawling Massachusetts industrial-complex-turned-museum scheduled for completion in 2004.
Mr. Krens said plans for a Gehry-designed Guggenheim with an ice-skating rink and performing arts center on New York’s Lower East Side are moving forward. He said the city has pledged $700 million for the project, with commitments of $250 million coming from others.
“Of course, the events of September 11 could change all that,” Mr. Krens said. “We’re near the World Trade Center, with the Stock Exchange in-between. We thought that the site would be a major destination for visitors coming to Lower Manhattan. There’s a big question: What will happen here?”
Other possible Guggenheim projects are in Tokyo and Salzburg, Austria, and include a network of three museums in Brazil.
“Our collection had become so large by 1988 that we could only show 1 percent to 2 percent of our collection. We had to find places to show it,” Mr. Krens said.
Art institutions are not fixed, he added.
This year, the Guggenheim Las Vegas and Guggenheim Hermitage opened at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino complex in Las Vegas.
“Why Las Vegas? If you’re in the visionary business, it makes sense to go where the heathens are,” he said with a laugh. “I went there under duress, but then I began to see the possibilities with 34 million people traveling to Las Vegas annually.”
Mr. Krens described the corten steel structure as “an experiment in the new museology, as a part of the revolutionary changes going on today.”
“We used the corten to simulate the velvet-covered walls of the Hermitage. The museum is totally flexible both in its installation mechanisms and architectural design,” he said.
The director emphasized that building the kind of network that Guggenheim has developed takes sustained effort. He also asked, “What now after September 11?”
“We’ll have to change. On the road upwards, there will have to be retrenchment. Huge shipping and insurance problems are bound to surface. Interesting programs will be scaled back,” he said.
Mr. Krens said he believes in being active and in rebuilding audiences. “Culture is a global concern, and we’ll always be the ‘global Guggenheim.’ Our mission is still to present exhibitions in an educational and entertaining way,” he concluded.
Thomas Lentz, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s International Art Museums Division, ended the presentation on a light note.
“We all look forward to the opening of the Guggenheim Smithsonian,” he quipped.