Downward Spiral

The Guggenheim Museum Touches Bottom

It is time for Guggenheim director Thomas Krens to go. The trustees and board members who helped him twist this institution into a kind of GuggEnron should go as well. When they have all gone, and after we breathe a sigh of relief and survey the damage they've done, someone will have to put the Guggenheim back together again. Krens & Co. have turned this already fragile museum into a rogue institution, broken faith with art, and stripped it of the reputation won for it by generations of artists and curators.

Krens set out to reach more people, and make more money. Unlike many European institutions, our museums aren't primarily government funded, which leaves the back door to business permanently and invitingly ajar. In a shrewd piece of entrepreneurial prestidigitation, Krens converted the Guggenheim's back door into its main entrance. The most literal manifestation of this flip-flop—or flimflam—was how viewers had to pass through the museum store in order to enter the Soho Guggenheim. Shadier examples include BMW underwriting "Motorcycle," Giorgio Armani reportedly donating $15 million to the Guggenheim around the time of his exhibition there, and the Norman Rockwell Estate Licensing Company providing funds for that illustrator's current show.

Krens's big-top approach to culture also embodies a recessive American tendency toward empire, or what we cutely call McDonaldization. In an attempt to juice up, globalize, and glamorize the museum, to market it, turn it into a worldwide entertainment network, boost audience share, stage spectaculars, and pad the pockets of this institution, Krens hoped to transform the Guggenheim into a brand. He talked of "synergy," and opened—or tried to open—branches around the globe, including venues in Venice, Las Vegas, Bilbao, Salzburg, and Berlin. Although the Soho branch has gone belly-up, he's still trying to build a Frank Gehry colossus in Lower Manhattan, and is brokering an outlet in Rio.

Some have gone so far as to say that Krens "articulated a vision of the art museum in the 21st century." But this isn't "a vision," it's a ruse masquerading as a wow. The only thing Krens did was cross Museum Mile with Broadway: He created glitzy palaces and high-concept productions dependent on onetime, out-of-town visitors. Now that the museum has fired 90 people and postponed or canceled the Kasimir Malevich, Douglas Gordon, and Matthew Barney surveys (Barney's would have opened next week), the Guggenheim looks a lot less "visionary" and a lot more dubious, with each branch set up to support another branch. The business world calls this leveraging. The street calls it a shell game. I think we can call it reprehensible.

Krens franchised the museum, but he never gave it a curatorial identity. He accessorized the shell but neglected art. Like Tina Brown at The New Yorker, he was adept at administering an established, if adrift, institution; like Brown at Talk, however, he was incapable of creating anything genuinely interesting. Solid exhibitions were mounted on Krens's 14-year watch. Some were extravaganzas. For the record, I liked "Motorcycle"; it convincingly tracked the development of a form. But "Motorcycle" isn't the problem. Selling out art is. Joey Ramone said, "It's easier to sell a lot of records than it is to make rock-and-roll history." Krens & Co. believe hype and history are the same. This is Spice Girls logic.

Unfortunately, this logic has run the place into the ground and demoralized the staff. The current "Brazil: Body and Soul" show is one of the ugliest, most muddled exhibitions ever mounted by a New York museum. By painting the entire rotunda black so that nothing is visible, the Guggenheim is telling you it's not interested in the work, only in its packaging. The place looks like a giant bazaar. We all want to see art from other cultures, but why Brazil, why now, and why in this incomprehensible manner? Unless, of course, it's to sweeten the Rio deal. Pairing this with the desultory Rockwell exhibition, the Guggenheim has touched bottom.

We will never know how many millions of dollars were wasted on online gimmicks and real or would-be outposts. As for the vaunted behemoth Krens and Gehry built in Bilbao (which Krens claims as "one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century"): It's beguiling from the outside and ridiculously overscaled on the inside. At the end of the day, like many of Krens's projects, it has little to do with art. Krens should be made the CEO of a big company. Then he could put up all the buildings he wants in places like Hartford or Houston. Anywhere but here.

When Krens & Co. are gone, they will not be missed. They came in with Reagan and should go out with Enron. On the bright side, museums as institutions are relatively young and resilient; art is old and can take care of itself. In a generation, maybe less, the Guggenheim will be great again. As it is, it's lost.

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