Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Where in the World is the Guggenheim?

I know how Thomas Krens must feel: Every once in a while, I engage an important person in a long interview for an article that never gets published. I usually tell that person that I will probably find a chance to use the material in some future article. Sometimes that happens.

So must it be, on a much grander scale, with the major architects who squandered long hours designing speculative art palaces to fuel the Guggenheim Foundation director's undying global ambitions---most notably, Jean Nouvel in Rio and Zaha Hadid in both Tokyo and Taichung, Taiwan. The Rio and Taichung projects were sunk by political opponents. The Temporary Guggenheim planned for Tokyo lost life-support when its private sponsor pulled the plug, according to Patrik Schumacher, a principal partner in Hadid's firm.

Krens undoubtedly feels some obligation to make it up to his growing stable of disappointed architects by finding something else equally exciting for them to imagine. Hence, Nouvel recently told me he was talking to Krens about a possible project in Abu Dhabi and Hadid revealed at the press conference for her current Guggenheim retrospective that she and Krens were "shopping around" for other collaborative projects. "I don't know if Tom wants to say more."

He didn't. But he did tell me afterwards that the only Guggenheim satellite currently in the works is Enrique Norten's design for Guadalajara, Mexico. Schumacher told me that Hadid and Krens are focusing on a project for a specific locale, which he declined to identify.

So what of all the rumored incipient Guggenheims in Moscow, Singapore, Bucharest, Hong Kong, etc.? Anthony Calnek, the Guggenheim's deputy director for communications and publishing, said that there are only "two live projects [Guadalajara and Hong Kong] for which the Guggenheim Foundation has actually conducted feasibility studies," but rumors of a new branch are sparked whenever Krens visits a foreign country to negotiate "exhibition contracts, loans or other museum business."

As for Hong Kong:

We are still officially part of Dynamic Star's bid package for the West Kowloon Cultural District, but for some time, the bid process itself has been held up by the Hong Kong government. We're hopeful that the project will move forward. But if not, we have a side agreement with the Pompidou Center to pursue other opportunities in Hong Kong together.

Similarly, Guadalajara, Calnek revealed, is far from a done deal:

The Guggenheim Foundation completed the contracted feasibility study for Guadalajara some time ago. The civic leaders there believe strongly in the project, and are actively trying to raise the necessary financial and political support. We hope they'll succeed, but we have no way of really knowing. The financial implications are all laid out in the study. If the city succeeds in raising the money,the Foundation will enter into negotiations with them about going forward with the museum.

Krens still also harbors hopes of a grand new Guggenheim in Manhattan, as he made clear in his appearance Jan. 3 on the Charlie Rose Show (click on the Jan. 3 press release).

I happen to believe that Krens is a brilliant architectural client---finding the perfect practitioner for the job and goading that architect to do his or her best work. These collaborations, whether or not they get off the drawing board, result in such envelope-pushing designs that the architect's prestige and commissions get a healthy boost.

But in vainly trying to repeat his triumph in Bilbao, Krens can't quite get it through his head that the Guggenheim Museum doesn't travel well. It is resisted by some powerful players in foreign countries as an exploitative interloper, trying to get rich by foisting an American brand of cultural enlightenment on the natives. The secret to the Guggenheim's success in establishing a beachhead in Spain is the lowkey, businesslike Juan Ignacio Vidarte, who has been the Guggenheim Bilbao's director from the beginning. A former Basque government bureaucrat with no art background, Vidarte firmly believes in the importance of his museum and is a master of the art of navigating political minefields.

Krens needs an outlet for his undeniable architectural acumen, and I hope he finds it. But he should stop tarnishing the Guggenheim "brand" in a succession of failed foreign forays. Instead of vaunting these follies, in an exhibition soon to open in Bonn, he should learn from them. Under Lisa Dennison's direction, the flagship Guggenheim in New York is getting back to curator-driven, collection-focused basics. Sometimes being a resourceful realist beats being a visionary.

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