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Guggenheim's Provocative Director Steps Down

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

After nearly 20 years, Thomas Krens, the provocative director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, is stepping down, its board announced on Wednesday.

The move comes three years after Mr. Krens triumphed in a him-or-me showdown with the foundation's biggest benefactor, the Cleveland philanthropist Peter B. Lewis. Mr. Lewis resigned after arguing that Mr. Krens was spending too much money and should focus more on the foundation's New York flagship museum rather than on funneling resources into developing Guggenheim satellites around the world.

In a statement on Wednesday the foundation emphasized that Mr. Krens would remain at the foundation as a senior adviser for international affairs, overseeing the creation of a 452,000-square-foot museum in Abu Dhabi to be designed by Frank Gehry.

In resigning as director Mr. Krens is clearly taking his cue from the Guggenheim's board. "This is something that Tom and the board decided together," Jennifer Stockman, the board's president, said. She characterized Mr. Krens's new position as a "natural transition."

She added, "The museum is in a strong position to move on."

The foundation said that Mr. Krens would remain as director until a successor was hired, and that the search would begin immediately. But it added that the institution would revert to the management structure that existed until 2005, appointing a director who would run the Manhattan flagship and Guggenheim satellites.

In September 2005 the foundation promoted Lisa Dennison, then a deputy director and chief curator, to director of the Manhattan museum. She served less than two years, departing last summer to join Sotheby's auction house as an executive. Curators and other museum directors have been saying privately for months that the Guggenheim has been unable to fill the crucial job of director of the New York museum. They said that candidates who were informally approached were not shy about communicating that they would not work under Mr. Krens, who is known as a difficult personality.

Supporters of Mr. Krens, however, say he has been disappointed with the foundation's board, especially its shortage of particularly generous donors. With no replacement for someone like Mr. Lewis, who gave the Guggenheim about $77 million overall — nearly four times as much as any other board member in its history — the Guggenheim may not have the financial muscle to keep growing, some art-world insiders say.

Mr. Krens cast his job change in a positive light on Wednesday. "This is a great move for everyone," he said in a telephone interview after stepping off a flight from Paris to New York. "In July I will have been at the Guggenheim for 20 years, and I like that round number."

A towering 6 foot 5, with an M.B.A. in management from Yale and a manner that is often taken for arrogance, Mr. Krens, 61, has long been synonymous with the Guggenheim. He is best known for his ambitions for developing an international network extending from Las Vegas to Bilbao, Spain, and for the types of high-profile exhibitions he presented, including shows like "The Art of the Motorcycle," a personal passion, and ones that tackled entire countries like China and Brazil.

He has also organized trend-setting shows of contemporary artists, among them Matthew Barney, Richard Prince and, most recently, Cai Guo-Qiang.

Mr. Krens has drawn criticism for some of his programming choices, including a show devoted to Armani suits underwritten by the fashion house itself.

The new director of the Guggenheim will face the task of balancing growth with acquisitions for the permanent collection and organizing high-profile exhibitions. In addition to overseeing the New York museum, the director will have authority over the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas.

"The New York museum is the center of the entire constellation," Ms. Stockman said.

Although some critics argue that Mr. Krens has in effect turned the Guggenheim into a McDonald's-like franchise at the expense of expanding its collections and endowment, he has actually created a model for expansion that is being copied by institutions around the world, including the Tate in Britain and the Louvre in France. The titanium-clad Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by Mr. Gehry, is viewed as a major success, attracting more than a million visitors every year since it opened in 1997.

During his tenure Mr. Krens has increased the Guggenheim's endowment to $118 million from $20 million, although he has been known to dip into the endowment to cover operating costs. (The museum's endowment dropped by 20 percent from 1998 to 2005, when it was $45 million, which drew harsh criticism from Mr. Lewis.)

In 1989 Mr. Krens negotiated a gift of Impressionist paintings from the widow of Justin K. Thannhauser, acquired the Panza di Biumo collection of Minimalist art and oversaw the commissions of major artworks by Jeff Koons, James Rosenquist, Rachel Whiteread and Gerhard Richter at Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin. These works later became part of the Guggenheim's collection.

In Bilbao Mr. Krens led an acquisitions program that has included major installations of works by Richard Serra, Mr. Koons, Jenny Holzer and Louise Bourgeois. He also has doubled the size of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and partnered with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna on programming.

Twice Mr. Krens has overseen the restoration and expansion of its landmark Frank Lloyd Wright building on Fifth Avenue. The first, completed in 1992, was an $80 million restoration of the building's interior, along with the construction of a 10-story tower gallery and office building designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates.

The second, a $29 million restoration of the Wright building, is to be completed this summer.

Mr. Krens said Wednesday that the proposed Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emitates, was his most ambitious project to date.

"It's 35 percent larger than Bilbao," he said, adding that the new museum's programming would be more ambitious, too, and that a staff of about a dozen people would be dedicated exclusively to the Abu Dhabi branch.

"It will be truly global," he said, "representing art from the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, as well as Europe and America. It will change the model of the art museum."

by Carol Vogel
For The New York Times

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