Friday, January 21, 2005

Guggenheim museum - expansion too far?

When Solomon R. Guggenheim was first setting up his Museum in New York, he and Hilla Rebay - the first director of the Museum - would scarcely have believed it would have more than one venue in the USA. Over recent years, the Guggenheim has become something of a global franchise. Not always successfully.

The Guardian reports today that one of the Museum's major benefactors has now resigned over the issue of expansion; an issue that has been forcibly championed by Director Thomas Krens. Whilst I can forgive them the expansion to include Peggy Guggenheim's Venice collection - most of which is vunerable to damage in transit - many of their other ventures seem to be merely opportunities for further temporary exhibition spaces; either of temporary shows or of selections (limited ones) from the SRG collection.

Guggenheim Soho (closed 2001)
Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain (still going strong, though largely thanks to Gehry's architecture rather than the exhibitions)
Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin (essentially a franchise name venue of the Deutsche Bank)
Guggenheim Las Vegas - a joint venture with the Hermitage, St. Petersburg (confusingly, the Guardian reports this venture closed after 15 months - with its current exhibition "The Pursuit of Pleasure" heavily advertised on its website, one would safely bet there will be a Guardian correction tomorrow).

Until 9/11 finally put the kibosh on their plans for New York, they had even planned a large Lower Manhattan venue by one of the piers. Nevertheless, Thomas Krens' ambitions for the Guggenheim name have remained undiminished.

As Charlotte Higgins notes:

the roll call of other cities that have been in talks with the Guggenheim about establishing a branch is almost endless. Taichung in Taiwan was mooted, with a museum to be built by the British architect Zaha Hadid. Even Edinburgh made a pitch.
Mr Krens is currently forging ahead with plans to establish a Guggenheim in Rio de Janeiro, with architecture by the French-born Jean Nouvel, and he is undertaking a feasibility study for another in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Mr Krens once said that the museum of the future should have "great collections, great architecture, a great special exhibition, a great second exhibition, two shopping opportunities, two eating opportunities, a hi-tech interface via the internet, and economies of scale via a global network".

What exactly is the Guggenheim, specifically Krens, trying to do? Back in the 1930s when Peggy Guggenheim was first setting herself up as a dealer, Rebay wrote in scathing tones to warn her that she was destroying the reputation of the Guggenheim name with her 'shop'. Now it seems that Krens has gone much, much further: and this is against a backdrop of FALLING attendances at the Guggenheim, especially at its centre - the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral gallery on Fifth Avenue, New York. Whilst I accept that museums and galleries have to compete with other (tourist/educational) attactions, it does seem to be doomed to failure to stretch the Guggenheim resources this thinly. And that is a real shame, since there are many truly wonderful works in the collection and several of their temporary exhibitions have been inspiring. However, too much emphasis on the commercial and too many joint ventures have dimmed Krens' vision: the Guggenheim needs a re-appraisal of its aims in the wake of this resignation --- because this is about a lot more than just corporate money disappearing off the table.

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