Interview with Thomas Krens: No populist, no colonialist—just loved by business

One year after the acclaimed opening, the director of New York’s Guggenheim talks about the Bilbao Guggenheim, his money-raising and his new expansion plans Spanish commentators admire the building and its success with the public but some chafe at its artistic dependence on the New York museum


The motorcycles that have been parked since June on Fifth Avenue in front of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum are now gone. The attendance figures have vindicated “The art of the motorcycle” for Thomas Krens, the fifty-one year-old biker and director of the Guggenheim. Mr Krens organised the exhibition and is listed as its curator. More visitors came per day to see motorcycles in Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral than to any exhibition ever presented in the building.

Critics called it a disgrace, but children of all ages loaded up on Harley Davidson merchandise in the gift shop. The exhibition now travels to the Field Museum in Chicago and then to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

As Mr Krens’s acts of defiance go, this was mild. He is, after all, the same man who auctioned off paintings from the Guggenheim’s collection eight years ago. More recently, Mr Krens outraged purists and preservationists by commissioning the construction of a boxy block that crowds up against Frank Lloyd Wright’s original ziggurat. This spring, the contemporary art in the “China: 5000 years” exhibition reflected a cosiness with the Chinese government (which loaned hundreds of archaeological objects)—nothing critical or experimental made by Chinese artists in the last twenty years was shown. Human rights activists were appalled. So were a few art critics.

Yet even Mr Krens’s critics have had to concede that the past year has been his most successful. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao was anointed as the finest building of the late twentieth century. New Guggenheims opened in Berlin and on the web. Mr Krens scored box-office hits in New York with Chinese archaeology and with the motorcycles on the ramp. Corporate sponsors are lining up to fund future projects. Peter Lewis, founder of the Progressive Corporation, an insurer of high-risk drivers (including, one presumes, motorcyclists) gave the Guggenheim $50 million for its endowment. Mr Krens appears to be critic-proof.

Given the crowds that came to see “The art of the motorcycle” and the multitudes thronging into Bilbao, Mr Krens may be feeling the pressure in the “can-you-top-this” museum field to outdo himself.

This month, the Guggenheim opens two New York shows in collaboration with the Centre Georges Pompidou, sponsored by the phone manufacturer Nokia, while the Paris museum is undergoing renovation. Is another global partnership germinating? One year after Bilbao’s opening, the Guggenheim’s director spoke to The Art Newspaper.

How successful has the Guggenheim Bilbao been as a building and a museum?

Thomas Krens I think people feel that the equation between the building and the collection and the art and the programming is superb. We configured the China exhibition for Bilbao. We took advantage of some of the things we didn’t do terrifically well in the China show in New York, for instance the scale and layout and accessibility of the graphic and support material and information. I think the Bilbao installation is superb.

We have approached or exceeded 10,000 visitors a day on two or three days a week for most of the summer, so it looks as though we will probably finish the year with about 1.6 million visitors. We had forecast 485,000—that’s what our budget was based on, so you’ve got to judge that a success.

In terms of local relations, we’ve tried to emphasise and focus on Basque and Spanish art, to an appropriate level and degree. I think that’s been appreciated. Local business activity, I’m told, is up 40% in hotels and the restaurants since the museum opened—so Bilbao is enjoying a certain kind of renaissance or boom in a previously almost non-existent tourist trade.

What’s going to happen to the local role in building the collection and programming in Bilbao?

Our original agreement was that for the length of the association this would be the Guggenheim Museum and that the Guggenheim would have curatorial control over the programming, the development or the presentation of the permanent collection, and, nominally, the development of the collection.

With people like Carmen Jimenez and Germano Celant as two of our senior curators, we see ourselves as an international institution, not a local or a New York one. There are many things that we might not be able to accept for the Guggenheim in New York—because of limited space and storage facility and maybe even limited audience interest—which might work in Bilbao. So I do not think about this as a kind of us-and-them situation, and I don’t think they do either.

We’re consistent, just as we were with our original planning. We were under budget or just on budget, let’s say, and on time in the construction of the building. And we are also in the operation of the building. The administration is almost entirely local, which is appropriate. It’s not for us to determine the balance of the labour issues or the wages issues and the local management.

The Basque government realises that we bring an enormous amount, which is why we came there originally. It wasn’t just a financial deal. It certainly wasn’t anything about buying or renting a slice or section of the Guggenheim collection. But it was the programming that they were interested in. So nothing has changed.

Is there going to be a separate collection in Bilbao or will it be another part of the Guggenheim?

I think one takes it step by step in terms of where the sources are. For example, there’s a Spanish collector who wants to give a work to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. There exists a legal entity to accept ownership of that work of art, appropriately linked to the long-term of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, and we made an agreement for seventy-five years. He and we both were interested in having a success, even if after seventy-five years we decide to go our separate ways.

It was also very much in our interest to suggest that the Basques make $50 million available for acquisitions. The Guggenheim selected the acquisitions but the title will rest with a holding company created in Bilbao. I think it is a form of insurance for both sides. To us it indicates a seriousness of purpose in doing what museums do and build collections. For their part, I think they realized the validity of the point I made, namely, that if we decide we don’t want to continue after seventy-five years, the Guggenheim is not just going to take all of the art and leave the building. That wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest.

What it comes down to is that, if a major collector in Spain wants to give a work of art and specifically for the long-term to the museum, there’s a facility to do that. If there’s someone who wanted to give a work of art to the New York museum and we either wanted to keep it in or principally show it in Bilbao, then presumably that would happen as well. It might depend on what the individual wanted, not what the institution wanted.

I haven’t heard anything about Picasso’s “Guernica” coming to Bilbao, a matter of some disagreement a year ago. Any news on that?

We’ve had some discussions about that. There’s a general feeling that one of the criticisms made before the museum opened was that the Basque authorities were worried about attendance and were desperate to get “Guernica” because it would guarantee attendance. We have given proof to the contrary. We don’t need “Guernica” to be a success.

This fact allows one to focus on the real issues and not the extraneous issues. The Basque government in 1935 was part of the Spanish Republican government and they made a down-payment and paid it to Picasso for “Guernica”, a painting that depicted an outrageous bombing of the symbolic Basque capital city. The work became a twentieth-century symbol.

This is a painting that has travelled to more than thirty cities around the world, it’s been to South America and no less than five cities in Germany. But it’s never been to the Basque country. Somehow I think that is inappropriate on a cultural level. It would be a healing gesture on a political level to take it there for a while. We have a very careful, conservative, sensible proposal for the packing and transportation of the work. Yet I think it is prudent to try to let the temperature cool and to do it at an appropriate time.

About “The art of the motorcycle” show. How did that exhibition outperform your expectations? Given the attendances, how will that affect future programmes?

I’ve always felt that the programmes for an international institution, such as ours, have to take a broader view of the twentieth century than simply painting and sculpture. Once you have marched out, however many artists there are worthy of retrospective exhibitions, you cannot double back and march them back again five years later.

I think that architecture and design are certain areas we should participate in. I see the motorcycle exhibition as a design exhibition, and we signalled our confidence in doing that sort of thing. The motorcycle exhibition sets our sights on this month’s French postwar exhibition, “Rendezvous”, from our permanent collection in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou (until 24 January 1999), which is basically the history of the twentieth century. We’re doing a big Surrealist exhibition; we’re doing a “Picasso between the wars” exhibition; we’re doing a Francesco Clemente retrospective. That’s the 1999 programme.

I think from time to time institutions should do things like the motorcycle show. It reaches a different audience. The criticism or question—“How many people that come to the motorcycle exhibition will return?”—well, that’s not what we do it for. I don’t ask people when they buy their tickets if they’re going to buy a book or come back five times in the next year. It’s been a great show for us, but it doesn’t signal a sell-out to popular commercial culture.

You’ve been very effective at getting corporate support. Has there been any increased interest from corporations as a result of the publicity and the numbers for the motorcycle show?

We do very well at corporate support, better than most people think—no one has focused on that. We have put this programme of global partners in place where we have long-term associations with institutions like Deutsche Bank and Hugo Boss and Samsung—and a few others that we’ll announce soon. Sponsorship is a real need these days, not a sell-out to corporate culture at all.

If our attendance could be guaranteed at 900,000 visitors a year in New York uptown, and we were to pay for the operation of the museum solely by admission charges, we’d probably have to charge about $50 a head to get by. You know that’s not going to happen, because if you charged $50 a ticket, nobody would come.

The government has certainly signalled its intention not to support culture, so we’re not left with too many choices. It’s either private individuals or corporations, and I think the corporations see that we offer something in our events. We get a lot of press. It’s a high profile thing. Excitement is generated, and I think that’s what they respond to: association.

We live in a complex cultural environment. Governments are wanting to get out of the cultural support business. You have more government support for culture in Europe, but proportionately it’s coming to the same conclusions as in the US: if you’re trying to make a budget balance with a 10% or 15% unemployment rate, culture is one of the first things you cut out, because the constituency for culture tends to be relatively small. And that’s happening. The cultural budgets are being scaled back almost everywhere I look. Consequently one is forced to focus on programming—to try and make it more accessible without sacrificing the quality.

Another way that institutions can seek to be efficient is to develop long-term working relationships and collaborations. The French project per se doesn’t signal anything, a successful exchange like this may lead to something else.

We didn’t think that French culture had had a particularly fair or generous hearing in the US in the last twenty or so years, and there’s a great story there, just as there was in China. I was approached in 1988 by Jack Lang to do this project. So we’ll see what happens.

There are two other sites that you have shown interest in—the Dogana, the old Customs House, in Venice and the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Can we anticipate your forming some relationship with them?

We’re always interested in the Dogana. It’s like a long-playing record. I think the resolution of our long-term position in Italy has probably more to do with the evolution of the Italian attitude than it does with ours in the short-term.

We’ve quietly, but consistently, been expanding our position in Venice. We’ve added another courtyard and some space two years ago to the back of the building. We’re looking at additional contiguous properties. Last autumn we unveiled a long-term association with one of the great Italian collections, the Matteoli, which is now at the Guggenheim on a ten-year loan, and we may be able to acquire that at the end of that period.

I think that the quality of our programming, while small, has been superlative and consistent, and our reputation has increased proportionately. The Guggenheim is very, very highly regarded in Italy. It has become an increasingly attractive and important potential partner for the development of a site like the Dogana.

The Dogana is in an absolutely prime location—although it’s basically a warehouse that’s falling apart. Something is going to happen there sooner or later, and every indication and every signal is that it’s going to be cultural. The questions are—who, why, what, and where? The interest on the Italian side is perhaps to stop showing exhibitions in the Doge’s Palace and make it literally just a historical site.

We need to come to some kind of a working relationship whereby major exhibitions sponsored by the Commune of Venice, usually Italian art, but not always—for example, a Veronese or a Rubens exhibition—could be accommodated at the Dogana.

We’re coming close. We’ve agreed on all principles, and one reason is that Walter Veltroni, the culture minister, is also the vice premier, so he has real establishment clout. What he sees is that Italy has a huge problem in that the State owns an enormous amount of ancient property that can’t be sold or supported. It’s literally falling down. An alliance with an institution like the Guggenheim could become a model for other such cooperations. We see tremendous transformations in Italy. The government is now a very intelligent, confident administration that takes the long view of these issues.

Is the Dogana still the intended site for any plans in Venice?

Yes, it’s the only site.

What about the Hermitage?

No. There’s nothing right now.

When you talk about the need to increase the endowment, is it a response to a notion that the foundation is spreading itself a little thin, or is this just a practical matter that every museum has to come to terms with?

I’m not sure that it’s one or the other. I think if I were to cite a model, for example, of how the Guggenheim has developed, I would point to New York University. Fifteen years ago, New York University was a poor child of educational institutions on the East Coast. They began a very aggressive programme and a capital campaign at the same time, which was very successful. It is the increased participation in development, with new ideas, programmes and concepts, that attracts people.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to calculate that if you have an institution with an operating budget of $35 million a year, the endowment should be 20-25% of the operating budget—and that’s at a conservative investment rate of about 5%. If you’re looking to take $8 million a year out of the endowment, then you ought to have a $160 million endowment. Or you have to do other things extremely well, such as raising corporate support, which we do.

I always refer to Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia: when Arthur Kennedy interrogates him—he’s supposed to be an Arab and love the desert—he says, “Arabs don’t love the desert, they like water and green trees just like everybody else.” What I want for this institution is the water and green trees. I want a big endowment that allows a long-term, programmatic and consistent stability for the institution. To date, we’ve raised about $140 million. We’ve used that to service the debt, to build the endowment. We’ve got some way to go—we’re actually in the process right now of determining how far that is—but all the signals for us are very positive.

Spanish opinions

José Guirao

director, museo nacional centro de arte reina sofía, madrid

“It is a phenomenon of a social nature that it has worked so well from the point of view of the public. In this sense it is a resounding success. The artistic side of things has been relegated to second place, although it is too early to judge that. It remains to be seen how the museum’s own collection will develop, because at the moment it is only in its infancy. Artistically, it will triumph or fail depending on how the collection pans out. I respect the request for the loan of “Guernica”, especially as, since the last refusal in 1997 by the Board of the Reina Sofía, there has not been another request, or indeed any further developments.”

Tomás Llorens

chief-curator, museo thyssen-bornemisza, madrid

“The presence of the Guggenheim Foundation in Bilbao, seems to be positive, at least in the first instance. The sort of institution that has been created in Bilbao is only useful as an exhibition space. As much potential as it has, there is no clear political or artistic line. The problem that the Guggenheim has created is the disproportion between the amount of resources invested in it and its function as an exhibition space. If the Guggenheim continues like this, it will be the biggest and most expensive infrastructure of its kind. There is no sense to it; it really needs its own artistic direction, because at present it is just the exhibition gallery for a museum that is actually in New York.”

María Corral

director, fundació “la caixa”, barcelona; formerly director, reina sofía, madrid

“I think it is a marvellous building, splendid, especially given its setting in the city. It is one of the most beautiful sculptures that I have seen. I would prefer not to dwell on the interior because I don’t have much good to say about that. I think the overall impact has been very important, not only for Bilbao but for the rest of Spain, because people who are attracted to it then visit the cultural sites in Madrid or Barcelona. It is entirely a subsidiary of the New York Guggenheim and after one year of being fully functional, it must now name an artistic director with the power to make decisions. The Bilbao Guggenheim operation has not been cultural, but political.”

Francisco Calvo Serraller

professor, university la complutense, madrid; art critic; formerly director, museo del prado, madrid

“It is a museum without contents. What worries me is how museums aim to create an urban spectacle, rather than exhibit works of art. One must not fetishise the Guggenheim: it is the result of the idea that museums have to be entertaining, that the building has to be a fairground attraction, a trend that has been increasingly evident over the last twenty years. The building is a curiosity, but does not enhance the art it houses. It tries to be a total work of art and overwhelms the works inside.”

Juan Ignacio Vidarte

director general of bilbao guggenheim

“This year has seen its consolidation as one of the principle centres of modern and contemporary art in Europe. It has had a great impact and a great number of visitors, exceeding initial expectations. As for its artistic direction, this all comes down to the director of the Foundation, Thomas Krens. Bilbao will have its own director of activities, whom we have yet to find. As part of an organisation, the museum has to be coordinated with New York; it would be absurd to take antagonistic paths.

With a few exceptions, the Bilbao collection is basically the same as in October 1997. Future acquisitions will depend on the capacity and willingness of the Basque institutions” [the Basque government and the Diputación de Vizcaya].


Number of visitors


October (19-31) 39,878

November 105,531

December 113,825


January 80,599

February 82,558

March 101,884

April 120,041

May 116,112

June 84,896

July 118,792

August 175,742

Total 1997/98 1,139,858


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