We spoke to Richard Armstrong, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, on the eve of the exhibition Guggenheim Helsinki Now: Six Finalist Designs Unveiled at the Kunsthalle Helsinki (25 April-16 May), which presented the designs for a Nordic satellite shortlisted by an international jury from the 1,715 submissions to an open competition. A winner is due to be announced on 23 June but first Helsinki’s citizens had the chance to have their say about which building and architect deserved to be chosen.
Richard Armstrong: Finland is a very vigorous, highly participatory democracy so we are asking people what they think and they get to vote; the jury will decide, but they want to know what the popular sentiment is. They tried the same method with their future national library and the reactions were very interesting.
The Art Newspaper: So the Guggenheim Helsinki will really happen?
Come June we will say which architect seems best for the job; then there has to be a vote in city council again but also in parliament because this is a national partnership. So there are still a few legislative hurdles ahead, but I would predict yes. It’s irresistible.
Any progress on the Guggenheim building in Abu Dhabi?
There are some footings there from long ago, but there hasn’t been any activity over the last three-and-a-half years. Both the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) and the Tourism and Cultural Authority (TCA) have new confidence; I firmly believe that we shall be getting a contract in the next months, and that will be a new beginning.
Your exhibition Seeing through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection (about how artists from the 1960s onwards have used light in their works) that opened in 2014 was good because it was accessible as an artistic experience but also had a good narrative. And you’ve already acquired quite a collection in Abu Dhabi, so it would be a waste not to have a museum to put it in.
We are very happy with the way the collection is moving along. The works in that show are only a small tip of the iceberg. I agree that it was accessible, enjoyable and also profound. You will have noticed it had a wide range of foci, so you didn’t always feel you were walking through a US or European point of view.
How was it received?
They are telling us that it has been the best attended exhibition so far and we extended it to the end of March, so there was demand for it. When I was there I saw a big reaction from schoolchildren.
Why does your collecting for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi start around 1960?
That’s the moment when things break apart and reorganise themselves; it’s such a formative moment also for the UAE itself—so we are looking at Pop in all its manifestations and moving out from there.
Do you have an idea what proportion of works in the museum will be from the region and what proportion from so-to-speak Western contemporary art?
If we go on as we are going today, more than half will be from the region.
That will be very encouraging for the artists because it will give them benchmarks
It’s a demonstration of the power of Modernism through all parts of the region. It’s so important to see what was happening in Syria and Iraq, certainly also in Iran, which has an enormous artistic community.
Then we have Sara Raza [the new curator for the Middle East and North Africa for the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative], and she is a real intellectual powerhouse.
Do you have committees for the Middle East and Latin America?
Yes, but not on the Tate model; they’re really advisory groups. We have the Middle East circle, with Dana Farouki in the chair, comprising people from Saudi, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Princess Firyal of Jordan, etc. We have been asking them for intellectual advice and they have also been helping us to buy art from the region—but for New York, not for Abu Dhabi.
Have you been working on the design of the Abu Dhabi building while the project has been on hold?
Frank Gehry has been revising it constantly over the last several years. It’s tremendously complex and with every month the expense goes up, and we are trying to hold to a budget, so we have had to adapt it. It’s still quite iconic, but the terraces that were as big as American football fields have gone.
What about the cones?
They are still there; they are what we consider the beauty marks and will require exceptional works of art. They will be the ones that will impress themselves on people’s consciousness.
How many people do you have working on the intellectual side of the project?
Four here, who are frequently in Abu Dhabi—Valerie Hillings, Reem Fadda plus two others—and then three of the senior curators in New York are working part time with us. In Abu Dhabi, there is Maisa Al Qassimi, the museum programmes manager for TCA, and then we take on curatorial interns regularly to transfer the knowledge to them. So there are nine or ten people working on it every day. With the scale of the project, that’s what’s called for—not to mention my opinion on matters.
What are your criteria for choosing exhibitions?
We have two ideas. One is to ease the audience into a close relationship with the eventual collection; the other, to help us clarify what it is that we have put together so that it looks cohesive, both intellectually and by sensibility. We are thinking of another show in which the criteria are to be fair to the scope and achievement of the region and the world. Second, we want to respond in part to Frank’s architecture, which, as you know from Bilbao, is demanding in its scale. It’s the new scale of the world, which Frank saw so presciently.
We have had to seek out some very large works of art that I think will be eye-openers—for example, a very large piece by the Polish artist Monika Sosnowska, that was on view a few years ago in Venice. We’ve also bought a large work by Ai Weiwei, our criterion being always that every purchase must have a global point of view; we’re not just buying famous names.
I’ve had an email from Gulf Labor about conditions for workers on Saadiyat Island, where the museum is being built. It does seem that the report by Human Rights Watch in particular, and possibly also the campaign by Gulf Labor, have made a difference to the way in which the workers live and are paid. How much direct influence do you have on what happens?
I look at it on a regular basis and through Hannah Worrell—Beiruti-born, US educated, with her deep relationship with TDIC—we hear every week about the reforms and changes that are taking place. If you have been out to the workers’ village on Saadiyat Island you will see what has been improved, with access to the internet, to worship, sports grounds and so on.
The latest survey of Price Waterhouse Coopers and Gulf Labor agrees that the problems with how the workers are treated go back to the contracts with the sub-contractors. That is an intergovernmental question—how to influence what happens in India and Bangladesh. Surely the UAE government could lean on them harder?
The International Labour Organization says that they are doing so and are leading the changes. The other missing condition is the right of assembly to express grievances and to strike. These are all questions that come under sovereignty; I feel unequipped to answer them. I can state our position: we are in constant dialogue with TDIC and other intergovernmental agencies. It really is top of my mind.
Would you say that external pressure has been helpful?
Let’s say that progress is difficult for all of us.
What is the main idea behind the Guggenheim in New York today?
I’m very proud of our programme. We have very good curators who produce revelatory exhibitions. We have learned how to work with the Frank Lloyd Wright building. We’ve focused on detailed examinations of key artists and moments of the 20th and 21st centuries, and what we are trying to do is to present information in real depth and broaden people’s awareness of what happened before us and what is going on around us—for example, the Gutai show two years ago and 2014’s Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950-60s exhibition. We have done a spectacular re-examination of On Kawara paired with [Monir Shahroudy] Farmanfarmaian.
What about the Guggenheim’s planned collection centre in New York?
We are very excited at the prospect of reuniting staff currently in three places with works now in many different places, and opening the archive. Then the challenge will be to integrate the community so that we will have a beneficial effect on the neighbours, so we will offer facilities for people to be able to take part.