Putting our heads together: the three Guggenheim directors size up post-Covid challenges

With museums in Bilbao and Venice poised to reopen, while New York remains in lockdown, Richard Armstrong, Juan Ignacio Vidarte and Karole Vail talk about weathering the financial crisis

From left, Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; Karole Vail, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection; and Juan Ignacio Vidarte, director of the Guggenheim Bilbao Armstrong: David Heald, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; Vail: Matteo De Fina, © Peggy Guggenheim Collection; Vidarte: Erika Ede

From left, Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; Karole Vail, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection; and Juan Ignacio Vidarte, director of the Guggenheim Bilbao Armstrong: David Heald, © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; Vail: Matteo De Fina, © Peggy Guggenheim Collection; Vidarte: Erika Ede

After a prolonged shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice are preparing to reopen their doors to the public next week.

The Guggenheim Bilbao reopens on Monday on a seven-day schedule, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection will reopen Tuesday to mark the Festival of the Republic holiday, and will then be open on Saturdays and Sundays. Both museums have adopted safety precautions like requiring visitors to remain a metre apart and to wear face masks. Meanwhile, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York has yet to set an opening date.

We sat down this week for a virtual interview with the directors of all three museums—Richard Armstrong of the Guggenheim in New York, Juan Ignacio Vidarte of the Guggenheim Bilbao and Karole Vail of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection–—bout the strategic challenges they are facing because of the pandemic. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The Art Newspaper: Juan Ignacio, how did the decision to reopen the Guggenheim Bilbao come about, and what led you to conclude that the museum can operate safely?

Juan Ignacio Vidarte: Well, let's put it this way, the normal condition of the museum is to be open, not closed. We closed [in mid-March] because the health situation, according to the authorities who required it in terms of safety for visitors and for staff. But since last week, Bilbao has entered a stage in the health protocol which under certain conditions allows for public spaces to be open. So we agreed with the other cultural institutions in the Basque country that it was a good idea to reopen the museums on 1 June. We thought there was ample time to prepare the different measures that were required for this new situation.

The Guggenheim Bilbao Museum will open on Monday, 1 June © Fundación Museoa Guggenheim Bilbao, 2020/Photo: Erika Ede

And Karole, do you feel any trepidation at all about the Peggy Guggenheim keeping its staff and its visitors safe?

Karole Vail: Obviously there's a little bit of trepidation, but also a lot of excitement. Of course everyone now has to book online–we can't just let anyone in because there are very strict security measures, only a certain amount of people at a time. We have a long waiting list: we have over 300 people who just can't wait to come back. So that also makes us very pleased and that's very encouraging signal.

Does that mean you’ll have timed tickets?

KV: Absolutely. We'll always have timed tickets.

Richard, the Guggenheim in New York seems to be facing a different situation, with most museums in the city seemingly far from ready to reopen amid fear of contagion. What will be the deciding factor for you?

Richard Armstrong: We'll listen to what the governor and mayor say, and the other principal factor in our decision will be our neighbouring institutions: they have good judgment, and we'll observe their protocols. So it will be subsequent to the Met’s [Metropolitan Museum of Art’s] reopening. So that’s the when. The how is being coordinated by a number of art museums in New York, and we'll come up with a standard that I think everyone can obey, but like Bilbao and like Venice, it means many fewer visitors.

The Met says it will reopen in mid-August at the earliest.

RA: We'll be after them.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Has the coronavirus pandemic led to any joint strategising among the three of you, among your museums? How coordinated were you before the crisis versus after when the pandemic started?

RA: I'd be interested to hear my colleagues say, but I think one of our weaknesses previously was New York would talk to Venice, New York would talk to Bilbao and vice versa, but it wasn't always a tripartite conversation. It's become more that way in these circumstances. Is that fair?

KV: Yes, I think that's fair, Richard, and I know we've been developing together educational activities and programmes, and also working with some of the New York and Bilbao curators for our new online activities. And I think that's all very positive because we are after all a constellation, so let's really make it a true collaboration.

RA: By good coincidence, I would say programming between Venice and Bilbao has become stronger probably just of late.

JIV: I would agree that recently, and certainly during these very challenging times, there has been much more intense cooperation specifically in areas like education or digital programming.

So you plan to keep on coordinating after you reopen?

RA: That would be my dream.

JIV: I think that's probably one of the good effects of this situation.

RA: In this case in particular, New York will learn a lot about hygienic protocols based on their experience in Spain and Italy. So, it will be tremendously helpful.

Do you plan to adopt similar safeguards, Richard, or are you going to model your safety approach after US museums?

RA: We'll probably be more conforming to what goes on in the US, but there are things that we'll learn from visitors both to Venice and to Bilbao. Each of the buildings has its own character. So questions of circulation are very specific to the structure.

JIV: I guess there are issues that we're all concerned about and we are all trying to address like what type of health measures you need to protect visitors at the start of the museum, at the entrance, how to make sure that there is as little physical interaction as possible between visitors and objects at the museum, how to reduce the capacity of the museum and make sure that visitors inside the museum have ample space and can observe the social distancing measures that are prescribed. For example, we are not only going to be having to restrict access in general terms and in hourly terms to the museum, but also in certain cases, in certain works, in certain galleries, so there are even fewer visitors at those specific spaces at one single moment.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

KV: Our spaces are so much smaller than in Bilbao or New York, but we will reopen, at least at first, only the palazzo and the adjoining building, and we'll only be opening over the weekends. So it's going to be a very slim start on every front. And the main thing of course is everyone's safety.

JIV: Certainly we are seeing June as kind of a testing month. I think it's similar in Venice, opening the museum with the expectation that the audience during these first few weeks is going to be mostly local. Specifically right now in Spain, there are restrictions on the movement of people between provinces. At least the first weeks after we reopen, the potential audience will be coming only from Bilbao and the metropolitan area.

KV: Some of our regions will be opening up very slowly, but there's also some controversy because the north has been so badly affected compared with the south of Italy. And so everyone is being very cautious and very aware of potential danger and of course of a second wave.

In the longer term, it seems that this is also an overriding challenge for all three of you: that your museums have always been highly dependent on tourists, who have largely vanished and will continue to stay away for a while. I know that the Guggenheim Bilbao for example, had over a million visitors last year. I've read that 70% of them were tourists–is that correct?

JIV: Well, 70% were coming from outside Spain. You could say, over 70%, even more if you consider visitors coming from outside the Basque region in Spain—we are certainly dependent on that. And that's the reason why we are foreseeing that this year our visitors will decrease significantly.

And the same is true in Venice.

KV: Yes, absolutely. We rely very heavily on tourism and foreign tourism. So that is why we're going to focus efforts on luring Italians and Venetians and Italians from nearby regions. We want them to discover Venice of course, which I think many are keen to discover. We just have to encourage them to come to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

So you'll be reaching out to the Veneto?

KV: More than ever. Not that we weren't doing it before, but this will certainly be our focus in the next few months.

JIV: We have a little bit of hope, not much, but a little bit of hope for some European tourism, not initially but throughout the summer. We hope that visitors from different countries in Europe like France or Germany will come to the museum, only not in the same numbers as we had last year or the years before.

RA: Remember that his museum is the one that's most accommodating to people who drive automobiles. Neither Karole nor I really have that capacity, so we're dependent on airline and railroad travellers, whereas he's less dependent on that in a wonderful way.

KV: We're dependent on train passengers and we do have a train station almost in the heart of Venice and people do take trains in Italy and in the Veneto. And there's also a pretty good bus system.

JIV: You have to remember that in Bilbao, around 20% of our visitors in a normal year come from France. And many of those come by car. Bilbao is just an hour’s drive away from France.

When we open next Tuesday, we're actually offering free entry to all visitors and it's been booked out for days and days
Karole Vail, director of the Guggenheim Collection, Venice

And have each of you taken steps to drum up visitors, to encourage them? Are you reaching out in some way?

KV: When we open next Tuesday, we're actually offering free entry to all visitors and it's been booked out for days and days and days and as I was saying, we have a very long waiting list. I think people at least in Italy know that we are reopening and there's lots of excitement about it. But word is certainly out there. The Accademia in Venice has just reopened. So people know that museums are opening up and are very keen to come to museums which is also very positive.

JIV: Throughout June, we are planning on a campaign very much focused on the more local visitor. With the price of the ticket, you become a friend of the museum throughout the summer. So you have like three months of membership. We have a group of over 26,000 friends mostly living in the neighbourhood or close to Bilbao.

KV: We're offering a 20% discount on our membership right now. So we're trying to do everything we can to really entice the locals.

And how important in general is admissions to your bottom line financially?

KV: Very important.

RA: I think in all three cases, quite critical.

KV: That includes also our shop sales, because we have two shops linked to the museum and they also do very well during museum hours. So yeah, that's extremely critical.

What percentage of your revenue comes from visitors–tickets, retail shops, restaurants?

RA: 36%, 37%.

KV: Yes.

Richard Artschwager Door } (1983-84) Photo: Annette Kradisch © Estate of Richard Artschwager, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2020

So how do each of you plan to weather this crisis?

JIV: Certainly it's going to be a tough year because of the sudden loss of revenue connected with visitors. We are already undergoing a stringent plan of cost reduction to accommodate that. It's partially affecting the programme: we are extending the current exhibition programme that we had when we closed in March. We have four exhibitions that were mostly open in the month prior to the closure so we’ll have William Kentridge: 7 Fragments on view. We have Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life, we have the retrospective of Richard Artschwager, which was the last project of [the curator and art historian] Germano Celant, who sadly passed away in this crisis, and we have the Lygia Clark exhibition, which also opened just a few days before our closure. So we are planning to extend those exhibitions through the summer. And then in the fall, we will be opening two exhibitions; we were originally intending to have four. So that will save some money.

Then we are doing some also painful cuts in planned expenses, projects that we had foreseen for this year which we will be cancelling. We have some also cost reductions that are affecting the payroll. We're not furloughing any staff members, but we are having some salary sacrifices. So all in all, we are trying to cope with this situation for this year. Next year, well, we'll see. I think there is a lot of uncertainty about the length of this health crisis and how deep the economic crisis that goes after it will be. So next year we'll probably also have a reduced budget, but we hope we can still maintain the main pillars of the programme. Probably fewer exhibitions than what we were expecting.

Does each of you expect an operating deficit for this year?

RA: Oh yeah. I will.

JIV: Yes.

Do you know what the dimensions of it are?

RA: Let's say historic. I think we're seeing in New York, in the neighbourhood of $10m. [The New York Guggenheim’s annual budget is around $60m.] Karole, you won't really have a deficit, will you?

KV: Well maybe not because as you know, we're cutting back on expenses dramatically, we're reducing, cancelling or postponing exhibitions, and we've had temporary layoffs, which has helped cash flow. We'll have extremely little income, but we're able to rely on some of our funds which can be used for a rainy day so to speak, but you have to try and save those as much as possible for any future disasters. I had various plans for doing some work to the garden, but we can only take care of basic maintenance. I really cut everything to a minimum. And certainly it's going to be difficult without our visitors, without the shop sales and also our special events, because we also rely on income from special events at the museum.

JIV: If our projections in terms of reduced revenue are correct, we hope we can finish the year without a deficit by reducing expenses. But that will depend on this very unknown factor for all of us right now, the reduction in visitors. So we have this plan that we are basically planning for a very slow summer but with a gradual recovery in the fall. Let's say, I think we are planning on having between 10-15%, 20% [of normal visitor numbers] through the summer and then 45-50% in the fall.

Bilbao seems to rely heavily on public subsidies from the government. Do you expect that funding to seriously decline?

JIV: Well we have about 30% of our operating budget coming from public subsidies. We are counting on that for this year. Next year is still too soon to say, if that number will hold or not. But we are hoping that that number will be maintained.

And what do each of you expect to happen with corporate sponsorship?

RA: I think in New York, we're imagining it'll be relatively stable.


RA: Yeah. The number that we've talked about is a 20% reduction but only for a while.

JIV: In our case we have a fairly strong corporate membership. We hope it will be fairly stable. We have around 120, 130 corporate members, different categories. The upper categories, there it usually means they're more stable, long-term support. Those we expect to hold quite steady. The lower categories, probably what we are expecting is that there won't be many new members coming in; we hope it’s a little bit of reduction but not major.

I think we might all have been in a bit of a competitive fantasy about ever-growing visitor numbers. And the momentum from that fantasy will certainly die off and we'll see what kinds of alternatives there might be.
Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Do you think business models for museums in general across the globe are decisively changing in response to the pandemic?

RA: Well, I think, let's say it exposes some weaknesses in our dependency on transience. It will force us to be more attentive to repeat visitors, yes. And then I think we might all have been—in New York, less so in Europe—in a bit of a, I don't know, competitive fantasy about ever-growing visitor numbers. And the momentum from that fantasy will certainly die off and we'll see what kinds of alternatives there might be.

How many years do you expect the drop in visitors to last?

RA: Well, I'm not a very good predictor, but as a human I would say I may be inhibited about travelling until there's a vaccine.

KV: I think we have a very special museum in Venice and in Italy. It's arguably the best museum of Modern art in Italy. And it's a very special place for many reasons. Not only for the quality of the collection but because it's in Venice, because it's in an unusual building, because of its beautiful garden, and also because of the myth and legend of Peggy Guggenheim. So all this together is I think what really helps make us strong and make us a venue that tourists will hopefully want to come back to more and more often, especially Venetians and Italians.

JIV: I think we're still right in the middle of a very unpredictable and unknown situation. This is probably the worst moment to make predictions about the future—at least I will be very humble about that, because if you read predictions of what was happening after 9/11, for example, there were going to be no more high rises in the world because high rises, of course, are such an obvious target. Well, we have seen more high rises. So I think we are still too close to the action right now and that's not to say that of course things are not going to change, they are, but I don't think we can be very sure about what's exactly going to change.

My sense is that people will want to keep travelling, will want to keep going to beautiful places, will want to keep going to spaces which offer a unique cultural experience. I think that's not going to change. Of course, many things would have to happen, and of course the health problem that originated this crisis will need to be solved somehow with a vaccine, with treatments. Once that happens, I think there will be a recovery of many of the activities that we were doing before. I think we're social animals and I think it's going to be, yes, we have been enclosed for three months but that doesn't mean we like that. So I'm not so pessimistic, I'm not so apocalyptic about the future. I don't have the time frame for this. I don't know if this will be three months, six months, a year, but it will come back, I think.

KV: And I think we have to remain optimistic while being cautious and realistic. But as I think Richard will agree with me, I think we believe very much in the regenerative power of art. People can come and find a moment of peace, of solace, of inspiration after these terrible months, which we all know are not over yet, but at least we hope that we can give them something by reopening.

The digital needs to be complementary to the physical experience you have in the museum… It was the only way we have been able to [be in] contact with our audiences and with the world. It's been I think very effective and certainly it's one of those windows or doors that once open you cannot close.
Juan Ignacio Vidarte, director of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

You’ve all expanded your offerings at your websites, and that seems to have been somewhat successful. Will you continue to push for digital initiatives, or do you see that just as a temporary exercise?

KV: I don't think it's temporary.

RA: I think people are recognising that the complementary power of the private portable access through the phone or computer is so important that in New York at least we'll be investing more time and effort into maintaining that online presence in a bigger way.

KV: Yes, I think we would like to do the same as well. I think that it's inevitable. I think it's important, but as Richard says, it's complementary.

JIV: I think the boundary between the physical experience and the digital experience is being somehow blurred during these moments of confinement and of lockdown because we have all the time being somehow simultaneously doing things with the help of digital tools and screens, and I think this is going to continue… But I also think that it's important to make the right decisions because each institution, it doesn't mean that everything digital is good and everything physical is bad. I think as Karole was saying, digital needs to be complementary to the physical experience you have in the museum… It was the only way we have been able to [be in] contact with our audiences and with the world. It's been I think very effective and certainly it's one of those windows or doors that once open you cannot close.

KV: Our members have been so thrilled and grateful for the online classes we've been doing, the conversations. It's been actually a way also to start recruiting new members, and it's been very positive. I've had so many messages of gratitude and so many thank yous saying ‘This is so nice, we feel we're together, we feel we're family.’ So we certainly can't go back, we have to move forward in this direction.

A broader question: Do you think that we've come to the end of the era of global museum expansion, and will see the end of the so-called Bilbao effect, in which local economies were revitalised through the construction of dazzling museums that drew visitors from far and wide? Some people are arguing that cultural tourism is going to become unsustainable because of climate change and the fossil fuel emissions associated with travel, not to mention the effects of Covid-19 and the cost challenges of major capital projects.

JIV: I think that's a shortsighted view. I don't think tourism is going to disappear. I'm sure and I have confidence that we will be finding ways to move, to travel, to see other places in ways that are more sustainable. I could be wrong, but I hope the world doesn't become more isolated and more inward-looking.. Of course we are all concerned about climate change, and many things will have to change in order to be more responsive to that very critical situation. But I don't see us going back to a situation where people would not travel outside their home cities in their lifetime.

Richard, can you tell us how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the timetable for building the new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi? What does that look like at this point?

RA: I think, and Juan Ignacio knows quite a lot about this as well because he's been overseeing the project, the effect isn't completely clear to us and neither is the start gate for the construction.

Has financing from the emirate in any way dried up?

RA: That's not my impression. No.

JIV: There hasn't been any alteration or change in the plans for what we know right now.

I was wondering if, with a decline in income or in certain contributions, do you expect to be making fewer acquisitions in the near future?

RA: Well I think we've decided not to use acquisitions money over the next short term and we've asked the donors to redirect to operations, and all donors have agreed to that. So for the moment, at least until the autumn, we won't be adding to the collection except through gifts.

And are financial constraints going to hamper the Bilbao in seeking a second site? I know there was talk of a satellite for some time.

JIV: Well that's still part of our strategic plan. I'm sure this economic context is not going to make it easy for that to happen in the very short term. We still have it; in our plan we have developed that the vision for that expansion, I cannot say anything certain right now. I wouldn't take it out of the picture for the future.

And amid this financial downturn, do you expect more generally that the Guggenheim’s global expansionist ethos will endure?

RA: I think as long as the world wants us, we'll consider it. But I've often said in interviews previously when people ask where the next Guggenheim might be, I've said facetiously, how about Mars? I think, not to be obscure, we don't have any plans for new institutions.

I'm also wondering about future exhibition planning. Given the new financial constraints that museums are facing, do you anticipate that ambitious, internationally organised shows with loans from all over will be fewer in number or dry up altogether?

RA: I'll be anxious to hear what Karole and Juan Ignacio say, but I would say that'll be a short-term effect. There will be probably fewer of them and they'll be geographically slightly less ambitious. But I think that'll be a temporary hold-back.

KV: As a former curator, I know about the excitement of finding and looking for works which may be located all over the place and then trying to bring them into one space for an exhibition. But I'm also extremely conscious now, and all the more so now that I'm here in Venice and taking care of this museum, that we have to be careful of our footprint and that on my end, we're going to have to reduce exhibitions at least for the next couple of years. And hopefully we'll go back to a more regular pattern of several, two or three exhibitions a year. But I think they might have to be more local, which could be less exciting for a curator. On the other hand it could present also an interesting intellectual challenge.

JIV: I have a less pessimistic view. If you're talking about short term, that's for sure, because we are going to be living in a situation where there are restrictions on the movement of people, there's obviously much less tourism, much less communication. And in addition we are going to be going through an economic crisis in the next few months and probably years, a couple of years. So I think in that horizon, yes because if there are no resources, economic resources, it's very difficult to mount ambitious large exhibitions. But I think as we move out of that model, I don't see any reasons why that model should not be maintained.

KV: I'm sure there must be a way of putting on exhibitions in a more sustainable way. We know how expensive it is to transport the works, the insurance.

Installation View: Countryside, The Future Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

In the near term, what will happen to your installed temporary exhibitions? Will the show in New York, Rem Koolhaas’s Countryside, the Future, which explores the unrecognised potential of rural areas, continue?

RA: It will go through next springtime. It's going to be refreshed and added to and made applicable to our most recent experience, and we're going to claim that it was highly prescient. But it’s important to talk about the exhibition that was meant to open in March, Pollock's Mural for Peggy [Guggenheim]'s apartment in New York. That very overscaled and important painting will be back in New York for the first time in more than 20 years, and we'll juxtapose that around the corner with a series of sculptures, beginning with Richard Serra's Belts, that we claim would have some inspiration out of Pollock's gesturalism. So that'll be an important new addition to the programme when we reopen. And that will be on view for a considerable amount of time also.

KV: Unfortunately we're not able to host the Lygia Clark exhibition which is now on view in Bilbao. But in October, we're planning to hold an Edmondo Bacci exhibition–he’s a Venetian artist who hasn’t had a retrospective for maybe 30 years and we thought that was an important signal to send to Venice: an Italian artist, a Venetian artist, a local artist. But next year we only have one exhibition and the year after that as well. So instead of three exhibitions a year, we're planning on one exhibition a year for at least the next two years.

JIV: We will have to cancel two exhibitions that we were foreseeing for the summer and fall programme. In the fall we are still planning to open the Lee Krasner exhibition that started in London and then the Kandinsky exhibition with works from the collection in New York at the end of the year. And for next year we are planning to reduce the number of exhibitions, but we are still planning to have three or four, some of them large-scale. We're working on an exhibition with the Pompidou on women and abstraction for the end of next year. And an exhibition that we were planning to have at the museum in the fall, The Roaring Twenties, we are planning to postpone until next year. So it's a basically a reduced programme but still with three or four major exhibitions.

KV: And next year we are still planning our Surrealism and Magic exhibition, which is particularly important for us because of important holdings of Surrealist art in the collection. That's going to be a very important project for us and for scholarship generally speaking in the area of Surrealism.

RA: In New York, we'll receive back the Kandinsky show from Bilbao and re-present that in New York 15 months from now approximately.

Maybe I could wrap up by asking you about the role that art can play, that museums can play, at a time when so many people are living in fear and have been isolated from one another.

RA: As Karole said earlier, we share this original motivation of Mr Guggenheim's and Hilla Rebay saying that in contemplation of art, we can change our behaviour. This [the pandemic] has been an imposition on us, but I think that notion that art can sustain, confuse, inspire and reconnect us to one another is probably more powerful than ever.

JIV: Yeah.

KV: Agreed.