Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Krens the Great

ObWi readers may recall that lately I've been obsessed with the life of Alexander the Great, reading every biography of him I can lay my hands on. And I'm looking forward to seeing this exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center. As cold-blooded conquerors go, Alexander was a hottie (see this image of Ghengis Khan for comparison). But his monomaniacal quest for glory saw Alexander lose his way, dragging his increasingly opportunistic and foreign forces around the known world, simply because it was there and he wanted it. None of the Greek idealists who set out with him on his conquest would recognize their leader (let alone his vision) by the end of his life.

I couldn't help but think of the Macedonian emperor when I read the story in today's NYTimes about Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens' imperialist designs. Despite the growing criticism and high-profile resignations, Krens keeps pushing further into exotic territory (with plans for possible Guggenheim satellites in Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong, and Guadalajara) and bringing on board members who share his hunger for expansion:

Today's board is driven by leading members of New York's real estate world who share Mr. Krens's dreams of empire building. Besides [new chairman, William L. Mack, a real estate developer], one of five trustees who joined the board two years ago, they include Stephen M. Ross, founder and chief executive of the Related Companies, and Robert C. Baker, the chairman and chief executive of Purchase, a New York-based national realty and development corporation. [President, Jennifer Stockman] is president of Stockman & Associates, consultants specializing in technology.

Just like Alexander though, whose empire collapsed with a stunning expediency after his passing because he had too few true believers in key positions and had spread them too far apart, Krens is possibly building a global network of museums no one will be interested in defending after they're constructed (no true believers in Peggy's original vision, anyway).

But some board members - a defeated minority who decline to be quoted but say they believe the success of these satellites are exceptions - argue that the Guggenheim has no business trying to spread its name any further when there is so much work to be done at home.
Unlike Alexander who was known to murder his critics, Krens will nonviolently argue why he thinks his are wrong:

Mr. Krens defends himself against accusations of overspending and neglecting acquisitions and programming. He will probably be forever haunted by the critical ridicule of shows like "The Art of the Motorcycle," in 1998, and "Giorgio Armani," in 2000, even though they drew enthusiastic crowds.

"These perceptions are hard to dislodge," Mr. Krens said one morning, sipping an espresso in the lobby of the Mercer hotel in SoHo. He rattled off several historic exhibitions that rank among the 10 best-attended shows in the Guggenheim's history: "Africa: The Art of a Continent," in 1996; "China: 5,000 Years," in 1998, "Brazil: Body & Soul," in 2001; and "The Aztec Empire," which closed in February. He named some major retrospectives: those of Claes Oldenburg, Mr. Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Roni Horn and Matthew Barney.

Of course, one could point to mistakes (but no one could ignore the accomplishments) of Alexander during his lifetime, too. He always found a way. He was unstoppable. The problem with Krens, as with the Macedonian, is that he's building an army of imperialists, not true believer philanthropists. It doesn't seem likely that once he is gone the empire will continue to serve Peggy's vision.


Anonymous LA Artist said...

In a capitalist culture, bigger is always better. Bigger profits require bigger audiences require bigger structures. Bigger in art is all too often comparable to bigger in fruits and vegetables - less flavor.

4/27/2005 07:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Jay C said...

Interesting piece, Edward (and congrats on the new blog). FWIW, I think Thomas Krens is onto something here - although the museum world being what it is, the fundamentals (i.e., roping in ego-driven moguls and tourism-happy municipalities to finance and maintain a chain of Guggenheims worldwide) will probably not go deeply examined - except by the occasional intrepid blogger. Unless, of course, the whole mess collapses: but that's another story...
I think your "Alexandrian" simile is apt: except that Krens seems to making sure, from the get-go that he finds the right "Ptolemy" here, or the right "Seleucus" there to keep the franchise going on into the future, even if he isn't around to see it.

4/27/2005 08:37:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I think your "Alexandrian" simile is apt: except that Krens seems to making sure, from the get-go that he finds the right "Ptolemy" here, or the right "Seleucus" there to keep the franchise going on into the future, even if he isn't around to see it.

Hmmm, I wonder.

Krens himself is resonpsible for the Armani and motorcycle fiascos...and the home team is disgruntled, so it's gonna get harder and harder for him to attract quality curators who can deliver the blockbusters his empire will require. I think he's heading for a quick dissolving, or "Guggenheim" will soon be thought of much the same as we think of "Disney."

4/28/2005 09:16:00 AM  

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