On the last day of July, the art world awoke to a disturbance in the Force. The New York Times announced that Lisa Dennison, the director of the Guggenheim Museum since only 2005, would be leaving to become executive vice-president for Sotheby’s North America. Dennison wasn’t the best director around; she may have been only a puppet. But she was capably playing the role of Gerald Ford to this troubled institution, helping to bring the Guggenheim back from its seventeen-year nightmare under the reign of Thomas Krens. This self-styled shah of culture and franchising has been described as “cold, distracted, and rarely on hand.” I would add reckless, destructive, myopic, and misguided.
Since Krens took over in 1988, the air around art at the Guggenheim has been distorted and toxic. Yet since he left his directorship in 2005 to run the Guggenheim Foundation, which oversees all five museums (New York, Venice, Berlin, Bilbao, Las Vegas), the institution has shown auspicious signs of actually putting his tenure behind it. Under Dennison, the specialized but scintillating collection of early-twentieth-century art was intelligently reinstalled so that batches of excellent women and lesser-known artists are featured alongside the big guns. Very good contemporary exhibitions have taken place, most recently this summer’s smart show of recent acquisitions and art from the permanent collection. Curated by Kevin Lotery, Ted Mann, and Nat Trotman (under the supervision of Nancy Spector), this sampler was loaded with serendipitous juxtapositions, and showed the Guggenheim shunning spectacle and stressing art again. The soon-to-open Richard Prince survey could be really good, and this winter’s Cai Guo-Qiang retrospective, as well as other exhibits in the works, are all good signs.
But something rotten is brewing. Krens has been up to his corrosive old tricks again. With breathtakingly bad timing last year, just days before Israel and Lebanon exploded into war, Krens announced that the Guggenheim would build a 300,000-square-foot edifice designed by architect Frank Gehry, on a spit of land called Saadiyat—Arabic for “Isle of Happiness”—in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. The Emirates also has plans to build a branch of the Louvre designed by Jean Nouvel, a maritime museum by Tadao Ando, and a performing-arts center by Zaha Hadid. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, dubbed “GuggAbu” last year by arts blogger Tyler Green, will sit atop a slender peninsula jutting into the Persian Gulf. The building is to be completed by 2011 at a cost estimated to be between $200 million and $400 million. Slated for construction nearby are dozens of luxury hotels, three marinas, two golf courses, high-end apartments, and fancy villas. Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan says this $27 billion Sodom-plus-Vegas on the Persian Gulf is expected to draw 3 million tourists a year by 2015 and will be an “upscale cultural district.”
At the time of the GuggAbu announcement, Gehry hadn’t even begun designing. Calling the building “a rush job,” he opined, “It’s got to be something that will make sense here,” adding, “I know it’s hot. Being situated on the seafront means we might have sandstorms.” He should have added that being situated on this seafront also means it’s possible the whole peninsula will be under water in a hundred years. Perhaps those watching it go under will think that’s where this air-conditioned Xanadu belongs.
Krens notes that the UAE “has the resources” to build this project. He’s certainly right there. Abu Dhabi harbors 9 percent of the world’s known oil reserves and 4 percent of its gas. However, it also harbors something else: a stringent anti-Israel policy. Numerous government sites warn that Israeli passport holders and travelers whose passports bear Israeli stamps will be denied entry visas to the Emirates. Thus, the Guggenheim—founded by a Jewish family, an institution with Jewish curators and scores of works by Jewish artists, designed by the Jewish Gehry—isn’t really welcome either. (Nor are other marginalized groups: Two years ago, a UAE government official said, “Our society does not accept queer behavior either in word or action.” Maybe that means art by queers won’t be welcome in the GuggAbu.) As of July 2006, it was reported that no nudes were to be shown, nor anything deemed “controversial.”
None of this fazes Krens. “This is a minor issue,” he said last year. “Our challenge now is to define the next generation of Guggenheim museums.” Actually, the word next is misleading because there was no earlier generation. Most of those either went belly-up or never materialized, in places like Taiwan, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, and St. Petersburg. The failed plan for Rio called for a tropical rainforest, a 100-foot waterfall, suspension bridges, and a sunken lobby with underwater views of a reflecting pool. Perhaps he’ll announce a Guggenheim Machu Picchu next, or a Guggenheim Great Wall.