The big success on which all this bluster is based is, of course, the Guggenheim Bilbao. That building does work, but only economically, as a tourist attraction, as a source of civic pride, and a leverage tool for Krens. It looks like a shiny, undulating amusement-park ride from the outside. It’s great. The inside, however, is so oversize and jazzy that it is awful for art (except that of the artist who inspired much of Gehry’s thinking, Richard Serra). Krens and Gehry, great as they are as a team, should not build museums together—not in Abu Dhabi, not anywhere. They should be given the contract to build every Wal-Mart in America. That would change the way American architecture looks and the way Americans look at architecture. Krens and Gehry would be heroes. America would be lucky.
In the late eighties, when he took over, Krens did some good. He brought the Guggenheim into the present after it had drifted for years. He sold some of the collection but was behind numerous important acquisitions, including the great Panza collection. Then he saw something before others. He understood that culture was going to be big business and that institutions like his could be franchised. He dreamed of shining museums on hills, and tried to build them. That was the beginning of the end.
Krens broke faith with art long ago. Now he crows about meeting with “business moguls, governors, [and] mayors,” and boasts, “In the last three years, more than 130 cities have made an initial inquiry into doing something like Bilbao.” His traveling lecture is called “Developing the Guggenheim Into a Global Brand.” But under Krens the Guggenheim brand has been not art or exhibitions or even the collection but Building Buildings. And even that was a lie—they were all Coming Soon, and in reality every one was Coming Soon But Never Comes.
Though I love the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright mother ship on Fifth Avenue, one thing this museum has needed for years has been more wide-open, non-spiraling space in New York. Krens did open a Soho branch in 1992, but it folded in 2001. (In a nice bit of symbolism, the building now holds a slick Prada store.) He also tried to have Gehry build a behemoth near the Seaport, but that never worked out either. Then he switched back to his international aspirations. Thus, Krens’s world adventures aren’t just silly, sad, misspent, and maddening; they’re tragic. Imagine if, instead of squandering the Guggenheim’s good name, and rather than pouring time and money into showy boondoggles around the globe, Krens had secured a large space somewhere in New York City, and created something like what the Tate did in London—a sort of Guggenheim Modern for rotating shows and space for the permanent collection.
In his heyday, Krens was the one American museum director with the hubris, clout, and drive to pull something like this off. His dictatorial power accomplished some good things, but at far too high a price. By now his so-called vision can be seen for what it is: a ruse masquerading as a wow. The only thing Krens did was mix Museum Mile with Broadway. Dreaming of blockbusters, he created palaces and high-concept productions dependent on one-time, out-of-town visitors. Krens accessorized the museum’s shell, but he neglected and betrayed art. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is just more of the same but on a grander scale. Krens ushered in the ill-begotten era of constructing glitzy trophy museums and then simply filling them with art. He and the ideology came in with Reagan; they should go out with Bush. It is time for the trustees and excellent curators of the beloved Guggenheim to complete the process they seemed to be initiating so admirably before Dennison’s ill-timed and egregious abdication, and together take back the rotunda and get rid of Krens.