Friday, Apr. 24, 2009

Art Czar

Could there be a worse time to take over a museum?
It's a challenging time. I have to agree with people who say that in straitened circumstances, nonmaterialistic values come forward. It seems like people make more time for culture.

How would you define the role of a museum in this climate?
A museum has a lot of different faces. It has to be a place for dreaming, for solace, a place for stimulation. One of its richest capacities is as a socializing site. This is always true, but it is especially true now.

You inherit a museum that has expanded a great deal over the past 20 years.
I think my predecessor Tom Krens quickly sized up the limitations of being at one site in Manhattan and sent the Guggenheim out on a very adventuresome path. The Guggenheim Bilbao was pointing to the future 11 years ago with its notion of culture inside the revitalized city. Now in another part of the world, there is a tabula rasa in Abu Dhabi, and with the participation of the Louvre and others, we have the opportunity to do something again that will be historic and far-reaching.

The Guggenheim has always been a museum with strong intellectual ambitions.
Any art museum worth its salt is making judgments about what's worth pondering over time. There was a forward-looking and modern cast to the museum at its start, and I want to make certain that continues to flourish.

Do such aspirations help entice younger and new audiences?
One of the biggest discoveries of youth is to find out that there's continuity in life and that creative people are connected across time. That's tremendously important for civilization to advance.

Your being situated in Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic building is surely to your advantage.
The Guggenheim has an immediate and demonstrated appeal to younger generations of visitors, and our attendance is surprisingly weighted with people under 40. It's the right size. It's sufficiently impressive. And it has a romantic, quasi-sexual feel to it.

What else distinguishes the strengths of the Guggenheim empire?
Wright designed this building, and Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheims in Bilbao and Abu Dhabi. Our offering opportunity to the most advanced architects of their eras is to me a badge of great distinction and speaks to the confidence and vision of the institution. Add to that the museum's quite exceptional collections and ambitious temporary exhibitions, and it's very likely that even uninitiated people will see something of lasting import to them.

Whom do you see as your key audience?
Any museum that is organized with living culture at its center, as this was and continues to be, must recognize that artists are the first constituency. Nobody looks at what we present more carefully than artists do.

In such a dreadful economy, your donors and other benefactors surely pay very close attention. How generous have they been in recent months?
Until people know the value of their holdings, generosity is in suspension. But I find it heartening that we had record-breaking attendance in 2008.

I assume you'll focus most on the Guggenheim in New York, given that 2009 is its 50th anniversary?
Yes. We want everyone to recognize that this 50- year-old building is fully restored and looks stunning. This year will be one of celebration. Our summer exhibition on Frank Lloyd Wright is about the physical reality of his building, and then our show on the work of Wassily Kandinsky epitomizes the idealism and radicalism behind the museum at its beginning. It's a good time to bring some extra illumination to 1071 Fifth Avenue.