Bilbao Treatment for Baku?

Thomas Krens has plans for Azerbaijan.

A golden structure by a Pritzker Prize-winning architect that glistens by day with reflections of water rippling on the bay and shimmers with dramatic illumination at night. Galleries showcasing the achievements of the region’s most talented creators. A restaurant with a view of medieval balconies and other historic architecture in a city that has been for centuries a crossroads of cultures.

This is the concept for the future museum of contemporary art in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, as designed by Jean Nouvel, approved by the government of President Ilham Aliyev, and being shepherded toward realization by Thomas Krens, the former Guggenheim director who is crisscrossing the globe in search of new projects as head of the consulting firm he created, Global Cultural Asset Management (GCAM).

If and when the project, which is still under development, comes to fruition, Azerbaijan will be the latest country, and the first in Eurasia, to adapt the strategy Krens pioneered so successfully in Bilbao—creating an art-filled architectural icon that attracts international prestige to a place better known in the media for other things, in this case oil wealth and repressive government. It will also represent the first post-Guggenheim triumph for Krens, who continues to work with the institution, under the title of Senior Advisor for International Affairs, as a consultant for the branch being built in Abu Dhabi.

GCAM, which is registered in Britain and housed in downtown Manhattan, is primarily devoted to “Museum construction, operation, management, collection building & art investment funds,” according to an online profile posted by its vice president of international development, Nicolas Iljine, who previously worked in corporate development at the Guggenheim. Its team also includes several other former Guggenheim staffers, as well as curators, economic consultants, market analysts, and architects.

The contemporary-art museum is one of several museum projects that Aliyev initiated with a decree several years ago, among them a museum of independence, a museum of oil, and the renovations of the carpet and visual-arts museums—all with the backing of First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva. The decree stipulated a “new approach” to the activities of national museums according to “international standards” of museum practice, as well as to “Azerbaijan national ideology.”

Krens referred requests for comment to Robert McGarry, project coordinator in GCAM’s architecture and design department. In April of last year, McGarry wrote in an e-mail, Aliyev and Krens met in Baku to discuss plans for “a new museum of the scale and caliber of the Guggenheim Bilbao,” with the ambition of making the city “a principal destination for cultural tourism.” Krens later returned to the city with Nouvel to present the “concept design,” which was developed in coordination with various local officials, including the president of the Union of Artists. Azerbaijan’s government is reviewing the Concept Development Study, McGarry wrote in the e-mail.

Krens’s vision for Baku also includes a master plan for the city by the architecture firm Asymptote, one of whose principals, Hani Rashid, has Twittered several reports from his Azerbaijan visits.

Krens told Elena Siyanko in an interview reprinted on the blog Agitarch that, like Lithuania—whose representatives approached him, resulting in the development of a museum project designed by Zaha Hadid for Vilnius—Baku was originally not on his radar. He had been in the vicinity often, however; he has visited Russia about 120 times and has considered at least 20 different locations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg for a potential Kunsthalle, he said.

“You do need some sort of stable and visionary context where the leadership that can make the funding available recognizes this as a strategic priority,” he commented. So when Azerbaijan’s representatives were persistent, he claimed, he felt compelled to investigate. “These people now have the means for the first time to enter the developed world because they have oil resources that are rather astounding,” he told Siyanko. Indeed, Nouvel’s office confirmed, the museum’s design will feature symbols making reference to oil.

Though Azerbaijani officials had not responded to requests for comment at press time, sources said that the costs of the projects, along with other key details, were not yet in place.

As to where GCAM will go next, a request for interns posted on the Web site of the New York Foundation for the Arts might hold a clue: it requests proficiency in Arabic, Asian languages, Spanish, and Russian. According to McGarry, GCAM has been speaking with representatives of Kazakhstan and Libya.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. Additional reporting by Konstantin Akinsha.

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