Richard Armstrong is an urbane man with wide-ranging tastes. He likes 19th-century music, especially Schubert. He is reading a new translation of War and Peace. He is very interested in architecture and urban planning, and particularly admires the verdant texture Frederick Law Olmsted gave Buffalo. What are his favorite cities? “Venice, Bilbao, and Berlin,” he recites.
There is a touch of mischief in his words, because those, of course, are the cities housing satellites of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, whose helm he officially assumes on the 4th of this month. Armstrong, 59, is a former curator of the Whitney Museum in New York and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where he served for 12 years as director. His hiring, like that of Thomas Campbell as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was widely seen as a statement by both boards in favor of tradition—the curator, rather than the showman or business-school whiz, as director.
The board’s choice of Armstrong, a longtime museum professional known as friendly, low-key, and irreverent, also represented a shift in tone after two decades of the sometimes rocky tenure of Thomas Krens. Armstrong “is a magnanimous leader; he inspires, he gets the best out of people,” says board president Jennifer Blei Stockman, who led the search committee with board chair William L. Mack. “He has a great sense of humor, which is welcome.”
Armstrong says his main role will be to act as the “ally and enabler of curators. It’s a people job. You can liken it to an old-fashioned switchboard operator: to make sure the audience, the donors, the public feel recognized, heard, and intimately involved in the museum’s intellectual growth.”
Stockman insists, however, that the selection of Armstrong should be seen not as a repudiation of Krens’s agenda but as a recalibration of how it is to be achieved. “We wouldn’t have hired someone who didn’t buy into the global strategy,” she says. “That’s who we are.” But the vision now is of a kinder, gentler globalism, focused not so much on building multimillion-dollar megastructures by starchitects as on forging alliances. The Guggenheim already has an Asian-art department; its senior curator, Alexandra Munroe, is working on a show opening early next year called “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 to 1989.” A museum delegation recently visited India—but not to discuss a satellite, Stockman stresses. “It’s not always brick-and-mortar,” she says. “If you are a global institution, you have to have tentacles that reach important centers of art. Those centers are shifting.” The most recent strategic plan advocated hiring a curator of Latin American art.
How to manage, maintain, and expand the global identity of the Guggenheim has been a source of controversy within and outside the museum throughout Krens’s tenure, which included failed efforts to build Guggenheims in Taiwan, Mexico, Hong Kong, Brazil, Austria, and downtown Manhattan. But the conflict was thrown into sharp relief after a showdown three years ago between Krens and Peter B. Lewis, then head of the board and the biggest donor in the institution’s history, who wanted to focus on the New York flagship. To the surprise of many observers, Krens won the support of a majority of the trustees, and Lewis stepped down. At that point, says Stockman, some soul-searching was in order.
“We went through a detailed strategic plan for over a year,” she says. “The board, the staff, everybody agreed that we are a global institution. We really assessed just what the Guggenheim’s identity was and should be in the future, and then how to proceed. We supported the idea of having some kind of presence in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, in the future. We knew we couldn’t do it all at once.”
Soon after, Krens became head of the foundation, and longtime curator Lisa Dennison took on the newly created position of director of the Guggenheim New York. When Dennison resigned last year to join Sotheby’s, it was her job that trustees sought to fill. But that plan was scrapped several months later, and the committee began looking for someone to run the whole foundation as well as the museum. Word spread in the art world that candidates feared not being able to run their own show if they were reporting to Krens.
Stockman says the move was a practical one. “Part of the reason why we asked Lisa to become our New York museum director was because we felt we needed to focus on New York,” she says. “That structure seemed to make sense then. However, it has always made sense to have the two jobs combined. The New York museum has the collection; it’s where all the programming comes from, where the curators and scholarship come from. We determined that the best structure was to have the foundation director be the museum director.”
Krens, who announced in February that he would step down as director, is still on the scene, as a consultant to the Guggenheim Foundation. “His primary job is to manage the Abu Dhabi project,” Stockman says, referring to the newest Guggenheim venue, designed by Frank Gehry, which, along with several other planned museums, will constitute the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island. Krens “has created his own business as well. We are one of his company’s clients.”
But back at home, the focus at the Guggenheim now is “stability,” says Armstrong. “For the immediate future the board, and I, too, thought it would be a good moment to consolidate aspirations,” he told ARTnews over a pizza on the Upper East Side, in the midst of his apartment search.
So for today, with the exception of Abu Dhabi, there are no new Guggenheim satellites in the works. “We’re not going to see a Guggenheim Vilnius in the near future,” says Stockman, although Krens recently presented the preliminary results of a feasibility study for a cultural center in the capital to high-ranking members of the Lithuanian government, which had commissioned the study from the Guggenheim and the Hermitage for $2 million (see “Viva Vilnius,” June 2008). According to the data presented by Krens, the museum would cost about $119 million, stimulate about $74 million annually in long-term incremental spending, and “significantly enhance” the Vilnius “brand.” With a projected annual income of $6.6 million and expenses of $11.5 million, the museum would require nearly $5 million in additional annual funding, the study says. The Guggenheim Foundation is “considering a possible role” in the project, according to Stockman.
For one thing, she notes, the agreement with the Guggenheim Bilbao stipulates that the foundation must consult with it before initiating new museum projects in Europe. “We would not want to do anything without them being part of it, without their cooperation and blessing,” she says. “It’s the spirit of the partnership. Just like the spirit of the partnership in Abu Dhabi is not to do anything else in the Middle East.”
Nor, for the moment, does the foundation’s plan include an expansion of the Guggenheim Bilbao into Urdaibai, a nature preserve outside the city; that project was presented to the board in September by Bilbao director Juan Ignacio Vidarte, along with several Basque politicians. The Guggenheim Bilbao declined to release details of the proposal, but according to the Basque press, the ecologically sensitive building—measuring about 538,000 square feet—would cost some $137.7 million. “We have to look at the numbers, the operating costs, and what the government has committed,” says Stockman. “We will get involved in the whole process if it makes sense.” The Guggenheim Bilbao has recently faced criticism from the Basque Parliament over financial issues, however, including the embezzlement of $800,000 by the former chief financial officer, Roberto Cearsolo.
Armstrong, who is from Kansas City, Missouri, studied art history at Lake Forest College in Illinois, and then at several institutions in France, including the Sorbonne. At the Whitney he organized four biennials as well as exhibitions devoted to Richard Artschwager and sculpture from the ’60s and ’70s. One of his first major tasks at the Guggenheim will be to develop a new strategic plan that updates the last one, completed in 2006.
A major part of that plan is fund-raising. The endowment is now at $120 million, which includes pledges, according to Stockman, who says that a healthier number would be $200 million. In September the New York museum unveiled its newly restored facade, about half of whose $28 million price tag was financed with funds that Lewis had pledged before he left the board. On the podium at the ceremony unveiling the redone facade, Lewis stated that he was no longer at the museum “because I care about management,” a comment widely considered a snub to Krens—whose unbalanced budget was a cause of tension between the two men. Now that Krens is no longer in charge, will there be a role for Lewis?
“We would love Peter to come back,” says Stockman. “I feel part of his soul is connected to the Guggenheim. We never wanted him to leave.” Lewis did not return calls from ARTnews for comment.
Another priority for Armstrong is to showcase the museum’s modernist holdings while strengthening its connection to the contemporary scene. “I’m interested in serving artists as the first constituency,” he says. “That’s the challenge of cultural institutions—how to keep the project alive. To have artists partaking of what’s shown in the Guggenheim, ingesting it, and having it inform their own work.”
As for the challenges, he cites his first one as “getting up to speed on current operations.” In the long term, he says, the dilemma is more philosophical. “The role of museum is one of deep contradiction,” he comments. “It’s holding something still, so you can look at something and look at it more than once, repeatedly. And the outcome is about change.”
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.