Under the directorship of Thomas Krens, the foundation made a massive, if often abortive, push to expand, establishing the highly successful Frank Gehry–designed museum in Bilbao. But other projects—in Las Vegas, Berlin, Salzburg, Vilnius, Guadalajara, Rio de Janeiro, and lower Manhattan—were closed or canceled. Another long-promised gargantuan, titanium-clad Gehry creation in Abu Dhabi has yet to start construction.
Armstrong, who succeeded Krens in 2008, has followed a different strategy in his approach to international expansion. “We don’t engage with a very high proportion of people, and the possibility of going on ad infinitum is really not attractive,” he said in an interview about the museum’s current global strategy. “We’ve got to be very concentrated. We’re a small museum essentially, especially in the New York constellation. We need to husband our resources.”
Most recently, Armstrong revived an on-again, off-again push for a new Guggenheim in Helsinki, Finland. In 2012, the Helsinki city board rejected a Guggenheim bid to build a branch there because the city would have had to pay most of the $130 million cost. But earlier this year the board provisionally reserved a prime harbor plot as a future site for the museum, and in June the Guggenheim Foundation announced an international design competition for the building.
This is the first time the foundation, which has worked with such well-known architects as Rem Koolhaas and the late Hans Hollein as well as Gehry, has held an open call for architectural ideas for one of its projects.
The design competition has already attracted over 800 entrants from around the world, and a winner is to be announced next June. But the project still remains subject to approval by the Helsinki city government, which controls the seaside property on which the Guggenheim hopes to build and has stated that it will not make a final decision until after the designs have been evaluated.
The museum has also launched an ambitious program to bring foreign curators to New York and highlight artistic creativity abroad. Entitled the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, it is funded by the Swiss financial services giant UBS and focuses on three regions: South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa, with special exhibitions devoted to each region. Last year’s “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia” was the program’s first major exhibition. The second is “Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today,” on view through October 1.
Funding from the Hong Kong–based Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation last year enabled the museum to hire its own curator based in China to commission works by artists there that will be acquired by the Guggenheim.
“That’s a beautiful soft demonstration of the global ambitions,” said Armstrong. “We’re not building a museum in China but we are paying close attention to contemporary Chinese art.”
Armstrong previously directed the Carnegie Museum of Art and was a curator at the Whitney, where he organized four biennials. He stresses that he inherited a vision of far-flung Guggenheim outposts from his predecessor and has spent the past few years of his tenure projecting a revamped international image for the Guggenheim Foundation.
What was wrong with the previous image? Saska Saarikoski, former culture editor of the Helsinki newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, sums it up when he attributes part of the earlier rejection of a Bilbao on the Baltic to Finnish antipathy to “McGuggenheim,” a brash commercial brand seeking to impose its will from abroad.
Armstrong described the Global Art Initiative as an attempt to mute just such criticism of the foundation by seeking “to identify and ally ourselves with the best thinkers, leaders of contemporary art in places less familiar to us,” and “to make certain there’s a high sense of recognition not only from our side to whoever’s on the outside, but also on the outside toward us. We want to be seen as an outstanding peer.”
Whereas the earlier Guggenheim proposal for Helsinki was to be funded almost entirely by the city, the latest plan involves arranging more private support along with backing from the Finnish national government. “We learned how to broaden the opportunity—let’s put it that way,” said Armstrong.
The long-planned Guggenheim megaproject in Abu Dhabi, however, is far more certain of completion. The museum will open by 2017, Armstrong said. “It will happen. Remember that it’s a 24-hour-a-day construction schedule. It’s not like in America, so construction there is very accelerated.”
But labor conditions in Abu Dhabi, capital of the autocratic United Arab Emirates, have provoked criticism of the Guggenheim and led to protests over the treatment of workers. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will occupy a site near New York University’s campus on Saadiyat Island. In May the New York Times revealed that workers on the NYU project lived in squalid conditions and were imprisoned and beaten when they attempted to strike.
“We’re very conscious of trying not to repeat whatever problems happened,” Armstrong said about the NYU construction. He firmly refused to discuss the situation further.
In the meantime, over 200 works by artists from around the world have already been acquired for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, he said. “There’s a very strong taste for achievement from the Arab world, but we’ve been very conscious about acquisitions and weaving together a narrative that’s really transnational.”
The collection is the property not of the Guggenheim but of the United Arab Emirates government, and curatorial selections are being made by a team that includes both Guggenheim staff and UAE representatives.
The array of Guggenheim art centers currently consists of the New York museum, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and the Bilbao museum. Armstrong said he hoped both the Helsinki and the Abu Dhabi projects would be complete within the next five years, and sought to downplay speculation on further expansion.
Michael Z. Wise writes about culture and foreign affairs and is cofounder of New Vessel Press, a publishing house specializing in translations of foreign literature into English.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 44 under the title “Rethinking the Guggenheim Helsinki.”