Thomas Krens
Photo David M. Heald, © SRGF, New York
  Thomas Krens

The Guggenheim Foundation revealed on Wednesday that its director, Thomas Krens, would be stepping down, bringing to an end an almost two-decade-long tenure as one of the most celebrated and criticized museum directors in the world.

Few museum heads are known outside the hallowed walls of their respective institutions, but perhaps it was the famously curved walls of Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim Museum building that inspired Krens to think outside the museum box. Part art historian, part businessman, Krens, 61, became director of the Guggenheim Foundation in 1988. The following year, the Guggenheim was invited by various Austrian government and cultural agencies to collaborate on a museum project designed by Hans Hollein in Salzburg. Krens later said, “The prospect of a Guggenheim in Salzburg was not immediately self-evident to us.” Though that project never materialized, he would soon embark on groundbreaking collaborations with other similar agencies, and commercial entities, to create a series of Guggenheim satellites worldwide, in the process becoming as famous as the architects he hired to design these show stopping new buildings.

In 1991 Krens negotiated the unique partnership between the Basque Regional Government and the Guggenheim Foundation that produced the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, it opened to wide public acclaim in October 1997. Guggenheim Bilbao’s enormous success, measured both in museum attendance and in its ability to transform a derelict mining town into a major international tourist attraction, created what has come to be known as the “Bilbao Effect.” Cities across the globe have looked to similar types of iconic architecture to promote cultural and economic regeneration.

Since Krens became director, the Guggenheim Foundation has solicited some two dozen proposals for additional museums and galleries around the world by architects such as Zaha Hadid and Shigeru Ban. In November 1997, the Deutsche Guggenheim, designed by Richard Gluckman, FAIA, and located on Under den Linden in Berlin, was opened as the result of a joint venture with Deutsche Bank A.G. In October 2001, the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, designed by Rem Koolhaas, opened in Las Vegas in partnership with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Other more elaborate proposals were introduced to the public with much fanfare, but have yet to see the light of day. These include another spectacular Gehry-designed Guggenheim on the waterfront in lower Manhattan, and one designed by French architect Jean Nouvel for Rio de Janeiro, also located on the water.

It was Kren’s focus on such international activity, and its expense, that drew criticism from benefactors, and skepticism from others in the art world. Yet under his direction, attendance at the Guggenheim Museum New York has more than doubled to over 900,000 visitors per year. In the last 15 years, the Foundation endowment has increased six-fold, to $118 million, and its permanent collection has grown more than 60 percent. As chief artistic officer, Krens was responsible for definitive retrospectives of major artists including Robert Rauschenberg and Matthew Barney, historical surveys of 20th century art, and surprising exhibits like 1998’s The Art of the Motorcycle. He also oversaw two restoration projects to the Frank Lloyd Wright building—an interior restoration in 1992 that included the addition of a ten-story tower by Gwathmey Siegel, and an exterior restoration expected to be completed this summer.

“During Thomas Krens’ tenure, the Guggenheim Foundation has become one of the most important, influential and prestigious cultural institutions in the world,” said William Mack, chairman of the board. “His contribution to re-imagining museums is a gift that has benefited—and will continue to enhance—the entire cultural community." Krens will stay on as director until his successor is named. Among the names being tossed around for the job is Michael Govan. Interestingly, Govan served as deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum for six years before becoming director of the Dia Art Foundation in 1994. Since 2006, he has been director and CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where he has been overseeing a new building project by Renzo Piano.

Krens will continue with the Foundation as the senior advisor for international affairs, developing and overseeing all aspects of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, also designed by Frank Gehry, its largest and most complex project to date, and other designated special projects.