Tom Krens Leaves the Guggenheim

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Tom Krens, the man behind the McGuggenheim, the museum as global franchise, is moving on. The Guggenheim board announced yesterday that Krens would retire later this year as director of the Guggenheim Foundation, a title he took on three years ago after he stepped aside as director of the museum. That job then went to Lisa Dennison, who in turn left last summer to become an executive at Sotheby’s. Since then her job has been filled by an acting director.

Carol Vogel’s piece in the New York Times puts the dynamic behind the Krens resignation this way:

Curators and other museum directors have been saying privately for months that the Guggenheim has been unable to fill [Dennison’s] job…. They said that candidates who were informally approached were not shy about communicating that they would not work under Mr. Krens, who is known as a difficult personality.

And this way:

In resigning as director Mr. Krens is clearly taking his cue from the Guggenheim’s board. “This is something that Tom and the board decided together,” Jennifer Stockman, the board’s president, said.

Krens’ contribution to the world of museum practice was the franchise. It was an idea that had been evolving for a while. Back when Tom Hoving was director of the Metropolitan Museum he toyed with the idea of having the Met collect fees as a consultant to other museums. But it was Krens, who had an M.B.A. from Yale, who pushed the Guggenheim into the world of brand name spinoffs, talking all the while about “brand awareness”. Except for the huge success of the Guggenheim Bilbao, an indisputable achievement and one of the greatest buildings in the world, most of them didn’t spin off the way he hoped. Las Vegas — tanked. Mexico — didn’t happen. Brazil — ditto.

Meanwhile, Krens presided over some of the most lamentable exhibitions the Guggenheim ever did, including the infamous wet kiss to Giorgio Armani in 2001, a top to bottom salesroom exercise for Armani that happened to coincide with a reported $15 million gift from Armani to the museum. But the Krens paradigm of museum expansion is now out there. It’s been picked up by the Louvre — which will be branding one of the several new museums planned for Abu Dhabi — and also by the Pompidou and the Tate. And even after he leaves the foundation Krens will still oversee the construction of another Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim, also in Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile the Guggenheim has decided to return to its former management structure, in which the foundation and the museum will both be headed by one person. It’s a bad time to be looking for somebody to fill that top job. Some of the most obvious candidates are otherwise engaged. Michael Govan, whose years with the Dia Foundation gave him credibility and connections in the world of contemporary art, still has a big agenda to complete as director of the evolving Los Angeles County Museum. (If the Guggenheim offers him the job he should take it anyway. Let somebody else deal with Eli Broad.) And Kathy Halbreich, the former director of the Walker Art Center who just moved over to the Museum of Modern Art — well, she just moved over to the Museum of Modern Art. For my money, I think it’s time to put Ann Philbin on these top job short lists. In her nine years at the Hammer Museum in L.A. she’s been crucial in turning what once might as well have been the Hammer Mausoleum into a credible institution.