Charlotte Burns: Hello, and welcome to another installment of In Other Words. I’m your host Charlotte Burns, editor at Art Agency, Partners, and today we’re joined by Tom Krens.
Thomas Krens: Hello.
Charlotte Burns: And Eric Shiner.
Eric Shiner: Hi.
Charlotte Burns: Our topic today is globalization and its discontents. We’re going to begin with you, Tom. You’re really the architect of globalization in terms of museums building satellites abroad. You were doing this for 20 years running the Guggenheim. How much of this came from your background in terms of applying political science and your MBA to the cultural sphere, and bringing those kind of business policies into the arts arena?
Thomas Krens: While those tendencies may have been there, there certainly wasn’t any plan. When I came to the Guggenheim in 1986, it was already an international institution by virtue of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. But that wasn’t a choice in favor of internationalism. Tom Messer had spent some time toward the end of Peggy Guggenheim’s life trying to convince her to bequeath her collection to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Ultimately he was successful; after Peggy died however, the Italian government declared the collection a national treasure, which couldn’t leave Italy. So, to the degree that the Guggenheim Foundation was the owner and proprietor of also Peggy’s palazzo we de facto became an international institution.
The Venice Biennale in the 1940s or 50s was run by the Grand Central Gallery, and then in the 1950s fell under the responsibility of the Museum of Modern Art, but the Museum of Modern Art was looking to get out of that arrangement. Once the Guggenheim became established in Venice, there was a logical transfer of that property.
So when I came there that was already accomplished, more or less by accident. The issue for me was a matter of efficiency, which at a certain level does touch on the concept of globalization. These two institutions, the Guggenheim in New York and the Guggenheim in Venice, were part of the same foundation, and my predecessor ran them more or less separately.
When I came the Guggenheim had a relatively small endowment, and operating efficiencies were important. One recognized that Venice at the time had something like 11 million tourist visitors a year. Well, cultural tourism is part of a global audience, so it made sense for us to think about the institutions as one. There was a closer balance between the two institutions and a greater opportunity to do similar programs in two locations rather than duplicate the cost. It was driven by a certain level of practicality, which globalism to a certain extent is. When I came to the Guggenheim, the attendance at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was something like 75,000. When I left it was close to 500,000. In that period of time, we also expanded significantly. The institution became more fundamentally established, more global, and then that’s when the strategy began to develop.
Charlotte Burns: Based on the success of Venice.
Thomas Krens: Well, it was based on the success of Venice, but it also was based on the success of the brand: that the Guggenheim was still New York, it was still on 5th Avenue, it was still Frank Lloyd Wright. People came to me because of the attention that our aspirations in Venice started to attract and said, “How about a Guggenheim museum in Salzburg?” We began a project in Salzburg with Hans Hollein and the Austrian government to build a Guggenheim Museum. And that went quite far; it only faltered with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain, curved around Austria and with the ultimate disintegration of the Soviet Union, the freedom of travel simply provoked a kind of potential refugee diaspora, and it frightened the Austrian government.
Charlotte Burns: In many ways that’s similar to where we are today. When we talk about globalization and its discontents, it’s a relevant topic in America with Trump’s assent based largely on nationalist, protectionist policies that have been seen as a rejection of globalization. This idea too of refugees and this fear of freedom of travel that globalization has brought is a hugely contentious issue that’s affecting the way that our world is moving forwards now. Do you think that after this long period of expansion that globalization will have to change, and how will that impact museums and our trade? Eric, I’ll go to you here first.
Eric Shiner: It’s critically important to remember that shifting landscapes across the globe are nothing new. This is a condition of humanity, and it’s been playing out over countless centuries. As borders shift, as leadership changes, the world constantly has to readjust to the realities. Certainly thinking about the end of Communism as we knew it in the late 1980s, that’s where I first jumped into the fray of globalization in that I wrote my senior paper on the downfall of Communism and the literal deconstruction of the wall between East and West Germany. Certainly we now are facing a very different wall along our southern border. How that will affect the art world is an interesting question, and artists are always leading the charge in critiquing governments, in critiquing structures.
Charlotte Burns: It’s also institutional if you think about the way that museums have changed, thinking very much of the Guggenheim, and the Tate and the way that it’s rearranged its collection and thinks of itself as more of a global organization in terms of the art it shows.
Pros are that it’s bringing art from different regions into a new audience and it’s expanding the definition of the new and the modern. The cons are more a question, is this really globalization or is it a different form of colonization in the sense that these are curators from Western museums largely traveling to other places and bringing back their vision, of a different culture, even if they’re working in collaboration? It’s not that necessarily curators and artists from Iran are talking to curators and artists from India. How do we deal with that problem? I’m sure that’s something that you address very much when thinking about the collections that you develop, Tom, when looking at a Guggenheim in Bilbao or Abu Dhabi for instance. There’s very different sets of collecting strictures I suppose to somewhere in Spain than somewhere in the Gulf.
Thomas Krens: These are all huge topics, and in many ways they hinge on the definition of the term. Globalization is used liberally to describe all types of phenomena. As you try to apply it to the art world, on the one hand, I agree that artists generally by predisposition play a role in challenging certain preconceptions. On the other hand, we’re in a world that’s driven by capital formation. The artist’s markets wouldn’t exist, if the capital wasn’t there to purchase the works; if there weren’t the gallery distribution systems; if there weren’t the primary and secondary market systems that inject a certain amount of fluidity and opportunity into the markets. So I tend to think that the art world in fact is driven by available capital, and to the degree that economic conditions tighten that flow, it would send reverberations through the art world.
On the other hand, globalization is also driven by a propensity for information, by curiosity, and by education. You could argue people are more educated today than they were yesterday. That’s a trend that’s continuing. The institutions are responding to a number of complex factors. Yes, there is a liberal view that exchanging information about cultures is a social good. On the other hand, it also increases audience. At the time that I was at the Guggenheim, while we were originally founded as the museum of nonobjective art and built around abstraction, that process began to change with the acquisition of collections that had representational art. The collection began to change as opportunities presented themselves, as my predecessor was successful in convincing collectors to line up with the Guggenheim essentially as a European-type institution. I began to do occasional exhibitions on a significant scale, China: 5,000 Years; Brazil: Body & Soul.
Charlotte Burns: What prompted you to do that, to take those deep dives? Was it rising economies in China and Brazil, the fact that they were moving into a different economic and social position?
Thomas Krens: It was a recognition of some of these factors. Reality is that the exhibition China: 5,000 Years brought an audience to the Guggenheim that had never been there before. It’s not that they all came and stayed and went to every exhibition after that, but the point is that that was perceived as a good, and the same thing for Brazil: Body & Soul. Both exhibitions were done in cooperation with the governments. Both exhibitions had international teams of curators.
It wasn’t that the museum’s character had changed, but it rounded an experience. It subtly rebranded the institution as an international institution where the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright could be taken advantage of in absolutely imaginative ways; where theater was created. And it wasn’t that one made a decision that we were going to make the museum more theatrical, go after this subset of an audience, and one certainly didn’t make a decision in favor of globalization. But to the degree that these forces in the 1980s and 90s were beginning to emerge – facilitated by technology and mobility, the internet—the universal bubble was growing, almost at an exponential rate. To ignore those factors was simply not a good management policy.
To the degree it was successful, it absolutely engineered the brand. The Guggenheim went from 300,000 visitors a year to about a million a year in New York, which was really the capacity of the building. If you were to look at the Guggenheim on a per-square-foot basis compared to the Metropolitan or the Whitney or the Museum of Modern Art, it was far best attended. This is also about competition in the art world. The idea was that art is not just painting and sculpture; it could be architecture; it could be motorcycles, for which I’m famously known; it could be fashion. But these are the forces of globalization, the common languages.
Charlotte Burns: Eric, when you were the director of the Andy Warhol Museum, that was a kind of interesting remit in the sense that you were in charge of the legacy of this artist internationally and you’re based in a local museum. How do you reconcile those two positions?
Eric Shiner: That was very important for me right out of the chutes to make sure that we were promoting Andy Warhol’s legacy around the world, especially in regions that had not had a Warhol exhibition ever. As soon as I became director I set about organizing a tour of a major Warhol retrospective to five cities in Asia, knowing there had never been one. It was all about that first touch, that exposure to Warhol so that people would come to see the show, would find Warhol in whatever capacity that means, and hopefully want to do a deeper dive. Of course, we never know how to track what happens, but by presenting these things, people have a new experience and then something starts to unfold.
Charlotte Burns: The idea of transporting things globally. I’m just trying to think about it in terms of why we do this. You say there’s a liberal consensus that exporting and exchanging culture is good. There’s also the idea of leveraging new capital through those new audiences and brand building. These are relatively recent phenomena for institutions, in the sense that they probably wouldn’t have been possible without the economic situations of the 80s.
Eric Shiner: In so many ways, these massive exhibitions require real hard dollars, and that often comes through corporate sponsorships: finding a company that will pay the bill to make these exhibitions happen, whether it be an individual or a corporation. But more so, we have to remember that it’s always about the art itself, the physical objects, to bring those masterpieces to another place so that people have direct access to them. Of course the world can access these things via the internet which allows people to study on their own. It’s never the same unless you’re standing directly in front of these works of art
Charlotte Burns: That’s made more possible not just in the sense of the conditions we’ve been discussing, but the globalization in terms of the companies that support that, so the shippers, the insurance companies. It’s all a great big bubble that developed around the same time. Those conditions became the new norm. Are they likely to remain that way do we think, or do we see a period of change? Certain nations have been rejecting globalization whereas others have been supporting it. The World Economic Forum in Davos in January, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China gave a rousing defense of globalization, denouncing protectionism and populism saying that many of the problems troubling the world aren’t actually caused by globalization.
It’s interesting in terms of where the support lies and where we see the detractors. How do we see that shifting things? This idea of exporting exhibitions, you’ve both spoke about China and now we have the President of the People’s Republic of China being the lead champion on a world stage for globalization.
Thomas Krens: You have to define the terms. To talk about globalization in terms of exhibitions is one thing. To have Xi Jinping talk about globalization is another thing when the average labor wage in China is one quarter or one fifth of what it is in the Western world or the United States. That’s the issue. What globalization means is that American manufacturers who have established brands, who discover logically that they can make automobiles of the same quality for half the price because of the labor costs simply because the wages are less. What is that? That’s not necessarily a conspiracy.
If you were to ask the average Chinese citizen what they would like, they would like a lifestyle of the type that’s enjoyed by the North Americans and the Europeans. That disparity is what drives globalization to the degree that the developed West sees globalization as leeching jobs away from citizens of these established countries who consume a far greater proportion of natural resources in the world per capita than the undeveloped countries. The undeveloped countries want that position, and the developed countries want to defend that position. They’ve come to believe it’s their birthright.
Politicians spend a good deal of time trying to sort this out, and they have to be reelected, that’s one of the imperfections of democracy. Democracy is a substantially inefficient system, yet it’s probably the best system that exists for organizing these types of transfers of actual capital, of intellectual capital, and of physical labor. If you’re the President of China, of course you’re going to be arguing for non-protection because it’s more jobs for your country. And if you’re the President of the United States, as Mr. Trump is unfortunately, he’s arguing for a certain kind of protections. We’re going to build walls to keep people who would take American jobs out. It’s not a sustainable policy over the long run. It just isn’t.
Charlotte Burns: This idea of who’s winning, who’s losing, is interesting when you think about labor. That’s something I know that’s been a big issue in the Gulf around the establishment in Abu Dhabi of a cultural center. How do you navigate the ways in which the export of art and programs are embraced or run into conflict?
Thomas Krens: You ask deceptively simple questions that are impossible to answer. They’re logical questions, but the situations, the conditions, that exist in the Middle East are unbelievably complex. Why are the Louvre and the Guggenheim and the British Museum involved in Abu Dhabi? It has to do with capital. This is a culture that in the 1960s was medieval. There are only 15,000 citizens in this barren sand bar, where the only industry was date farming, because pearl diving had been put out of business in the 1930s because the Japanese discovered cultured pearls.
Starting in 1970, they became the richest people in the world, period, because under the sands of Abu Dhabi are 10% of the world’s oil. Now, you will argue that the Saudis with 25% of the world’s oil are a richer country, but there are 25 million Saudis. Right now there are probably about 200,000 to 400,000 Emiratis. Their job is to control the resources of their country. Because they have the wealth, they have the luxury of being able to look at the Western example and to ask a very simple question, “Well what do we need?”
They’re building cities out of whole cloth, and they’re also anticipating the time when oil will not be evident, and what is the situation that exists in Abu Dhabi? If you’re a golfer you could say that Iran is just a 9-iron away, and this is a religious divide between the Sunnis and the Shiites. You could also make an argument that the Saudis on the southern border of the Emirates, who are also Sunnis but are Wahabi Sunnis that coveted the lands that are now controlled by the Emiratis. Once you look at that situation, the whole condition of the Middle East is, for the Emiratis, about protecting themselves, and what might be better but to have the Americans and the French and the British have a cultural presence, which also came with a military presence, because the American Persian Gulf fleet is based in Dubai. The French opened a military base, and the Emiratis, they’re the second largest buyer in the world of armaments from the United States.
The point is that there are all these conditions. It’s a little bit hard to argue that the art world exists in some splendid isolation because the Emiratis want to build a Louvre designed by Jean Nouvel or a Guggenheim designed by Frank Gehry, and to somehow think that that’s kind of a product of some form of cultural abstraction. This situation with the museum expansion could never have happened these days. It started in 2005 when people were far more naïve. The world financial crisis of 2008 and the Arab Spring has changed the equation radically.
Charlotte Burns: What is the situation with the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi now
Thomas Krens: You’re asking the wrong person. I think you’d have to consult with the current director and the current board. I’m not in a privileged position to know what the strategies are. However, to the degree that I’ve established the situation, it may not be such a good idea these days to have an American museum, essentially with a Jewish name, in a country that wasn’t recognized diplomatically by the Emiratis, meaning Israel, in such a prominent location at such a big scale. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi made the Guggenheim Bilbao look small. It was a gigantic project, and the word is that it’s still underway. It was supposed to open in 2012. To my calculation that was five years ago. The foundations and the footings are in, but who knows?
On the other hand, the Louvre will open next year. My view is that’s a political calculation that essentially is testing the waters. When we were planning the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, one of the biggest concerns was security, because we were right on the edge of the Persian Gulf, and so everybody’s imagination was water-borne terrorism, boatloads of explosives crashing into the museum and blowing it up. You’ll notice on the plans there are these huge, they look like breakwaters, which are essentially concrete fences and walls that are planted in the ocean bed with chains through the channels that would not allow boats to come in. I don’t know this as a fact, but if you were to look at the overall situation and the conditions of political extremism these days, that if I were them I would say, “Well, we’re not abandoning our mission, because…” – this may be even a parallel to our discussion about globalization – “maybe over the long-term that I think these forces are ineluctable, that human nature, self-preservation, will argue in favor of cooperation and coordination and balancing of resource consumption.”
But in the short-term, these are still wars. They are zero-sum wars, so it’s that what I get is taking away from somebody else. Whether that is spiritual, religious, or whether it is – economic – these battles are being fought, and the tactics of the fight will influence decisions like, “Well, we’re not going to go back on our commitments to building these institutions, but we don’t need all five of them up and running at the same time. We’ll do the one that is global, because the Louvre is a global international…” It’s a national collection, and it’s not just the Louvre by the way, it’s 18 French museums. They branded it The Louvre, so it’s basically the French national patrimony, which has also got certain ironies, because how did those collections become assembled? Usually through colonial appropriation in the 19th century. I don’t want to make this unnecessarily complicated but at the same time, I don’t want to agree that these questions can be dealt with in isolation.
Charlotte Burns: This kind of brings up on to the issue of politics and in the sense that how do institutions address politics? Eric, I know that when you were at the Warhol Museum, you took a deliberately political stance saying that if museums couldn’t take this approach, then which institutions could?
Eric Shiner: Exactly. It’s about an institution believing in the artist that it shows and empowering them, giving them voice to say things that might not otherwise be said. We of course used Warhol as the model for this in that Andy overcame so many barriers in his own life to go on to become one of the most famous people in the world. Regardless of the fact that he was an important artist, he became an incredibly huge persona. But if a cultural institution is not able to provide that platform, I’m not sure where else in society outside of the realm of social justice and activism these conversations can take place, and do so in a safe environment.
Charlotte Burns: What did you both think of MoMA’s recent decision to install works by artists of the countries on the temporarily banned executive order by Donald Trump?
Eric Shiner: Well, of course it was great to see. And, to be honest, a bit of a surprise that MoMA jumped to the forefront in this debate. And knowing how long it oftentimes takes an institution to actualize an exhibition, I was very surprised that it happened as quickly as it did.
Thomas Krens: I would agree. These things are all responses. Institutions in many ways, and even individual artists, are powerless to affect events. It’s much better to have an army if you wanted.
Eric Shiner: Right, exactly. It goes a lot further.
Thomas Krens: But symbolism has always been a powerful voice, and there’s a complexity behind the decisions, that the institutions have their constituencies in mind. I’m not saying that they play to their constituencies; there is a classical liberal mindset about the expansion of learning and knowledge and exchange. Most museums and most educational institutions, whatever range of diversity they actively embrace, have been organized in line with those ideas. As these institutions get more powerful, compare any institutions, including government institutions, universities, and art museums now and 100 years ago.
The amazing growth of educational institutions is phenomenal as economic powerhouses. The endowments at Harvard and Stanford and Michigan State cannot be matched, all in pursuit of this kind of form of excellence. And they are more and more inclusive, and they’re making issues of that now in response of the political situation. There’s no question in my mind that the human race is moving in a direction of coming together, and culture will play a big role. Is that a straight line or a curve without setbacks? Probably not, because technology also provides the same opportunities to the enemies of knowledge.
It’s unimaginable to understand where it’s going and how violence can be contained. The thing that opens up the opportunities to some form of universal knowledge, those tools can be appropriated and turned in other directions. What it suggests about the dark side of the human psyche is still to be resolved I guess.
Charlotte Burns: The economist Olav Velthuis wrote in a recent publication that there was a discursive embrace of globalization in terms of the art market, this idea that you could think about the art world as a global village that traveled around; you have this rising class of people, plutocrats essentially, who have more in common with each other than they necessarily do with their nations. So, you’ll have a German art dealer representing a Japanese artist, makes a sale to a Brazilian collector who might ship the work to a home in Miami. This is the sort of brilliance of these global events, and yet Velthuis says that there’s more ambiguity about the two main symbols of globalization in terms of the manifestations of the art fair and the internet, in the sense that the art world has been typically based on intricate personal relationships, and those things are changed in a scope and scale that the traditional model is failing to harness.
So there are opportunities to growth and internationalization, and yet there are opportunity costs in the sense of people lose traffic in their galleries. People see art in a mass moment at an art fair when they’re also talking to their friend that they bumped into that they hadn’t seen since the last art fair, or biennial. So they’re not necessarily looking at the art, whereas if you get somebody going into a gallery on Saturday in Chelsea, they probably are socializing, but in a more local, confined way.
Thomas Krens: But is globalization the term that can be used to describe the phenomenon? Art fairs are efficient, there’s no doubt. The sampling is reduced because you have to rent the space at a certain period of time and it’s limited so you get the taste, this is like the hors d’oeuvre.
All collecting starts with decorating the walls. Then it becomes something else, and when it becomes something else, its commodification can’t be lost because it’s a price negotiation. It’s in the mind of every collector: “If I pay $1 million for this and I can buy three of that for $300,000 apiece, maybe I should do that. It is fundamentally an economic transaction, because there is excess capital that can be deployed, and art can be looked at as an investment, and it seems to get far away from what may have been an original impulse on the part of the artist. I’m not so sure, and here the director of the Warhol Museum is probably the best person to comment on Andy Warhol’s famous phrase: “the best form of art is business.”
Eric Shiner: Business. Absolutely. Andy of course saw no distinction between art and business whatsoever. For him they were one and the same. The way that we navigate the art world, the way that we navigate an art fair, we do want to be there in a public agora where we’re sharing ideas, stories, conversations. We may be paying attention to the art around us, we may not be, but it certainly is a forum where people come together to talk about art ostensibly. That of course goes back for all time in human history that we are always coming together in marketplaces or public squares to convene. If we want that one-on-one intimate relationship with the artwork, that’s the function of the museum so that one can do just that, as long as they go at the right time.
Charlotte Burns: Right, not peak time.
Eric Shiner: Not peak time.
Charlotte Burns: Can I ask you both a different question now? What was the best piece of art you saw recently?
Thomas Krens: That’s a trick question.
Eric Shiner: Well, it’s such a great question in that we’re looking at art constantly. I just had the great fortune to go to Mexico City, and there were some really, really phenomenal young artists who put a smile on my face. That’s always I think very important: that we are able to find some joy, especially right now in our political landscape; that a work of art can stimulate the mind to start thinking about what it ultimately means.
Charlotte Burns: Tom, for you?
Thomas Krens: The one thing that pops to mind is the installation at MASS MoCA by Nick Cave. It fills a 15,000-square-foot space, and it’s the best piece that’s ever been at MASS MoCA in that space.
Eric Shiner: Oh wow, and there have been a lot of great works in that space.
Thomas Krens: That kind of space is difficult to work with, but this is a fantastic piece. I’d have a predisposition to a certain extent once you look at how artists interpret spaces and these are not necessarily sellable things. Here’s a single work that fills 15,000 square feet of volume. You walk through a forest of silhouetted objects hanging from the ceiling. This Cave installation creates a physical experience.
That kind of unique viscerality takes me back to Bilbao and the experience with the Richard Serras and this huge 436 foot long 30,000 square-foot space that can obliterate any work of art ever put in it, and this Richard Serra installation, which is more or less permanent because it was one of the things that I acquired when I was there, and it can’t go anywhere else – it weighs 1200 tons and so you wouldn’t be able to move it. I can say that the 500 times that I’ve walked through that gallery I’ve never failed to be physically overwhelmed by it. It stimulates an emotional and intellectual reaction simultaneously, and that’s the kind of work, that makes a lasting impression.
Charlotte Burns: That brings us to this idea of architecture too in the sense of the Guggenheim’s architecture and the way that you exported that around the world is a really interesting approach to branding. How much does architecture reckon into your thinking, or did it over the years of the various launches of the different satellite Guggenheims?
Thomas Krens: Certainly architecture played a role, but you have to acknowledge that first of all I was an accidental museum director. I was teaching at Williams College and somehow got recruited to be the director of a new museum because I had formerly been an economist and they figured that I could probably intelligently spend the money and they weren’t willing to trust the art department with that. The architect was Charles Moore, and that led to a focus on space and what museology was all about. I would listen to curators talking about filling gaps in the collection. Well, if every museum filled a gap in the collection then all museum collections would look like Noah’s Ark. In the art world it would be on one of every object. The alternative was that every specific situation was unique, and one of the ways was by the architecture. Even though we were building a new museum it only had 17,000 square feet of exhibition space and that was nothing.
Then I saw at an art fair actually, in Cologne, it was on the 14th of November in 1985, I remember the date. It was an epiphany, two dealers rejected by the art fair had set up an exhibition of gigantic Marcus Lüpertz paintings in a cavernous old warehouse, and they didn’t do a thing to clean it up. It was full of garbage and junk, but they had these gigantic paintings on rollers and lights, and it was fabulous, and that was it. The bell rang, and I said, “I’m surrounded by unused factory buildings in Northwestern Massachusetts,” and then that became MASS MoCA.
When I went to the Guggenheim, it was Frank Lloyd Wright. I never thought about the building except that the floors sloped and the walls tilted and that artists hated it, I knew that. I never thought that I was going to be involved in programming it, but then you try to turn that into an advantage When the Bilbao opportunity came up, I remember the specific motivation for me was Chartres Cathedral. I imagined what a 14th century French peasant would experience coming out of the countryside never having seen a building more than two stories high all of a sudden to see this massive technology rising out of the landscape into completely unimaginable experience that was calculated to stimulate an emotional religious reaction. Well, that same type of reaction seemed to me to be implicit in art museums.
I know that there’s a counter to that argument, which is that the space should be secondary and that the art should be primary, but you have to think about architecture as a part of the work. I’ve seen traveling exhibitions enough to know that it looks different in different places. To say that architecture doesn’t matter is a mistake. To say that architecture dominates situations is a mistake. But having said that, if you have the opportunity to do architecture with some of the most imaginative, creative thinkers around – I’ve done close to 50 museum projects. Not all have been built, only about 12 of them have been built, but still – the experience of working with the architects and the artists can be brought into that process of what types of spaces would you like your work to be seen in. Not always to an entirely happy conclusion. I know that there was always a tension between Frank Gehry and Richard Serra with respect to the Serra installation and the Gehry architecture as to who was the more prominent presence, but still I think that’s a good tension and it’s something that museums could and should ascribe to.
Eric Shiner: It’s all about creating the perfect environment within which artworks or installations can be seen and felt, and certainly when you think about escaping the everyday, I think that has a huge level of import for allowing people to step out of their daily lives.
Charlotte Burns: Can I ask you, Tom, I read somewhere that you were working on a global contemporary collection, a museum in North Adams, which would be a new for-profit model, bringing together a group of essentially investors to put together a world-class collection. Now, the last time I read about this was I think 2015, so I wanted to check in and see whether this was still something you were thinking of.
Thomas Krens: The short answer is yes. The more complex answer is it’s gotten much larger with many other players and several other museums. Its social purpose is to build on a fairly astonishing base that’s in Northwestern Massachusetts. Over the last two years the Clark Art Institute has finished a $160 million renovation addition to its existing campus designed by Tadao Ando. In May, MASS MoCA will open another 140,000 square foot addition that is totally dedicated to the work of five artists: Jim Turrell, Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, and Bob Rauschenberg. That’s a phenomenal scale. When you put that together with 105 Sol LeWitts and the Anselm Kiefer building, MASS MoCA becomes an unprecedented destination.
Part of the local logic is to recognize that despite that, the economic impact in an area, North Adams, that has 20% of the people live below the poverty line and has a high unemployment rate, how can you develop culture to have an immediate and substantial economic impact? It’s a form of doubling down on the strategy because Northwestern Massachusetts is still for many people a day trip, and the economic impact of an overnight stay is a factor of eight. So, if you can design a series of surprising cultural institutions that bring together the architectural notions that I’ve been associated with in some new and potentially transformative economic models and put them in this same environment, the social benefit is what the primary motivation is.
Or another way of looking at it, it’s a version of the movie of the 1980s called The Three Amigos where Chevy Chase and Martin Short and Steve Martin, who were failed careerists in Los Angeles, go down to Mexico and do slapstick comedy with a couple of sombreros. In this case the three amigos are myself, and Michael Dukakis, the former governor, and Bill Weld the former governor, and maybe now a couple of architects so we’ll have to go from the amigos to the five horsemen of the apocalypse or something like that.
Charlotte Burns: When you talk about surprising and new economic models, what does that mean? Because you had spoken previously about bringing together a group of investors to house their collections. Is that still along the lines of what you’re thinking?
Thomas Krens: Well, yes. When certain collectors reach a point in their collecting careers, they create museums. Solomon Guggenheim did this. Eli Broad and Edy Broad have done this. There are other examples. Not everybody wants to either take on that cost, or that responsibility for the long-term. There are alternatives. New types of institutions have to evolve that can provide lower cost from an operating and a construction standpoint. What we call the Global Contemporary, we refer to it as WLEM, the World’s Least Expensive Museum. The idea is to create an astonishing space that has a set of conditions, including: I don’t want to have lights in it; figuring that if it gets dark at 4:00 in the winter, then the museum closes at 4:00. But the skylight configuration is astonishing.
The degree to which the models of that type and for-profit experiences moved the museum, not necessarily as a museum for fine art, but they moved the museum into a potentially different type of definable experience. I’ve always been fascinated by, not that I got to them, the concept of theme parks. I always thought that the competition for the Guggenheim were the theme park, that people go to spend three or four hours in an afternoon with the family or whatever they’re going to do, and the content of that, I could put motorcycles, and I could put Armani in the Guggenheim. There are benefits to that type of experience. If you can come to Williamstown and you can see James Turrell and 45 Renoirs and experience other types of museums, then that becomes a kind of destinational adventure that has the capacity to draw significant numbers of people and overnight reengineer the economics of the region.
Charlotte Burns: In a way, it’s an arc in the sense of a circle almost coming back around on itself where you exported culture thinking about how you can take a brand abroad, how you can make that brand sit in a different country with its own culture and religion and politics and economic structures. Now what you’re thinking about is how to use culture very locally on a quite granular level. That’s kind of fascinating.
Thomas Krens: But on a major stage, because I would say that this kind of thinking would not have been possible without the experiences of Bilbao and Abu Dhabi, first of all on a practical level. My experiences with the architects are such that I can basically command their presence and attention having explored the other side of it, which was… Abu Dhabi was a fantastical thing, it was a $5 billion project. There were five major museums, 17 pavilions. For one little brief moment of two years I was completely in charge of it and its direction was shaped in that period of time. That was an experience that I can then bring back. You’re right, there is a circular aspect to it that Williamstown and Mass MoCA were places where I got started in this, and I guess where I’m ending it.
There is a Robert Frost logic about coming back to the place where started your journey and knowing it for the first time. It is a learning experience through all stages. To say that this is not global and it’s local misses the point. It’s targeted at a global audience.
Eric Shiner: That level of innovation is so important to take the entire field forward, because there are so many things facing museums that do provide a lot of obstacles in terms of fundraising. To actually think about a new model that incorporates an entrepreneurial spirit is something that a lot of museums can learn handily from.
Charlotte Burns: Well, this is something you were doing at the Warhol Museum.
Eric Shiner: 100%. I ran it like a business before I ran it like a museum, knowing that I had a product that was very salable around the world, and I knew that I would be able to raise funds through an exhibition program around the globe, and that would support the home institution back in Pittsburgh in a very regional setting.
Thomas Krens: It was brilliant strategy because at the end of the day, it’s a single person. It’s Andy Warhol.
Eric Shiner: Exactly.
Thomas Krens: But it’s taking advantage of the Andy Warhol brand and the Andy Warhol mystique in a way that Andy Warhol would have..
Eric Shiner: Would have done it. Exactly. I always asked “What would Andy Warhol do?” and oftentimes the answer was right in front to me. There were many times that the Guggenheim played a role in the development of my thinking about how to take Warhol to the global stage.
Charlotte Burns: So an exhibition at the Guggenheim was what got you into Japanese art. You ultimately lived in Japan.
Eric Shiner: That’s right, six years.
Charlotte Burns: This has been so fascinating. Thank you both very much for being here and for taking part. Thank you very much to Tom Krens for being here today. Thank you, Tom.
Thomas Krens: My pleasure.
Charlotte Burns: And thank you, Eric Shiner, for being our guest.
Eric Shiner: Thank you.