Thomas Krens was born in New York City and graduated from Williams College in 1969 with degrees in political science and economics. After obtaining a master’s degree in studio art from SUNY Albany in 1971, he returned to Williams to teach in both art studio and art history in the graduate and undergraduate programs. He taught at Williams for 17 years, and was appointed director of the Williams College Museum of Art in 1980. In 1984 he also received an MBA from Yale University.
In 1986, Krens conceived of converting a recently closed factory plant in North Adams, MA—28 buildings across more than 1,000,000 sq ft—into a contemporary art museum. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), opened in 1999.
In the mid 1980s while still at Williams, Krens was a strategic planning consultant for the Brooklyn Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Norman Rockwell Museum. In 1988 he was appointed Director and Chief Artistic Officer of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, a position he held for 20 years.
During his two decades at the Guggenheim, Krens drove a period of significant expansion: completing the renovation of the Frank Lloyd Wright building and the Gwathmey Siegel expansion in New York; more than doubling the size of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice; designing with Frank Gehry and opening the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; creating additional branches in Berlin (the Deutsche Guggenheim) and Las Vegas (the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas and the Guggenheim Las Vegas). He was the mastermind behind other satellite projects that have yet to be realized, such as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
During his tenure as Chief Artistic Officer at the Guggenheim, he organized and produced close to 300 exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museums worldwide, including major retrospectives of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Morris, Jenny Holzer, and James Rosenquist among others; large historical surveys such as “Africa: The Art of a Continent,” “China: 5,000 Years,” and “Brazil: Body & Soul;” design exhibitions such “The Art of the Motorcycle” and “Giorgio Armani;” and architectural retrospectives of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Since leaving the Guggenheim, Krens has been working on museum projects in China. In 2013-2014 he was a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Art History at Williams College and is currently teaching at the School of Organization and Management at Yale University.