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Germany's Next MoMA?

Adam Allington, DW-WORLD.DESeptember 29, 2005

As part of its controversial global expansion project, New York's Guggenheim museum is hoping to mirror the success of the 2004 MoMA in Berlin exhibit by bringing its masterpieces to Bonn next year.

From the Guggenheim in New York to Bonn and beyondImage: dpa - Bildarchiv

Thomas Krens, the outspoken former director of New York's Guggenheim Museum sat relaxed and composed behind his laptop while breezing through a PowerPoint presentation at a press conference at Bonn's massive art museum, the so-called Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany. Krens was in his element as he clicked through photos of Guggenheim masterworks as well as design plans for new, yet-to-be realized expansion projects in Rio de Janeiro, lower Manhattan, Guadalajara and Tokyo.

Komposition VIII
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VIII, 1923. Oil on canvas (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)

The purpose of the conference was to promote a traveling Guggenheim collection, which will be on display in Bonn for six months starting in July of 2006. The exhibit, called "The Great Collections," is a selection of some 250 objects, ranging from the masterworks of Kandinsky to Rothko to Warhol to minimal and post-minimalists like Carl Andre and Richard Serra.

Repeating the MoMA success

Despite the intense logistical, physical and financial cost of sending some of the world's most precious works of art around the world, there is fairly solid evidence to suggest that mobile exhibits or branch museums can be a significant tourism draw.

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry in Bilbao SpainImage: AP

In 2004 a record 1.2 million people flocked to see an exhibition of masterpieces from New York's Museum of Modern Art in Berlin. The museum, the Neue Nationalgalerie stayed open around the clock for the final few days to accommodate as many people as possible.

Likewise, the Bonn exhibit at over 6,000 square meters (64,500 square feet), is the largest show ever mounted at the museum there. Krens does not anticipate anything less than the success that Guggenheim currently experiences at their Berlin location.

"These projects are part of the on-going Guggenheim dialog, what we are hoping to do with this exhibition in Bonn is to communicate about our aspirations to an audience that is uniquely positioned to appreciate it," he said.

New museums for a new era

Krens recently stepped down from his post as museum director to assume the position of general director of the Guggenheim Foundation -- a move which will free him up to devote more of his time to Guggenheim's somewhat controversial "expansionary" approach to museum building, the museum claims.

Thomas Krens
Thomas Krens at the Guggenheim in Berlin.Image: dpa - Fotoreport

Giving his stump speech, Krens said that "the traditional model of the art museum is obsolete -- it's an 18th century idea wrapped in a 19th century box.

"It's architecture that could raise questions of how art should be consumed and push the boundary of what a museum should be," he added.

Indeed, many New Yorkers feel that the Fifth Avenue Guggenheim, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is in fact the most precious piece of art the museum has to offer. Likewise, it's no secret that when Krens speaks about architecture, he is in fact referring to the roaring success of the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain.

Hailed as one of the most important pieces of architecture of the late 20th century, the Bilbao museum is an immense structure composed of tilting metal-clad forms designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry. A magnificent success both culturally and fiscally, the museum attracts just shy of one million visitors per year and has also brought international attention to a formerly quiet and disregarded Spanish industrial town.

McDonaldization of art?

MoMA-Ausstellung in Berlin zu Ende: Thank you Berlin!
Signs of the MoMA exhibition glow in the dark near the New National Gallery in Berlin, Thursday evening, Sept. 16, 2004. People can visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibitiont 24 hours a day until the exhibition closes on September 19, 2004.Image: AP

No one denies that Krens and Company have put Guggenheim on the map, but not everyone is behind the idea of "branding" a museum's reputation. Critics of Krens say he has overstretched the institution's artistic and financial resources and has arguably led to the commercialization of a once deeply respected modern art collection.

It was in fact this very conflict that led billionaire philanthropist Peter B. Lewis to resign as chairman of the Guggenheim last January stating he was convinced his one-time friend Krens was pushing the Guggenheim towards financial ruin by planning new museums around the world. A trustee since 1993, Lewis had become the museum's top benefactor, contributing $77 million (64 million euros) over the years.

Even MoMA director Glenn Lowry, a former student of Krens, has tried to distance himself from the latter's flamboyance.

"We are a museum" he said, referring to the new MoMA building that opened last year, "not a destination."

The Guggenheim currently maintains five museums across the world in New York, Las Vegas, Venice, Berlin and Bilbao. When asked why someone might want to construct a modern art museum in a place like Las Vegas Krens said that "when you're in the missionary business, you have to go to where the heathens are."