Krens' Museum for Global Contemporary Art Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Will Be 'Pharaonic'

In a SPIEGEL interview, one of the art world's biggest globalizing forces, Guggenheim mastermind Thomas Krens, discusses his affinity for massive projects, including the organization's biggest undertaking ever -- an outpost in Abu Dhabi he hopes to establish as the world's first museum for global contemporary art.

A computer simulation of Saadiyat island in Abu Dhabi, where a new Guggenheim outpost will be part of a "cultural district."

A computer simulation of Saadiyat island in Abu Dhabi, where a new Guggenheim outpost will be part of a "cultural district."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Krens, you live in the fast lane. You ride your motorcycle in your free time with friends like actors Jeremy Irons and Dennis Hopper, of "Easy Rider" fame.

Krens: In fact, I'm not so great on my feet at the moment because I just had a minor motorcycle accident. But it was nothing. We're leaving on another trip soon, this time to Mexico -- Dennis, Jeremy and a few others.

SPIEGEL: All of the things that you have done as the Guggenheim director have fascinated the art world, but they have also triggered controversies. Is it possible that you have actually made more enemies than friends in the last 20 years?

Krens: How can I respond to that? It's become old hat to describe me as a pioneer. But you know the definition of a pioneer. They're the people in a group who walk at the very front, who are the first to fall face down in the mud and the first to be shot in the back with an arrow.

SPIEGEL: Do you enjoy being polarizing?

Krens: I can be nice at times.

SPIEGEL: In the future, you will be in charge of the construction of the new Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, and you're giving up your position as director to do it. Who advised you to do this? Your inner voice or the museum board?

Krens: Let me put it this way: The Guggenheim is not going through an easy time at the moment. Years ago, we chose a strategy geared toward achieving a worldwide presence -- in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America. There is a document to this effect, which everyone enthusiastically agreed to at one point. The Guggenheim consists of our museums in New York, Venice, perhaps Bilbao and two smaller museums in Las Vegas and Berlin…

SPIEGEL:…and that's enough for many within the museum?

Krens: For some, perhaps. But I believe that we must further strengthen our presence and that Abu Dhabi, in particular, is tremendously important for the Guggenheim. I want it to be a great success. It was my decision to focus on this project.

SPIEGEL: And you are moving to the desert voluntarily?

Krens: Yes. What I have planned in Abu Dhabi is so much bigger than what I've done so far. It'll be the kind of thing we've never seen before. The only expression I can think of to describe it is pharaonic.

SPIEGEL: Do you want to show everyone that you were right with your concept of internationalization and with the establishment of satellite museums?

Krens: Why not? It was always the hot-button topic on the agenda, including the agendas of every meeting of museum directors. And now the people from the Louvre are also building a museum in Abu Dhabi. They are among those who severely criticized us in the past for our strategy.

SPIEGEL: Your trick was to make everything a little more sensationalist and cosmopolitan. That includes major exhibitions, Anselm Kiefer, motorcycles, glamorous parties and dazzling architecture.

Krens: If you are referring to the architecture of our museum in Bilbao, it is important to impress. I've always looked for a metaphor for the museum of the present. When we began planning the museum in Bilbao, our architect, Frank Gehry, asked me what I wanted. I said that I basically wanted the cathedral in Chartres, and Frank asked me what I was talking about.

SPIEGEL: And? How did you explain the Gothic church to him?

Krens: In the Middle Ages, when someone came to the city from a village, they had never seen buildings with more than one story before and then they stood in front of this massive cathedral. That's the effect I wanted to achieve. It's technology, cosmology, science and religion, all thrown together. Breathtaking.

SPIEGEL: The term "Bilbao Effect" has been established for some time. It means that a relatively unknown industrial city is transformed into a tourist mecca by a museum. Everyone has wanted his own Bilbao since then. Even the small German city of Herford is now splurging on a Gehry building. Hasn't the Bilbao idea run its course?

Krens: Why? It was a huge success. Bilbao changed the perception of culture.

SPIEGEL: Exactly. Museums became a mere tourist spectacle, art as a way of making money.

Krens: No. After Bilbao, everyone recognized that we need museums that are architecturally unique -- but that also offer content that appeals to people. London, for example, followed suit with the Tate Modern Museum. In fact, everyone has taken this approach in recent years.

SPIEGEL: Will Abu Dhabi be a new Bilbao, only bigger?

Krens: At 42,000 square meters (452,000 square feet), Abu Dhabi will be substantially larger than Bilbao, and it's also much bigger than what the Louvre has planned for the city. And we cannot afford the convenience, the luxury, of simply copying something we already have. That would be too easy.

SPIEGEL: But you're using the same star architect, Frank Gehry.

Krens: That's exactly the problem.

SPIEGEL: How so?

Krens: It's as if you, as a director, were shooting the action film "Die Hard" and then "Die Hard II." By the second or third time around, it becomes more difficult to surprise people. We should get used to the idea that Abu Dhabi will be completely different, must be completely different, in every respect. It will also be a couple of very exciting years for Frank Gehry because it will be a truly new step in the evolution of the art museum.

SPIEGEL: Is that a threat? The Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi is part of a complete new development that includes widely diverse museums, as well as hotels and golf courses…

Krens: … and residential units.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, it sounds more like an amusement park and less like an oasis of culture.

Krens: An entire city is being built on an island off the coast. What's wrong with the infrastructure? There are hotels and restaurants near the Louvre. But that doesn't reduce the value of our project. This island of culture, called Saadiyat, is primarily the vision of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. It's his country and his money.

SPIEGEL: The government there is also paying for the construction of the museum. But it's hard to imagine a museum for the sometimes drastic art of the modern age and the present side-by-side with strict Islamic culture, which permits only purely ornamental art.

Krens: You think so?

SPIEGEL: The salacious early photography of someone like Jeff Wall in Abu Dhabi? Inconceivable.

Krens: I can assure you that no one, throughout the entire time I was there for the negotiations, so much as created the impression of wanting to impose censorship. You know, the Guggenheim owns the largest collection of photographs by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe…

SPIEGEL: …many of which could be described as pornographic, even brutal.

Krens: And we would never even exhibit 30 percent of his photographs in New York. We would be allowed to do so there, and it would probably be possible in Abu Dhabi, as well. The question is: Why should we challenge a local culture? Perhaps to provoke political confrontation? That's unnecessary. And if an increasingly small portion of our collection is in fact not exhibited, this does not diminish the entire presentation.


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