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.
"Tourism Has a Lot to Do with Culture"
SPIEGEL: What exactly are you planning?
Krens: A museum for global contemporary art. That means the same emphasis for China, Central Asia, India, Africa, Russia, Eastern Europe, Europe and America. This is a completely new concept. In addition, the museum will have its own collection. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi is providing €500 million ($781 million) for the development of a collection of contemporary art. Does that sound hostile to art?
SPIEGEL: But who is expected to flood into this world art museum and the other cultural venues on the island?
Krens: Guess how many people travel to the Middle East? The airport in Dubai, which is only an hour from Abu Dhabi, will handle 35 million passengers this year. And an even bigger airport is under construction.
SPIEGEL: So you're not building a museum for Abu Dhabi, but for a tourist hub?
Krens: Only 5 percent of the visitors to our museum in Venice are Italian. What's wrong with tourism? Tourism also has a lot to do with culture.
SPIEGEL: But if you assume that people travel everywhere anyway, why Abu Dhabi, of all places?
Krens: Take a look at the map. Abu Dhabi is surrounded by interesting countries: Iran to the north, Iraq farther to the northwest, Saudi Arabia to the west and south.
SPIEGEL: Many of these countries aren't exactly friendly to the West. Doesn't that pose a major risk for the project?
Krens: Our world is filled with political conflicts. Allowing them to stop us is exactly what we don't want to do. When I went to Bilbao for the first time, it was truly dangerous there. Basque terrorist groups threatened me and told me to stay away. I had bodyguards and an armored car. It isn't a coincidence that we are now going to the Middle East.
SPIEGEL: But doesn't it irritate your many Jewish donors?
Krens: What do you think this really is? It's a cultural bridge. We are setting a clear example. We have a Jewish name. Solomon Guggenheim, the founder of the museum, was a Jew. Frank O. Gehry, our architect, is Jewish. And, of course, we talked with a lot of people, with Israeli politicians and with the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the project in Abu Dhabi could fail.
Krens: It's too important for the emirate, and for us.
SPIEGEL: But even in the past, you haven't always been able to turn your visions into reality.
Krens: Sadly, we don't always get everything we want in life. Take, for example, our plan for a museum in Rio de Janeiro. We had the architect, the plans, the signatures. But then a new mayor came along and from one moment to the next, everything was invalid. But was the vision as such wrong? North America doesn't take South American art seriously enough. We wanted to change that.
SPIEGEL: And Las Vegas? You wanted to connect casino culture with art there, which included flying in works from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. But it didn't really work. Your museum was ultimately derided as a McGuggenheim -- an allusion to the omnipresent fast-food chain McDonald's.
Krens: Those who call us that have no idea. Do we have the same façade, the same emblem, the same contents everywhere? No. We have established a local accent everywhere -- with exhibitions and with acquisitions for the respective collections -- with Italian art in Italy and with Basque art in Bilbao. It will work the same way in Abu Dhabi.
SPIEGEL: You established the Guggenheim brand, but also the Krens brand. Have you become too self-confident for the board of directors?
Krens: I'm sure that this played a role when I was the topic of discussion. But my top priority is the Guggenheim.
SPIEGEL: Peter Lewis was long the chairman of the museum's board of directors. But then he resigned because he felt that you were neglecting the original museum in New York.
Krens: Peter Lewis was my most important mentor early on, and he later came to the Guggenheim through me. He was the most generous donor in the history of the museum. I like him. That's all I can say about it.
SPIEGEL: You didn't take the criticism seriously?
Krens: Yes, I did, but I believe that the worldwide presence is a positive thing and that we should confront the challenges of a cosmopolitan world.
SPIEGEL: You enter into joint ventures with corporations and send art to exhibitions around the world as if it were a commodity. Doesn't this diminish respect for art, even change its essence, by making it more ordinary, a sort of flash in the pan?
Krens: Is that a bad thing, changing the essence of art? Besides, what is the essence of art in the first place?
SPIEGEL: Art, in the idealistic sense, is devoid of purpose and exclusive, but not something that is sold at a discount or exported like an industrial product.
Krens: But everyone does traveling exhibitions, all museums do, even those that own old masters. Are you criticizing this practice in the museum world? Besides, we show most of our exhibitions in only one museum. Only a small number travels to other museums.
SPIEGEL: You are planning more. Is that true?
Krens: Yes, it's true. Here's an example: Almost all of the art the Guggenheim owns is in storage, more than 99 percent of the collection, in fact. Years ago this gave me an idea for a very special museum in Manhattan. I call it the department store concept: inexpensive construction, a lot of space, and not just for the Guggenheim's art, but also for private collections. Now a lot of people are urging me to make it happen.
SPIEGEL: Will you also work for other institutions, perhaps as a consultant?
Krens: I don't like the word consultant. But yes, there are such plans. Asia, Russia -- I firmly believe that it's very important to go there.
SPIEGEL: And who is to pay for all this?
Krens: You cannot imagine how much money, what financial resources, are available when it comes to art.
SPIEGEL: Why has art become such a status symbol, such a fetish?
Krens: I'd like to say that it's because we are biologically predetermined to respect and even love art. Name a culture that manages without art.
SPIEGEL: Spending so much money for it isn't customary in every culture.
Krens: There are examples in history of people who have even died for their art, for their idea of the freedom of art. Art is an important thing, a great gift.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Krens, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Ulrike Knöfel and Ariane von Dewitz.