While many Americans carry Bush Countdown Clocks – today ticking at 326 days – last night at a big art-world bash more than a few disbelieving yet ecstatic art-worlders were burbling about creating “Thomas Krens Countdown Clocks.” That’s because on Wednesday evening news spread that Krens, the Guggenheim Museum’s controversial dictatorial head for almost twenty years — 7,300 days, for clock-watchers — will be stepping down from his post. Well, not quite stepping down; he’ll oversee the creation of the gargantuan 452,000-square-foot Frank Gehry–designed museum in Abu Dhabi. (According to the Times, he'll stay on in his current position until a successor is found.)
Over the last two decades Krens changed museum culture in the West. He made museums corporate and ran the Guggenheim like a business – even if that business often careened like an out-of-control savings and loan.
He branded the Guggenheim and kicked off the starchitect phase of museum culture, building and closing snazzy outlets around the world, most notably the grand shining building in Bilbao. Krens turned his museum into a spectacle and opened it up to the public, mounting crowd-pleasers and blockbusters like “The Art of the Motorcycle,” “China,” “Russia!,” “Brazil,” and other unfocused national smorgasbords that had less to do with the Guggenheim’s original mission than in doing deals in other countries. (He also oversaw excellent exhibitions of contemporary artists like Jenny Holzer and Matthew Barney.)
For all practical purposes the Krens clock began ticking last summer when Lisa Dennison stepped down from her position of museum director. It was widely understood that no real candidate for the job would appear unless Krens stepped away from any day-to-day operations, as just his presence muddied the waters around the museum. With Krens finally away trying to change museum culture in the Middle East, the Guggenheim could become a real force in the New York art world overnight. The building is unique; the capable staff is hungry; the art world is eager to welcome the Guggenheim back into the fold.
Meanwhile in Abu Dhabi, a quick check to numerous government Websites will confirm that Israeli passport holders and travelers whose passports bear Israeli stamps will be denied entry visas to the Emirates. Thus, Krens will continue to do what he does best: try to accessorize the museum while sullying the Guggenheim’s good name, recklessly removing the “heim” from Guggenheim. —Jerry Saltz