Richard Armstrong, a specialist in American 20th century art and the former director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, was named the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Guggenheim Museum on Tuesday 23 September. On the eve of his appointment he gave an interview to The Art Newspaper outlining his vision for the New York museum and its overseas branches.
Mr Armstrong will head a global network of museums in Venice, Bilbao and Berlin, and will direct the organisation’s flagship museum in New York, filling the posts long held by Thomas Krens who stepped down in February after two decades. Mr Armstrong, 59, had led the Carnegie since 1996, and in June announced that he would retire by the end of the year. He takes up his new post at the Guggenheim on 4 November.
He told The Art Newspaper that the vision he presented to the search committee consisted of adding intellectual heft to the Guggenheim, empowering the curators, and finding new ways to make the museum relevant, especially to younger audiences. “My concern was that all the museums, and New York maybe foremost, be seen as exemplars of great intellectual enterprise. The search committee felt the same way and responded.”
While the board remains committed to enhancing the museum’s connection with Asia and Latin America, there does not seem to be “a big appetite at present to keep adding sites to the operation,” Mr Armstrong says. Getting a handle on Abu Dhabi, where a new Guggenheim branch is scheduled to open in 2013, will be a challenge, he says. There is, he adds, interest in improving the focus on the programme in New York, where most of the Guggenheim’s board members live.
Mr Armstrong says he intends to more fully integrate the branches and increase their ability to generate and share exhibitions. He also intends to develop partnerships with major museums outside the Guggenheim network. “To me, Tate looks like the most logical long-term partner,” he says, citing the current Louise Bourgeois retrospective co-organised with Tate and Pompidou (at the Guggenheim New York until 28 September). He will meet with Tate director Nicholas Serota in London in October.
Richard Armstrong joined the Carnegie as a curator in 1992 after 12 years at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York where he co-organised four of that museum’s influential biennials. Mild-mannered and known for his fiscal prudence, his appointment marks a return to more traditional museum leadership after Thomas Krens’s revolutionary and often controversial expansionism.
William Mack, chairman of the foundation board, says that “Richard Armstrong has the wisdom and demeanor—as well as the knowledge, stature, and status—we sought in a new leader for the Foundation.” President Jennifer Stockman, who co-chaired the search committee with Mr. Mack, says that his leadership is based on “artistic vision, diplomacy, and inspiration.”
Mr Krens transformed the Guggenheim from a “boutique institution” into one of the world’s most recognised museum brands, but attracted sharp criticism for the franchise-like partnerships he established around the world. He clashed with former chairman Peter Lewis, the largest donor in the Guggenheim’s history (he had given $77m), who left in 2005 after the board failed to heed his advice that the museum should shore up its finances and operations in New York rather than continue to expand overseas.
In 2005 Mr Krens announced that chief curator Lisa Dennison would be his successor as director of the New York museum, but she left after less than two years to become vice-president of Sotheby’s North and South America. The Guggenheim had difficulty recruiting a successor to serve under Mr Krens, who stepped down earlier this year as head of the foundation to act as the consultant overseeing development of the Guggenheim branch in Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry. Mr Armstrong says the trustees decided to recombine the positions of director and foundation head, “but getting a director at Fifth Avenue [in the future] is a possibility. That is not a closed proposition,” he adds.
The schedule of exhibitions now in place includes retrospectives of Catherine Opie, Kandinsky and Frank Lloyd Wright to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the newly-renovated landmark. (The announcement of Mr. Armstrong’s appointment came the day after the unveiling of the $26m renovation. Speaking at the ceremony, Mayor Michael Bloomberg quipped: “It’s one of the best facelifts I’ve seen on Fifth Avenue, but it’s probably not the most expensive.”)
Next, Mr Armstrong plans to find ways of exhibiting the little-seen permanent collection. He believes museums should show their treasures, and if a solution cannot be found within the restrictive Guggenheim, then he may seek other means of getting the works out of storage.
He says the museum has collected well in contemporary art, but the strategic plan calls for filling gaps in the early modern collection, such as Matisse, Malevich and others, and the museum also needs to improve its holdings of art from 1940 to 1975. Mr Armstrong notes that the only way to expand in these areas is by attracting gifts from patrons. The board also has identified Asian and Latin American art as areas to explore. But what distinguishes the Guggenheim from many other museums, he says, is its ties to early modern non-objective art. “That quest for utopia that so distinguishes the best political and aesthetic aspects of Europe from 1880 or 1890 onwards is really very deep in the psyche of the institution. And that has power today, as well,” he adds.
Most of all Mr Armstrong says he wants to add “gravitas of purpose” to the institution. He told the search committee that “through the curators, the institution will reassert itself as a place of high intellectual ambition, and they responded to that. That’s an intangible that is absolutely essential because that’s the credibility factor,” he says.