Richard Armstrong is on the move. As director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, he presides over not only the famous institution on New York’s Fifth Avenue, a gleaming white spiral designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1956, but also the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal, the Guggenheim Bilbao and the nascent Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. At least twice a year, he tells me over Zoom from Art Basel, en route between Venice and Bilbao, he does the rounds.
I suggest that directing four such disparate museums must be quite a tough brief. “They’re all run by people who are hugely capable,” he replies with a laugh, “so I just walk around smiling.”
I get the message that his lightly self-deprecating tone — and his quickness to praise colleagues — is in character. But when he talks about the Abu Dhabi museum, due to be opened in 2025 after countless delays, there’s a more determined edge to his voice. The foundation has just appointed Stephanie Rosenthal as project director, and is putting together “a good-sized staff”, working both in New York and Abu Dhabi. The project, he says, is making “very good progress”.
That must be a relief. The new museum was announced in 2006, two years before Armstrong was appointed to his current role. With a futuristic building design by Frank Gehry, the building was due to take its place on Saadiyat Island, along with the Louvre Abu Dhabi (which opened in 2017) and other museums in the emirate’s much-vaunted new cultural quarter. But the construction process stalled several times, and Armstrong had to cope with protests in New York over workers’ conditions in the UAE.
Undaunted, though, the project has pressed ahead. “We have been buying art for 13 years, so it’s a sizeable collection. Frank [Gehry] has made some refinements to the building, and we have a very good idea of how it will be a complement to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, not just in terms of occupying the space but also intellectually. And in the future we will think about temporary exhibitions that help one another.”
Designing the new collection, “we were interested in high creativity around the world from about the 1960s on,” he explains, “and we discovered pockets of amazing art in places like Morocco, Baghdad — it has been a learning experience. We’ve aimed to create a series of narratives rather than a chronology. Immersive and not overwhelming. And a reach that is truly global, not just from a postcolonial perspective.”
Armstrong describes a “long-term relationship”. Is it, I ask, an institution owned by Abu Dhabi and managed by the Guggenheim Foundation? “That’s an easy way to say it, yes,” he replies. “It’s a version of the situation in Bilbao: that museum is owned by the city and regional governments; we have artistic oversight but it’s very much a Basque and Spanish operation.”
The collecting in each museum is also locally funded. In Bilbao it has been what he tactfully describes as “cautious”: after 25 years, there are fewer than 150 objects, and many exhibitions are loans from the mothership in New York. But with the deeper pockets of the Emiratis, that collection is building faster and already numbers, he says, enough to fill that much larger space.
The aim of creating Guggenheim spin-offs around the world — a policy of Armstrong’s business-minded predecessor, Thomas Krens — brought the foundation close to building a new site in Helsinki, but the plans were halted. Will there be more in the Guggenheim portfolio?
“When I’m asked that,” he replies, “I always say Mars . . . that’s supposed to stop all speculation. But after Helsinki, the board and I recognised that just building and setting up Abu Dhabi will be enough of a challenge.”
We turn to more general issues. The Guggenheim in New York has had its share of difficulties in the past few years, with accusations of “failure to create a diverse and equitable workplace” and “a culture of institutional racism” from staff that led to the resignation of its longstanding artistic director and senior curator, Nancy Spector.
The museum then appointed the highly respected African American curator Naomi Beckwith. Armstrong describes her as “very helpful in getting the museum to recognise its responsibilities and opening it up to new considerations — she has become a really important leader.”
After so many years in the post, he says that one of his top priorities is “greater sensitivity in broadening who is on view and why” and a focus on different kinds of artists and art. He is also open about some of the institution’s historic failings: “The museum presented itself previously as a global institution, but it had a very myopic view of the globe.” And claims that the necessary widening of perspective “began some time ago — our photography committee, for example, has decided to work almost exclusively with artists of color over the past 15 years. So now it’s more of a panopticon.”
Since this mission obviously applies to hiring as well, the Abu Dhabi project is bound to be under scrutiny. “There are two parallel teams,” he explains, “Emirati and western. Both heads are called ‘project directors’, there isn’t a single director at the helm yet.” The main motive, he adds, is the transfer of knowledge and expertise, and “it can only be successful if Emiratis are there, at the center of everything”.
Among other significant changes during his time in office, he says, is “the acceleration of the addiction to phones and social media”.
“We have lived through this phenomenal democratisation of information, which is positive; less positive is the sense of what accuracy might be, and the value of accuracy, and also of expertise: those have been bruised categories in the rush. I know I sound like a medieval monk vis-à-vis the printing press, but it might be comparable to that.
“For the museum, we have had to understand that the digital universe has become parallel, not just complementary but maybe even more powerful than we ourselves.”
Does that, I wonder, threaten the whole idea of a museum?
“No!” It’s a very quick and emphatic answer. “One of the charms of the museum in today’s world is that it is a very effective condensation of excellence — we are the shepherds of about 8,000 objects that people have thought showed high achievement, and the object still has phenomenal power. That’s true for every generation.”
Yet if museums now have to go beyond the object and into the digital realm, is the Guggenheim exploring digital art forms?
“There has been lots of discussion, lots of give and take,” he says, “and lots of resistance. I was one of the most keen: I felt we were a bit ill-equipped to deal with all the changes. We formed a partnership with LG and we are bringing someone on staff who has deep expertise in that field, so we can evolve a better strategy — in relation to NFTs in particular. A strategy with logic behind it.”
“It’s an impatient moment,” he says — but he stresses that Guggenheim’s curators have “a taste for innovation but also a taste for explication”, referring to the museum’s extensive educational mission.
As for himself, he is on the move in more ways than one. “Sometime next spring,” he says, “I’ll be leaving the museum. It’ll be almost 15 years by then and that’s a long time. The board is rejuvenated, and active — it’s a good moment.
“I need to take my hat off to the board — the museums’ success is truly a confluence of their concern and their generosity — they are donors not only of money, but of time, art, critique, engagement. Without them private institutions like this one face a very rocky future.”
And what of his own future: does he have any particular plans? “I’ll stay involved with art,” he says. “I don’t have any other vocabulary. And maybe remember a few things and write them down, I don’t know.” He is, however, definitely “calm about the whole future of museums”.
“This is a place of learning, but also a place for the imagination. Learn if you want to, but also dream.”
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