The crowds that have come to Venice for the Biennale seem a little dazed by the sun and heat it's 36C in the lush gardens of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and everybody is wearing linen shorts, T shirts and sandals. Everybody, that is, except the mountainous man striding through the gardens in his dark suit and tie. Thomas Krens is hard to miss in any setting; in Venice, he attracts knowing glances from the art world crowd. Even at the Biennale, a premier event on the international art calendar, the big American may be the biggest show in town.
As director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Krens, 56, controls the world's farthest-flung museum empire, an endowment projected to hit $78 million by the end of the year and one of the most important collections of modern art on the planet. He is the architect of the Guggenheim's expensive and controversial global-expansion program, the most ambitious franchising plan ever launched by a museum. And he's been taking more heat than even Venice in summer can throw at him. Satellites of the museum's New York City flagship are already open in Bilbao and Berlin as well as Venice, but the next phase of the bold plan has run into a wall of financial and political trouble. In May, one of Krens' most cherished projects the Rem Koolhaas-designed Guggenheim Museum Las Vegas closed due to plummeting attendance a mere two years after its much-hyped opening. And last month, a Brazilian judge dramatically halted Krens' plans to build a dazzling new Guggenheim Museum in Rio de Janeiro; opponents are questioning the mayor's power to authorize the project. The world just isn't smiling on expansionist Americans these days, and Krens has become known as one of the most complex personalities in the arts, a man reviled and revered in equal measure. "I have got used to wearing a target on my back," he says.
Not all the attacks are coming from the outside. In December, Krens and his costly expansion plans got a very public roasting from Peter B. Lewis, the Guggenheim's chairman. "There was a mess about how the finances had been managed at the museum, which had first used yesterday's reserves and then used tomorrow's optimism," said Lewis, a philanthropist who had given the Guggenheim $50 million and chipped in with an additional $12 million to take the foundation out of an operational deficit. Krens' response: "Peter likes to shoot from the hip." Krens also brought in consultants McKinsey to examine the foundation's business model. As if all that weren't enough, Krens is routinely assailed by New York critics for the quality of some of the Guggenheim's shows. The New York Times dismissed the Guggenheim's Armani show, an exhibition of outfits and sketches currently on tour in Berlin, as "a shortsighted exchange of cash for dignity."
In Venice, Krens has another role, one about which he is ambivalent: caretaker of the Biennale's U.S. pavilion. The Guggenheim Foundation owns the building all prissy porticoes, pedimented façade and pretty windows but, for all of Krens' clout, he has no say in what is displayed inside. That is the prerogative of the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions, which reports to the State Department. "It's not so much that we're being taken advantage of," says Krens, "but every once in a while we'd like some consideration ... because it's a space we own and have in- vested in." He lobbied mightily for Matthew Barney, whose multimedia solo show at the New York Guggenheim this spring won lavish praise. But the State Department chose Fred Wilson, whose installation about Africans in Venice through the ages has been panned by the critics. One even suggested that the best reason to visit the U.S. pavilion was the air conditioning.
You'd never guess any of this from Krens' demeanor in Venice. At the Biennale, he is all charm and confidence. This is Europe, where Krens has forged some of the Guggenheim's most important business and artistic ties, including close alliances with the Russian State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. Europe also provides the most ringing endorsement for his expansion program: the Guggenheim Museums in Bilbao and Berlin are both Krens' babies.
The Bilbao Guggenheim was Krens' first step toward turning the Guggenheim into a world brand, a pioneering move in the museum business. Designed by Frank Gehry and completed in 1997, it was also the world's first piece of blockbuster museum architecture since Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic 1959 Guggenheim building in New York. It showed that Krens could leverage the Guggenheim name and its collection while working with a local government keen to advance its economic and political interests. According to Bilbao authorities, the museum received 1.3 million visitors in its first year, and the city recouped more than three times its $100 million original investment from the tourist revenues generated by the Guggenheim. That spectacular success has encouraged other governments to court Krens: he's currently being wooed by Taiwan.
Since Bilbao, Krens has opened three more Guggenheims, with mixed results: the Berlin museum, nestled in Deustche Bank's prestigious Unter den Linden address, has scaled back its programming, and the Guggenheim Las Vegas one of his two museums in that city has shut down. Despite that setback, Krens maintains the expansion plan is essential for the Guggenheim. "I came into this position with the belief that the historic model of the museum was on the edge of obsolescence," he says. "The issue isn't about the number of buildings or exhibitions, but the number of people you directly engage with. If you add up the visitors worldwide to Guggenheim Museums from last year alone, that's 3 million people."