On Tom Krens, the charismatic former Guggenheim director. Dangerous are those with nothing to lose

When François Mitterrand discovered he had prostate cancer and opted not to make the information public, this powerful politician who had a remarkable talent for manipulating other people suddenly had nothing to lose.

When the economist and the ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, to name another Frenchman, began making alarmist, even apocalyptic forecasts after he was implicated in several career-shattering sex scandals, he too was dangerous since he had nothing to lose.

These two cases reminded me of a third – Tom Krens.

The highly charismatic former Guggenheim director was the guest on the ‘In Other Words’ podcast hosted by the very intelligent Allan Schwartzman, head of the Sotheby’s-owned Art Agency Partners.

Krens spoke about the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, a project which he originally launched. His comments were reported in The Art Newspaper by Christina Ruiz on 27 March.

In her piece and in the podcast, there were several scandalous quotes, such as:

‘It may not be such a good idea these days to have an American museum…with a Jewish name in a country that doesn’t recognise Israel in such a prominent location, at such a big scale.’

And also: ‘One of the biggest concerns was security, because we were right on the edge of the Persian Gulf, and so everybody’s imagination was about water-borne terrorism – boatloads of explosives crashing into the museum and blowing it up.’

I know Tom Krens  well.

He is a visionary who is responsible for creating a great many things. He was behind MASS MoCA (converting an industrial space into a large-scale museum) in Massachusetts, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, including the ‘Bilbao Effect’ whereby starchitects become media magnets for new museums, the concept of museum franchises, the intrusion of luxury goods and mass consumption in the museum world

He presented his Saadiyat Island project in Abu Dhabi to me at a very early stage. Because Saadiyat Island (which means Island of Happiness) this isle dedicated to museums,  was originally his vision

It was one morning in London in the breakfast room of a hotel at a time when nobody had heard about the project.

Since then, Tom Krens, like the majority of foreign participants in the Saadiyat project, which includes the Louvre and the Guggenheim, have been fired.

Tom Krens is a giant in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

But Tom Krens has become dangerous.

For without a major project in his life – I’ve personally not heard of any, except a North Adam for profit art museum work in progress project, but I wish him many new projects – he too has nothing to fear about predicting a disaster.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time with this man.

Since I considered him to be a giant, I suggested that I write a book about his memories as a 20th century museum mogul.

I visited him several times in his large house in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where over the past few years he has secluded himself.

Tom Krens is a man who likes to handle sprawling projects.

The last time I saw him, his major passion was a giant city in miniature, which he had built in his cellar, crossed by a labyrinth of railways and punctuated by models of buildings by major architects.

The fact that the Guggenheim Museum has a Jewish name was not an obstacle for the Emiratis who specifically chose this museum after the attack on the Twin Towers. What’s changed here?

Should you give up and not open a new cultural epicentre in this part of the world because the Guggenheim is a Jewish name? The argument is feeble.

Would the Louvre be less at risk because it doesn’t have a Jewish name?

As the artist Rachid Rana pointed out to me recently after I told him I was scared of travelling to Pakistan where he’s curating a biennale: in the past few years there have been fewer attacks in Lahore than in Paris. And Abu Dhabi is significantly safer than Lahore.

 In our times where is the secure place?

I’ll leave you with a quote from The Art Newspaper: ‘A spokeswoman for the Guggenheim said: “At a time when greater understanding among peoples and cultures is especially urgent, the Guggenheim Foundation remains committed to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and its transformative potential as a catalyst for exchange and for expanding the narratives of art history.”’

- March 28, 2017

In other words,
The Art Newspaper