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Elevating the Guggenheim

Elevating the Guggenheim

Crain’s NY 10/23/2006

By Claire Wilson

New director brings focus back to flagship museum during tough time for nonprofits

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s anticipated face-lift gets under way in the spring. Happily, problems with the structure of the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building are less serious than anticipated. The sprucing up will cost just $27 million, money the institution already has in the bank.

For Director Lisa Dennison, the news came as a relief last month. She’s been dealing with the headaches associated with diagnosing the patient–including specially designed scaffolding surrounding the famed museum–since she stepped into the top job just over a year ago.

Replacing windows hasn’t been her only focus. The coming restoration could serve as a metaphor for the tidying up she’s done in the executive offices during the year, which include shaking up the development department and adding curators.

“All together, it has put us on the path to refocusing attention on the Guggenheim as one of New York’s premier cultural institutions,” Ms. Dennison says.

Ms. Dennison was named director of the Guggenheim Museum, a new position, in the wake of a falling-out between Peter Lewis, then chairman of the board of trustees and the institution’s largest donor, and former Director Thomas Krens. Mr. Lewis believed that the museum’s robust international expansion, spearheaded by Mr. Krens, came at the cost of the New York flagship. That view was widely shared in the museum community.

“When you put a lot of energy in one area, it comes at the expense of another,” says Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art. “The program here in New York had not been perhaps as vigorous as it could have been.”

Ultimately, Mr. Lewis quit the board, and Mr. Krens was named director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation so he could put his energy into the foundation’s global expansion. Museum branches have sprung up from Bilbao to Berlin. A future outlet is slated for Abu Dhabi and another is being considered for Guadalajara.

Answering criticsMs. Dennison was promoted from deputy directory and chief curator so she could focus on the Upper East Side flagship. She has tough words for critics who say the New York museum was allowed to lose its edge. “I don’t think we took it for granted,” says Ms. Dennison, who has been on the curatorial staff at the Guggenheim since 1978. “We are a New York institution first and foremost.”

Her quest to reaffirm the Guggenheim’s commitment to New York comes at a tough time for nonprofits. The Guggenheim is said to be facing a shortfall this year in its $35 million operating budget as donations to all museums continue to shrink. Corporate sponsors are pressuring museums to feature products and logos in the exhibitions they finance, though Ms. Dennison says the museum dismisses such requests. And attendance levels at the Guggenheim have never fully recovered to pre-Sept. 11 numbers of about 960,000 annually. Last year, attendance hit 930,000.

Meanwhile, the cost of putting on shows runs ever higher. “It has gotten more and more difficult to mount exhibitions,” says Mr. Lowry. “The costs of transportation and insurance have skyrocketed.”

Ms. Dennison is forging ahead. Despite her mentor’s controversial exit, she plans to build on what Mr. Krens instituted during a long tenure, during which the two worked closely together. That would include enlarging the range of exhibitions to include more shows on architecture or the antecedents of modernism. “I haven’t come in to prove myself as a visionary,” she says.

To refocus attention on the main institution, she has named a 10-person New York advisory board, led by financier David Ganek. Like a similar committee in Venice, it will guide the museum on development, acquisitions, preservation and strategy.

Fund-raising specialtiesIt will dovetail with a restructuring of the development staff, which has doubled to 26 people over the past year. Certain staffers now specialize in major gifts and capital campaigns, corporate and institutional giving, and individual and annual giving. “There was not a traditional development office,” Ms. Dennison says.

She plans to add curators, who now number 16, and has already hired specialists in architecture and design and Asian art.

Although next year’s shows cannot be finalized until a construction schedule is established, the museum will remain open during the renovation.

Future exhibitions will increasingly be culled from the permanent collection, as much to spotlight the museum as to save money. A show from the collection can cost $1 million to mount, Ms. Dennison estimates. Special exhibitions usually run $2 million or more, she says.

Major sponsors are already supporting a refurbished, re-energized Guggenheim in New York. The foundation’s largest corporate donor, Deutsche Bank, which is its partner in the Guggenheim Berlin, is about to sign its third five-year sponsorship agreement.

“We are excited about her focusing on the Guggenheim here in New York, and making sure it is the most important contemporary art museum in the city,” says Gary Hattem, president of the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation.