THE GUGGENHEIM AND GLOBAL INQUISITIVENESS. Richard Armstrong has been the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation since 2008, and oversees the management of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; and the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Armstrong also serves on the Foundation’s board of trustees.

You can listen to a podcast of this interview here.

Richard Armstrong, you are in New York, but where else is the Guggenheim? 

There is also the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Bilbao, and soon it will be four museums with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in UAE.

Is the Guggenheim collection so big that you need to spread it over four places?

That’s not really how it works. New York has its collection, which we share occasionally with Bilbao. They have their own collection as well. In Venice the Peggy Guggenheim collection is her personal collection with several more recent acquisitions. We lend to or borrow from them, and they also make important temporary exhibitions. They put a big effort into that.

Did you build-up the collection in Bilbao?

They have a collection which we advise on, and they make exhibitions from the collection. We work together in adding to the collection as well as making temporary exhibitions.

And Abu Dhabi?

We’ve been advising them now for more than 10 years and building a collection for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

The architect of the museum in New York is Frank Lloyd Wright, and Bilbao and the new building in Abu Dhabi are both by Frank Gehry?

All the architects are named Frank, except in Venice! Venice is an old partially-built palazzo on the Grand Canal. It’s a very beautiful one storey of what should have been either a four or a five storey palazzo.

Were all the collections, including the one in New York, formed by Peggy Guggenheim?  

No, the New York collection was made by Solomon R. Guggenheim, Hilla Rebay and all of the donors who come after that. A number of people have given big collections. We bought and were given pieces from Count Panza di Biumo, and we acquire art works on a regular basis. In Venice the collection is Peggy Guggenheim’s. She had galleries in Paris and London, very separate from her uncle. Her collection lives inside the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, but the Venice collection is autonomous and they make its own programme with New York’s cooperation.

“The building can work well with a living artist, who we invite to come and re-imagine it.”

Richard Armstrong

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, often referred to as The Guggenheim, at 1071 Fifth Avenue on the corner of East 89th Street in the Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. Photo: David Heald
© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Richard Armstrong, does the Foundation have a large endowment with which to buy works of art?

We do have an endowment, and we also are gifted works, and raise money on an annual basis to keep acquiring. Venice buy very little, they really don’t change the collection.

Who is buying the collection for the new museum in Abu Dhabi?  

The money is coming from the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Bilbao the money comes from the regional government and the city.

How different are the four collections?

In Bilbao the starting date would be about 30 years ago, and it’s a collection that has a number of great examples of works by Basque and Spanish artists. In Abu Dhabi we are looking at material that dates from the middle 1960s onwards. It is deliberately very global – perhaps more than any other of the museums. In Venice it’s Peggy’s own collection, which is very rich in surrealism. Recent donations by the Schulhof family strengthened the collection in contemporary art. Here in New York the collection was begun by Mr. Guggenheim as a private collection, became a Foundation and has been added to by the Thannhausers, Panza di Biumo, the Bohen Collection and other donors, with the addition every year of about 30 objects.

Are any particular works your icons?

Yes. In New York we’re very keen on Kandinsky, so we have a show today of more than 90 paintings which we own.  In New York in the 1930s one would see more German and Bauhaus-oriented work at the Guggenheim than anywhere else. With Venice, Bilbao and Abu Dhabi, each collection has its own distinguishing features and there are icons at each.

Do you personally supervise them all?

I’m deeply involved with all of them. We have great directors, particularly in Venice with Karole Vail, who’s been there now for about four years doing a splendid job, and in Bilbao, where Juan Ignacio Vidarte has been the director for the entire 25 years of the museum and is an excellent director.

When is the museum opening in Abu Dhabi?

The museum is scheduled to be completed in 2025.

In New York you have done some amazing exhibitions in this building which is a landmark of 20th century architecture, but not necessarily with your own paintings?

Not so often, no. The building can work well with a living artist, who we invite to come and re-imagine it. Maurizio Cattelan did what no one had ever thought of – hanging an entire career from the oculus of the museum. In the last 10 years we’ve had memorable exhibitions including Gutai in Japan; the Zero Movement in Holland, Belgium and Germany; a new look at Italian Futurism; and the work of Alberto Burri and On Kawara. There was the James Turrell installation, where the museum became a kind of throbbing art of colour and people were encouraged to lie down on the floor.

Did you close during the Coronavirus pandemic?

March through October of that first year, we were closed. Then we reopened in fall 2020 and people came, and we have stayed open since then. Now we have a year-long experiment of joining up Kandinsky with three artists whom we feel are deeply connected to his work. First of all, Etel Adnan, the great Lebanese-born painter, who recently died. Now, a show of the young American artist Jennie C. Jones. Later in the summertime, a big installation by Cecilia Vicuña. This yearlong demonstration of Kandinsky’s ongoing relevance is followed next October by a large retrospective by the American painter Alex Katz. Next springtime comes a big installation of work by the Venezuelan-German artist Gego.

What about Bilbao and Venice, do they have exhibitions too?  

Yes, they have distinctive exhibitions. They’ve just recently re-presented the Alice Neel show in Bilbao that was at the Metropolitan Museum. In February Bilbao will have on view 90 works by Jean Dubuffet, which come from the New York collection. In the autumn they’re taking over the entire museum to show their collection, as it will be the 25th anniversary in October.

“When you’re in the museum profession, one thing you learn is responsibility of the long arc of creativity that distinguishes humanity.”

Richard Armstrong, do you have the same level of visitors at the moment?

In New York we are suffering from many fewer international visitors, and for us that’s not a happy situation. Prior to the pandemic, we had in excess of 60 million people a year visiting New York City and staying overnight. Now many, many fewer.

How many visitors do you normally have a year?

Across the three museums about 2.5 million. Bilbao is the same number as New York.

Why did art suddenly become so popular?

With the advent of television looking at something became so much more attractive than hearing about it or even possibly reading about it. 75 years of advanced visual activity have had a giant impact on people’s willingness to go to museums and look. At the risk of sounding simple, people are considerably more visual than they might have been even 50 years ago. 

Is New York still the center of art in the world?

It’s certainly one of the centers, and commercially it’s probably the biggest transactional center at present. There are many galleries, and a half dozen really excellent world-class institutions, but the artist population is dwindling because Brooklyn and Manhattan have become so expensive.

New York used to be a very powerful center of artists living here, with pop art, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Pollock and other very significant artists. Is there still the same feeling or now is it only about money?

No, we still have those same people who are willing to give up everything to be creative. The talent is here, but they’re more dispersed physically than they were in the 60s or 70s when I came. Now when you want to see new artists’ work you go to Long Island City, the Bronx, Queens, places you might not have thought of previously. There are many more artists today living all the way up and down the Hudson River Valley.

Are you pleased with your job?

I love what I do. When you’re in the museum profession, one thing you learn is responsibility of the long arc of creativity that distinguishes humanity. The museum is a place for taking seriously what people before us thought was the very best at that time. We also have to be open to artists who are very future looking. How do we parse what they’re saying and doing in a way that will guarantee that our successors will have all the intellectual privileges we’ve had – which is a great collection, a vibrant building, and amazing widening audience. We want all that to be true in 50 years as well.

Do the colleagues who are coming after you think very differently?

The generations after mine are definitely distinguished from the way we were brought up, which might have been the tail-end of 19th century classicism. Nevertheless, they are as committed to the purpose of the museum and to artists as we ever were. I have absolute faith in their leadership capacity.

What is at the core of your job?  

The job is to work with staff to make sure that curators can articulate their perceptions while we take careful care of what we have inherited. The curator becomes the conduit between the studio and the public, so my job is to make sure that that conduit stays open.

How do you find these curators and how many do you have?

We have 12 in New York and elsewhere we have others. As a conglomeration, they’re unusually talented. Many of them were at the Guggenheim before me. Quality attracts quality. Ambitious, younger curators come on board because they admire the work of the people before them.

How much preparatory work is needed for an exhibition?

It’s three or four years of very particular preparation in trying to make an important contribution to scholarship and connoisseurship.

How has the online world changed the life of the museum?

It opened up the doors in a very good but complicated way. Information that we previously would have focused on as professionals became available to everyone. We had to hurry and get that information into a format that could be put online in a defensible way. There’s a much more easy acquaintance with the achievements of the past and present than when we were confined to a library. Today, it’s a panopticon of information.

Richard Armstrong

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a modern art museum on the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro sestiere of Venice, Italy. It is one of the most visited attractions in Venice.

Richard Armstrong

Guggenheim Museum was the last major project designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright between 1943 until it opened to the public in 1959. Photo: David Heald
© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Richard Armstrong

The cafe at The Guggenheim provides a welcome outside space for visitors, especially during the pandemic. Photo: David Heald. © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Richard Armstrong

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a museum of modern and contemporary art designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, and located in Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain. © FMGB, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2022. Photo: Erika Ede

Richard Armstrong

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao stands alongside the Nervión River and the higher city level. This way, Gehry created a spectacular structure without it rising above the height of adjacent buildings. © FMGB, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2022. Photo: Erika Ede

Richard Armstrong

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is located in Saadiyat Island cultural district in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Upon completion, it is planned to be the largest of the Guggenheim museums. Rendering of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Image Courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP

“The great phenomenon of global inquisitiveness.”

Richard Armstrong, are American artists highly privileged in comparison with the rest of the world?

To the contrary. In my time, the appetite has become considerably more global. I have learnt a lot by going to Seoul, to Hong Kong, to places I might not previously have ventured. The Far East has great varieties of artists. Korea is particularly a rich stand out, and its artists want to be seen inside the big leagues of Japan and China. 

You are in Abu Dhabi, but not in China. Are you planning to open a museum in the Far East?

No, we’re not. We’re not planning to open anything after Abu Dhabi, but we have people who are focused exclusively on what’s going on in China and what’s going on in Korea, Japan, and East Asia generally.

Do you become more and more of a world brand?

Yes, and then you have the accompanying great phenomenon of global inquisitiveness.

Your own studies started in Kansas City?

I left Kansas City and began at the Whitney Museum. Then I went to California to a small museum called La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.

Is California very different to New York?

It is, and there are two Californias. Two very different ways of making art in those centres of LA and San Francisco. In the North around San Francisco, there was always a taste for figuration, even in the moment when abstraction was considered paramount. They celebrated eccentricity. They liked people who told jokes and they also had a taste for ceramics that didn’t exist in New York.

What is the difference with LA?

LA was always a product of the light there, and to some degree the beach, and also huge affluence from an early moment in the 1960s. Inside the what they call Light and Space movement today, you see many incredible proponents: Robert Irwin and others who really made giant advances in what we consider to be art. Cal Arts, the great school out there, has produced dozens and dozens of important artists who have stayed in the region. UCLA, USC, the universities there are very rich in young artists.

Do you think Europe is old and tired?

No, people here, particularly on the East Coast feel a very strong kinship with not only the past achievements of Europe, but all the variety of contemporary artists today that we’re seeing. Remember, in the old days, there were few galleries where you saw European art, most importantly that of Ileana Sonnabend. Americans had very limited information until the 1980s.

But Duchamp and others were living in New York?

But they may not have been the artists the young people were attracted to. They were looking more at Gilbert & George and things that Ileana Sonnabend among others put forward. There’s a bigger taste today and a greater familiarity with Europe, and remember too how much easier travel has become.

With coronavirus at the moment it is less easy.

Right now, there are a few more obstacles, yes.

Are people still frightened to come to the museum?  

No, we have good attendance. Other museums have as well, we are just not always finding the tourists who are so crucial to us. When Broadway contracts and doesn’t have as many shows, it deeply affects the attractiveness of New York City, and today we’re watching Broadway close its doors briefly. That hurts.

Are you looking for a new renaissance?

Before we get to that, let’s go back to normal. Then let’s go to that higher plane.

Do you think we will be back to normal?

A better normal, yes.

Thank you very much.  


Portrait of Richard Armstrong, Director Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation. Photo: David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York