The iconic Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is a unique institution and famous all over the world. How much does the building itself contribute to drawing 1.2 million visitors every year?
I was used to more typical, square rooms. But the Guggenheim museum offers a unique experience, especially to uninitiated viewers: the progress of the idea, the apotheosis of the idea, the collapse of the idea—it’s such a beautiful way to be alive inside the subject in a continuous exhibition space. I will admit that we have difficulty accommodating vertical pictures sometimes, since our ceilings are so low.
Hilla Rebay, Solomon R. Guggenheim’s consultant and the first director of the museum, has called this space a “temple of the spirits.” What is the spirit of the Guggenheim today?
We swore to keep a sense of radicalness alive. Rebay was a radical director, Mr. Guggenheim was a radical collector, and we keep that outlook alive. We demonstrate that in exhibitions like our current show of Danh Vo. We said to this young artist, “Give us your best!” And it worked. The exhibition has turned out very interesting. We are committed to making the building as radical as we think it could be, and our program reflects that same ambition.
Sometimes that also results in scandals.
Of course, it can lead to controversies. Last year, for example, our exhibition “Art and China After 1989” caused an uproar by animal rights activist against the Chinese artists. The activists protested against animal cruelty. There was one video, which we eventually did not show, which showed two dogs running inside running wheels.
How do you handle these situations? You reacted to the pressure by withdrawing the work, only to be criticized for the action by the New York Times.
It is a no-win situation. We decided to replace some of the original work with videos depicting previous installations. I thought we had found a particularly poignant solution. In a reaction to the restriction, an artist wrote a poem explaining the work on an Air France vomit bag, which we proceeded to exhibit. It really summarized the tension between western civilization and other cultures.
How important are controversies in the art world? Would you agree that the function of art should not be to polarize?
I don’t like controversy, I am not a controversial person. Of course, there have always been controversies over the past few centuries. I am very convinced that time will show that our reaction to the controversy surrounding the works by these Chinese artists was correct, but I don’t like the stress that comes with all this. One of our principal concerns was safety, because architecturally we have a very dangerous building. We have been through another unhappy situation where protesters took over the building, and I saw how vulnerable the audience is. A panic could have led to injuries. The other thing that came to mind is that the guards that guard the building are confronted with these—let’s say very vocal—ideologues. We even received death threats. In the end I couldn’t accept the responsibility for all that.
You made international headlines when the White House under President Trump asked to be loaned a certain Van Gogh painting, and Nancy Spector responded by offering Maurizio Cattelan’s piece “America” instead—a golden toilet. Many people appreciated that gambit…
It was a misjudgment on our part, but only because we don’t own that golden toilet by Cattelan. Only the artist would have been in a position to offer the artwork to the White House. The worst of it was that it was a huge diversion from the activity of the museum. But the request in itself was already more than unusual (Armstrong rolls his eyes).
As a young man, you worked as an assistant in the US Congress. In delicate situations like the one we just discussed, do you find you still benefit from the experience you gathered in politics?
That was 55 years ago. And in those days, there were civilized people in the senate. The world that I might have known then was so different than the politicians that are in power today that I look at the current situation and it looks like a foreign body to me. I am upset, depressed and confused about the debasement of the political leadership.
How are you planning to keep the Guggenheim Museum relevant in the digital age?
With a strong team. You hire the right people, younger, highly ambitious curators, conservators, good administrators. Looking at our team, I know we’ll remain ahead of the curve.