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The Heart of the Art World

The Guggenheim in New York is one of the most renowned museums in the world. Richard Armstrong helms the iconic museum in the Upper East Side as director and also serves as head of the globally active Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which runs museums in Venice and Bilbao as well. Armstrong talks to OOOM about expensive art, scandals, rarities, death threats, Jeff Koons—and about why it may have been a mistake after all to offer to loan Donald Trump a golden toilet instead of the Van Gogh the president requested.

HERBERT BAUERNEBEL12. Juli 2018 No Comments

Richard Armstrong, Director of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York,

Which trends do you perceive in the art world? What would you say is your mission?

We want to maintain our pan-national approach. There is new information coming from all parts of the world. We would like to demonstrate a new sense of recognition and respect for a wider range of artists. Our reach is becoming increasingly global, and we have the expertise. But we also have limitations: we are a boutique museum, and we can’t take on every project. The world is quite large.

Was the project “YouTube Play”a digital biennial for young video artistsan attempt to reach a younger audience?

We have been doing that for many years. Together with BMW, we also founded the “BMW Guggenheim Lab,” in which we research urban global trends. We asked ourselves: are we living up to our claim of being a global institution? So we had to find a way of changing staff and attitudes to really recognize the scope of the world. The other thing we discovered was that we were not going to be at the forefront of this so-called digital revolution, not least because our building is too complicated to wire and unwire too frequently. We are also lacking resources in that respect. From that YouTube experience, we discovered that we were better off bringing the audience into the building. Through Bloomberg, we were able to really ramp up the amount of digital information we have inside the building. The direct access to this information, and the way we present it, can lead to an utterly synthetic appreciation of the material you are exposed to in a two-and-a-half hour visit.

Quote: When Martin Luther King and then John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby were killed, I told my father: “I can’t live in this country.” And so I moved to Paris.

You spent a long time in France. Did you discover your love for art there?

I was a misfit, and impatient. As a young person you have this boundless energy. I was not sportive, and I am not a big party person. Eventually I needed to find something to keep me engaged. Well, and Paris is nothing but a huge museum. But the spark had already passed when I was 16 and visited a museum in Washington. It was there that for the first time in my life I saw a painting that made complete sense to me. And that happened while I still thought I was going to go into politics. When Martin Luther King and then John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby were killed, when the convention in Chicago erupted in tumults, I realized: “I can’t live in this country.” My father reacted to this sentiment with hostility. But I moved to Paris.

What makes the Guggenheim unique compared to other museums here in New York, like the Carnegie Museum or the Whitney Museum, both of which you previously worked for?

What I might previously have thought of as a constraint, I now perceive as an advantage: the architecture. We are seeing the same things everywhere, mostly in the same surroundings. It all becomes a blur in one’s mind: “Which white box did I see that in?” Here, the building has a very strong personality. If you are careful, you can see something in a deep way and then remember it as well. If you’re careful, you may even learn something here… (laughs). Most people tend to just wander around, just because it is a thing to do. Another advantage of the Guggenheim is that it is small. The way Wright designed it, the right kind of information inside can make a very deep impression on your brain and your senses.

Quote: Society seems to have reconciled itself with contemporary art, which I find amazingand puzzling. I can’t quite believe that this many people are willing to accept the challenge.

Last fall, the Da Vinci painting “Salvator Mundi” was sold at an auction for 450 million dollars. Can a work of art really be worth that much money?

I did not buy it. Apparently there is a lot of surplus capital today. Society seems to have reconciled itself with contemporary art, which I find amazing—and puzzling.


If you look carefully at what certain, really good artists are doing, it does not affirm your perception of the world, it deeply challenges it. I find it puzzling because I can’t quite believe that this many people are willing to accept the challenge.

You are frequently cooperating with corporations. Do sponsors try to influence artistic decisions?

We have been very lucky. Typically we had a collective idea of what we want, and then we often have the serendipity of finding someone who wants to do it with us. None of our sponsors has influence on the content.

Artists like Jeff Koons operate workshops with sometimes as many as 100 people working for them, producing works according to the artists’ specifications. Is this kind of almost industrially produced art comparable to that produced by exceptional artists like Picasso, Degas or Monet, some of whose works are featured in your Thannhauser collection?

This is not without historical precedent. In the 18th century, most Baroque artists would have employed helpers, certainly Rembrandt, Boucher, and in fact all of the renowned names. I don’t think this is unusual. What’s possibly unusual in the case of Jeff Koons is that he is highly productive. His team, under his direction, is producing a lot of work. What’s different today is that we don’t have a royal class of patronage.

Quote: I can say this sheet of paper is worth 2 million dollars – and you can say it’s not even worth a cent. And then the auction will function as an arbiter between those two extremes.

What defines the market value of an artist today?

The one arbiter we can argue with is auctions (holds up a sheet of paper): I can say this is worth 2 million dollars—and you can say it’s not even worth a cent. And then it goes to auction and sells for a million, and then it has that value. In a weird way, auctions function as arbiters in that way.

12. Juli 2018