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When the invitation came, Krens had been looking at locations for a satellite museum in Spain. But Bilbao wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t interested. Still, he met with the president of the Basque country—and gave him a list of conditions he never thought would be accepted. For openers, the president would have to agree in advance to build the greatest building of the twentieth century—and not only would the Guggenheim get to pick the site, Krens would submit the names ofthree architects from among which the president could choose. In addition, the Basques would have to subsidize the cost. The Guggenheim would loan part of the collection, but Krens would need a multi-million-dollar acquisition fund to buy new works of art. And he’d need $20 million just to go forward, nonre-fundable. When Krens was finished, he got up to leave. Suddenly, the president reached across the table and said, “You’ve got a deal.” It happened just like that.
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
The End of Advertising
.the Beginning of Something New
Frank Gehry’s monument to the city and people of Bilbao, Spain, is a brilliant example of doing something differently, with unquestionable authenticity and uniqueness. The city of Bilbao could have very easily hired another architect to do the job Gehry did, but they didn’t because they had a vision for what they wanted their city to be, to look like, and to be perceived as by the tourist industry. We need to have that same passion for difference, for superiority, for uniqueness and authenticity in all areas of our marketing communications. What a pity it would be if we, as a company, were ever accused of doing our jobs without such a passion.... —Daniel McLoughlin, Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners, New York
At the initial meeting, Krens had told the Basque president to “think big.” The Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry, is nearly double the height and length of the Centre Georges Pompidou. A single gallery is large enough to hold two 747s.
Krens always believed that if the museum were interesting enough, people would go to it—wherever it was. The Guggenheim Bilbao proved that theory. The Guggenheim had projected 485,000 visitors in the first year—it lured in 1.5 million. In one stroke, it changed the fortunes of the Basque country. In the first year alone, the museum brought in $250 million in increased tourist spending and $45 million in new tax revenues. The second year the numbers were even better. As of the end of the year 2000, the Guggenheim was receiving almost 4,000 visitors a day. The only museum in Spain that gets better attendance is the Prado.
“Krens-bashers had a field day. They accused him of being a wheeler-dealer, of franchising art, of creating ‘McGuggenheim.’ They hated the fact that he talked like an entrepreneur.”5
Krens was unfazed. Now that his expansion plans were well under way, he could turn his attention to programming.
Krens had always questioned why art had to be defined as either painting or sculpture. He was also acutely aware that, to draw more people into his museums, he needed to make art more accessible to today’s consumers—and to make the experience entertaining. As Krens put it, “The audiences for art museums have become more sophisticated, more specialized in some ways, and art museums have a certain amount to do with that—it’s a leisure time activity, so we’re really a part of a larger entertainment business.”6
But when Krens turned to motorcycles and fashion, the inevitable question arose: Was this really art?
Art or not, the controversial The Art of the Motorcycle exhibit opened in New York in 1998 and drew the highest daily attendance of any show in the museum’s history.
A Museum as a Brand?
What Krens had done was to apply creative thinking to the most sacrosanct area of them all: to the museum world’s very reason for being, art itself. The result? He drew people to the Guggenheim who had never entered a museum in their lives. With one exhibit, he made relevant again the art museum—an institution that he believed had fulfilled its destiny in the twentieth century.
Krens transformed art into twenty-first-century entertainment.
Two years later, Krens once again incurred the wrath of critics, this time with an exhibition devoted to Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani. The show was sponsored by AOL Time Warner’s fashion magazine, InStyle, and also was reportedly accompanied by a multi-million-dollar gift to the museum from the Italian designer.
Art? Vulgar showmanship? Either way, Krens had successfully achieved something to which none of his contemporaries had even aspired—he had essentially redesigned the concept of museums for the twenty-first century. And because Krens was able to make that creative leap, he was able to triple the museum’s attendance between 1989 and 2000.
Krens questioned the status quo. He was open to new ideas and new ways of thinking and new ways of doing business. He asked not just why . . . but why not.