Art czar Thomas Krens ’69 is back with a plan – and an ambitious one at that. Speaking last Saturday at the Western Gateway Heritage State Park in North Adams, Mass., alongside North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright, former Massachusetts Governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld and architect Richard Gluckman, Krens proposed the creation of a “cultural corridor” connecting Williamstown and North Adams. The project would include the renovation of the Mohawk Theater and the construction of a new Global Contemporary Art Museum (GCAM) and Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, both designed by Gluckman.
The project is planned to bring more visitors to Berkshire County and to further stimulate the economy of North Adams, specifically – not dissimilar to what Krens had in mind for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), which he founded in 1986 with Joseph Thompson ’81, its founding and current director, and Michael Govan ’85, now the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Krens is no stranger to the Berkshires or to the art world, and his plans for this new cultural corridor will no doubt be a boon to the region’s economy. But as with any big project, there are often details tucked away in the cracks, details that should be considered before continuing full speed ahead.
Krens is a cultural patron, but also a businessman. After his tenure as director of the Williams College Museum of Art from 1980 to 1988, he spearheaded the building of the Guggenheim Bilbao by Frank Gehry in the 1990s, as well as supported many other Guggenheim outposts as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation from 1988 to 2008. This is by no means a targeted criticism, either – every museum and cultural institution in the world has to deal with funding, and there has to be a part artistic director, part businessman at the helm of each one.
Krens explained at Saturday’s press conference that GCAM would be completely privately funded and designed to show the collections of select international art collectors. The pieces would be on extended loan, adopting a model similar to that of Mass MoCA. GCAM would be a solution for collectors that falls “in between their houses and a full-blown art museum,” Krens said in an article in The New York Times. Additionally, according to ARTNews, GCAM would only show its contemporary art collection and have no exhibition programming.
There is nothing wrong with this model – more art being seen by the public is indeed a “social good,” as Krens puts it; his labeling of GCAM as a “museum,” however, is unusual and misleading. When asked after the press conference whether GCAM would sell its art over time and whether there would be a profit for the investors, Krens answered, interestingly enough, that those concerns were of little importance.
What happens to the art at GCAM “will depend on what the group that comes together to do this will want to do,” Krens said. “Sure, parts of it could be sold, but what? Is that necessarily bad? It’s not like you’re taking the art someplace and burning it … The reality is you can keep the end open, and you decide what you want to do. Works could be gifted to museums, for tax purposes; works could be sold on the market.”
It is easy to note this and imagine that GCAM, which will not be a nonprofit, could become a sort of gallery space intended to help collectors turn a profit and showcase their collections. But it has also become easy to repeatedly target Krens as some sort of cultural commercializer, not always with good reason. True, Krens did deaccession works from the Guggenheim’s collection to fund its branch in Bilbao, and he did mount a controversial The Art of the Motorcycle exhibition at the Guggenheim – but he also increased the Guggenheim’s endowment to $118 million from $20 million and used Motorcycle and other profits to support hundreds of exhibitions by emerging and preeminent artists.
The fact of the matter is that Krens has always pushed boundaries. Looking at Krens’s many proposals through his consulting firm Global Cultural Asset Management for new museums around the world – particularly in China – we realize GCAM is by no means idiosyncratic. GCAM is Krens’s idea of what the new museum should be. He believes in building new, non-collecting museums, wherein works of art are commissioned for a set time and eventually sold so that there will be a consistent flow of new art to be seen, funded by new money. Art and money have gone hand in hand since the time of the Medicis in the Renaissance, and this won’t change anytime soon. Krens is just unabashed about walking the bleed between them, which often puts him in the spotlight.
In regards to museums particularly, Krens said at the press conference, “Art museums are an 18th century idea – the idea of the encyclopedia – in a 19th century box – which is the extended palace – that more or less fulfilled its structural destiny toward the end of the 20th century. This basically means that art museums cannot continue to collect … There is more contemporary art of great quality than ever before that simply is not being seen … It largely goes into storage.”
GCAM is Krens’s model and supposed solution to this issue; by cycling works through the space and potentially selling them after exhibition, it ensures new art will always be seen, and that collectors will have money to support emerging artists. It’s good to give him the benefit of the doubt as it is not something immediately harmful, but it’s also important to consider what we expect and want from museums, and what will happen if we further bring art as commodity into the museum.
GCAM assumes the role of a museum, an institution for teaching, learning about and engaging with art, but it does so without the programming and education that is and should remain at the core of all museums. It will exhibit art, but we have to ask ourselves if the experience will be the same, if we can still be intimate with, awed by and have our interest piqued by this art, which may very well be out of context.
All the while, though, Krens’s plans for the cultural corridor will be largely beneficial to North Adams. His plans for the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum (rivaling the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany), as well as his idea to re-open the Mohawk Theater on the occasion of an international Dennis Hopper film festival are at once both strange and magnificent. They will invite and bring masses of people to discover something new in the quiet northern Berkshires, maybe staying a night or two to do so and catalyzing the economy while they are at it.
As for a museum of the 21st century, perhaps we should question whether Krens’s idea should be the prevailing concept. His model may be on the extreme side, but at the same time, it is one that is interesting to ponder. What we cannot forget, though, is that art must remain at the center of these museums. Not art as commodity or as something other, but art as a reflector and shaper of our values, art that makes us think about the past and present together, for the future.
What is the best option, then – how can we draw people to museums? With new buildings and good but quick-changing displays of art, or carefully considered and researched exhibitions? Where do we get the money from? Does it matter? Perhaps in the 21st century we may need multiple museums of different types; some like Krens imagines, others re-imagined encyclopedic ones.
But one question follows through. At what cost to culture itself do cultural institutions arise? It’s a big question, one that definitely spans beyond the Purple Valley and the northern Berkshires, and one whose answer remains to be seen.