A Guggenheim in Hong Kong?

Hosted by Asia Art Archive, I recently lead an informal discussion about the possibility of a modern art museum, even a Guggenheim Museum, in Hong Kong. The notes that follow are a summary of my main points.

But before I begin, I must emphasize that while I worked for six years at the Guggenheim Museum, where I was Deputy Director in charge of operations and exhibitions, I am not speaking on behalf of the Guggenheim. I no longer work there and I am not advocating a Guggenheim Museum in Hong Kong

The reason that Claire Hsu and I chose this topic is because ever since I arrived in Hong Kong last fall, all sorts of people—museum administrators, government officials, art lovers, artists, business people—have repeatedly asked me the same question: can a Guggenheim happen here?

Also, ever since I’ve arrived in Hong Kong, I’ve been hearing about plans for possible new museums—an ink museum, a modern art museum, even perhaps a contemporary art space. So I’ve gotten the distinct impression that Hong Kong has museums on the mind.

But what has particularly interested me about all this talk is that the more I have listened, the more puzzled I have became about what people mean by “a Guggenheim” or even about “a modern art museum.”

Therefore, I thought I would take the opportunity presented by AAA to provide a little information about the Guggenheims that I have known—and let me say up front there are more than one type of Guggenheim—and ask some questions, so that perhaps we can talk a little further and probe a little deeper into what “a Guggenheim” and by extension “a modern art museum” may mean for Hong Kong.

First of all, what is “a Guggenheim?”

Is it a metaphor or metonym for modern and contemporary art museum? But if it means modern art museum, I wonder if we are talking about a museum of modern Western art, because that is what the Guggenheim collection is mostly made up of. Or are we talking about a museum of modern Asian or Chinese art or, for that matter, a museum of modern Hong Kong art?

Or does “a Guggenheim” actually mean a stunningly innovative piece of contemporary architecture? A signature building, like the Sydney Opera House, that comes to define a city or an aspiration of a city, like Bilbao? In other words, does “a Guggenheim” mean an iconic building, quite separate from the collection it houses and presents.

Or is it an economic development strategy, a reason for tourists to visit the city, to bring in taxable dollars in the form of hotel, taxi, restaurant, and shopping revenue? That is what I think most politicians are thinking.

There is one thing, however, that I suspect is true: the Guggenheim has become a brand, a globally recognized image or logo, identifiable by art people and non-art people alike—even by people who rarely, if ever, go to museums. And this brand, I suggest, has come to convey such attributes as predictable high quality, high style, high fashion and even savvy successful commercialism.

But this brand thing is controversial. To its supporters, the Guggenheim comes across as innovative, international and successful. To its detractors, of whom there are many, it is criticized as imperialistic, populist and overly commercial.

But the attraction of the Guggenheim persists, even in the face of the most vitriolic criticism, because, I believe, many people, including sophisticated people inside the art world, see imbedded in all the “commercialism” a potential new paradigm, a private “corporatized” model for reforming government controlled museum systems.

These government controlled museums, which are more typical outside the U.S. than inside, are seen as endangered, as governments threaten to reduce funding support for the arts. And in some parts of the world, including Hong Kong, these museums, rightly or wrongly, are also seen as overly conservative, straight jacketed by bureaucratic constraints which dis-incentivise curators and creative programming.

“A Guggenheim” is perhaps all these things—a brand, a building, a modern art museum, and a new economic paradigm, but before we draw any conclusions, I would like to describe very simply the Guggenheim Museums that I have known. From this, I hope you will see that the Guggenheim is more complicated that its logo-image may imply, reflecting a very varied set of issues and opportunities which differ from place to place.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York is a medium sized museum with approximately 50,000 square feet of exhibition space, housed in a Modernist icon designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which looks revolutionary even today, although it was opened in 1959. 

An example of an inspired private initiative, the museum is based on a family collection, the architecture was privately commissioned, and today its operations are primarily privately funded, through ticket and membership sales and contributions from primarily private patrons.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, on the contrary, was funded by the Basque government, and it continues to receive government operating support, although this is supplemented in important ways by private donations and corporate sponsorships. It is not an exaggeration to say that the museum which was designed by Frank Gehry, has redefined the city.

While a huge commitment for the city to make, it is generally agreed that as an economic strategy, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao which opened in 1997 has been a huge success. The capital investment in the construction cost of approximately US$100 million was re-couped within three years through incremental taxable revenue that would not have come to the city if the museum had not existed.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a real gem, a must-see for anyone traveling to Venice, Italy. Again, it is primarily privately funded. The collection and the villa within which the collection is housed and displayed were acquired and bequeathed in 1979 to the Guggenheim by a private individual, Peggy Guggenheim. Peggy Guggenheim was the niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, the founder of the New York foundation. Annual operations are mostly supported by admissions and private donations.

Opened in 1997, the same year as Bilbao, the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin is an elegant interior renovation by the American architect, Richard Gluckman, of a pre-war building on the East Berlin side of the Brandenburg Gate. This 510 square meter gallery is funded by Deutsche Bank, a premier international bank who has made support for the arts an integral of its entrepreneurial image. Due to the excellent programming and an innovative commission series, this modest joint venture has achieved a world class reputation by underwriting exhibitions and new art by such contemporary figures as Bill Viola, Gerhard Richter, Rachel Whiteread, Jeff Koons, Lawrence Weiner and Kara Walker.

The Guggenheim Las Vegas and Guggenheim Hermitage Museum which opened in 2001 are certainly the newest and probably the most experimental of the Guggenheim ventures. This time the joint venture partner is the Venetian Casino Resort, which funded the construction of the two Rem Koolhaas designed exhibition spaces.

There are many good things to say about the Las Vegas experiment. The architecture is cutting edge, and it brought great art—masterpieces from the Guggenheim and Hermitage Museum—to the American Midwest. Unfortunately, however, the attendance projections on which some of the operating support was predicated did not meet expectations, and so the larger of the two spaces, the Guggenheim Las Vegas, has already closed.

So what can we learn?

Structurally and economically, there are many different Guggenheims. Nothing is set in stone. But all the Guggenheims do share certain key characteristics. First and foremost, all the Guggenheims have curatorial autonomy. No joint venture partner controls what is bought or shown, including the choice of building architect. All are predicated on some level of collection sharing, with the partners—The Hermitage Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna—and among the other museums in the network. Almost all the Guggenheims are defined by a world class highly innovative architectural structure. And, in order to work, all the Guggenheims need subsidies—big and small—from private tax incented gifts as in US, from the government as in Bilbao, and from major corporate underwriters as in Berlin and Las Vegas.

So I return to the original question: can “a Guggenheim” happen here?

The answer is: I don’t know. It’s a question for Hong Kong to consider and decide. But I want to emphasize, before I finish that I am purposely leaving open the question of whether “a Guggenheim” should happen here, for two reasons.

First, I believe that there are many questions about the existing museums in Hong Kong, including issues relating to audience and the kind of collection and programming that may be appropriate here, that need to be considered first.

Second, I believe that there are undoubtedly many ways of creating a world class modern art museum and a stunning architectural icon, which energize the arts scene and test new economic paradigms, without the Guggenheim name or involvement.

But, like any of the Guggenheim projects, creating a world class art museum takes a lot of vision, a lot of money and critical support from the community, not to mention a prime location, the world’s greatest architects, access to the world’s finest collections (and these collections do not have to be Western) and the highest level of museum professionals, who need to own the project, which means they have to take full responsibility and be held accountable, for realizable and agreed goals, which include the possibility that they will, from time to time, make mistakes.


Jane DeBevoise is AAA Director and former Deputy Director of the Guggenheim




Tue, 1 Jul 2003

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