Art movement

Guggenheim has extended its tentacles to Las Vegas. Is it an art 'franchise' in the making?

Go ahead, say it. McGuggenheim. Last week, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation opened two new museums in Las Vegas, the Guggenheim Las Vegas and the Guggenheim Hermitage, a joint venture with Russia's legendary state museum. That brought the number of its global offspring to seven, at which point the word "franchise" does seem hard to resist. Other Guggenheims are in Venice; Berlin; Bilbao, Spain; and New York (2).

The museum's director, Thomas Krens, prefers to call them "discontiguous exhibition spaces." His former professor at Williams College, Mark Taylor, suggests "the image of a global cultural network is more appropriate."

Whatever one calls the extension of the Guggenheim name worldwide, the questions are the same: Why is one of the world's top museums spreading its name and collection around the world? And what, if anything, does this say about museums in the 21st century?

"They wouldn't give us Central Park," says Mr. Krens of his New York-based museum, "so we left."

The search wasn't simply one for more space, however.

"We see this as an extension of our fundamental mission," he says. When Krens came to the Guggenheim in the late 1980s, he says he and the museum board came to the conclusion that in the 21st century the notion of art would expand to encompass "far more than just painting and sculpture. We felt it was important to expand programming that would include architecture, film, video, performance art, all aspects of the art world that are already important to this century."

Contrary to the fast-food or supermarket model, Krens says, "we didn't do this for the money. We did it because there's an audience."

"Krens is like a missionary - "he's bringing religion to the masses," says architect Robert Venturi, author of "Learning from Las Vegas."

"He's trying to create a dialogue on culture," Mr. Taylor says. "It is a worthy endeavor."

The humanities professor in Williamstown, Mass., points out an overlooked aspect to the expansion: The museum is also launching Guggenheim.com, a website dedicated to the global dissemination of culture.

"Guggenheim.com is crucial because it will be educational, it won't just be selling products online," Taylor says.

If the reception in Bilbao is any indication, the masses are responding to the invitation. Lines to enter the titanium-clad Frank Gehry design in the heart of the blue-collar capital city of Spain's Basque region are long, queuing up for hours before opening.

"Many of the local people come over and over," says Saioa Zubizarrreta, a museum employee who hails from one of the most well-known Basque cities in the world, Guernica. "It has changed our city."

It is no exaggeration to say the 1997 edifice put Bilbao on the map for tourists. In what has become standard procedure for the Guggenheim when it enters a new locale, Bilbao officials paid the $50 million tab for the building. (Nevada developer Sheldon Adelson provided $35 million to bring the Guggenheim/Las Vegas and the Guggenheim/Hermitage to his Venetian Hotel.)

Krens, meanwhile, is clear about his desire to make a difference.

"In Bilbao, we're doing city planning ... the attempt to try a new concept of planning was what attracted us in the first place," he says. The city was in the midst of a major push to rejuvenate itself, building a new subway line, airline terminal, convention center, and train station. An internationally recognized cultural landmark was the final step in the plan.

As with the new Las Vegas spaces, Krens says these "baby" Guggenheims are part of a larger plan. "These will change how culture is used and viewed by people all over the world."

"Krens is a visionary," says Mr. Adelson, the Las Vegas developer. "That's what the record will show when the history of art and administration in this century is written. He says, 'my job is to show art and spread culture.' "

Adelson points out that nearly 95 percent of the collections in the nation's museums go unseen for lack of exhibition space. Krens, he says, is taking a creative approach to solving that space crunch. "So, who's to say he can't have a chain of museums?" Adelson says. "He says you can, and he's doing it."

Not surprisingly, the gaggle of Guggenheims has garnered some criticism. "I don't think these museums have anything to do with the execution, practice, and dissemination of art," says Las Vegas-based art critic Dave Hickey. Museums today are run like multinational corporations, he says. "They don't have anything to do with ... coming to terms with the difficulty of the visual experience."

Beyond his artistic concerns, Hickey also has no confidence that additional exhibition space will bring out the vast archives of stored art from any museum basements, especially the Guggenheim's. He nods to the opening show in the main 63,700-square-foot space adjacent to the Venetian Hotel, "The Art of the Motorcycle," to make his point. "We are not going to see the depth of any collections," Hickey says. "We are going to see blockbuster shows that will bring in the gate."

As for whether other museums will take their names on the road, officials at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art "decline to comment on the practices of other museums." No other major private or public museum has ventured into any similar arrangements, although New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has successfully launched a nationwide chain of museum gift stores carrying its logo.

As for objections about vulgarizing art to serve commerce, Taylor points out that since the government doesn't heavily finance art museums in this country, museums must be creative. In his 11 years at the Guggenheim, Krens has taken a $24 million endowment to $37 million. And Krens notes that a box-office success in one museum pays for the development of new material in another.

"There are lots of reasons why there has been hostility to what Tom [Krens] is doing," Professor Taylor says. "Much of it is disingenuous. Look at MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] and the Met, they have stores all over....

"Insofar as people continue to worry and criticize the commercialization and franchising of the museum name, it is misguided, because commercialization is the name of the game."

Architecture that entertains

Given the mouthful their names present, it's not surprising that this city's hottest new attractions, the Guggenheim/Las Vegas and the Guggenheim/Hermitage, have already received nicknames. "The Big Box" and "The Jewel Box," respectively, are a 63,700-square-foot austere, industrial plant, and a 7,660-square-foot space sheathed in steel inside and out. Both are accessed from within the Venetian Hotel, with no separate exterior entrances.

While the larger venue is dedicated to a popular subject, the motorcycle, the first show in the smaller space offers 45 of the past century's top paintings. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who designed the spaces and is the 2000 recipient of architecture's top award, the Pritzker Prize, is impatient with the suggestion that culture in Las Vegas is an oxymoron.

"The only reason to withhold culture from Vegas is extreme cultural snobbery," he says. "The intersection of high and low culture has never received more resolution than here."

Koolhaas says the two structures represent a 21st-century trend, in which the building of a city's important sites has increasingly shifted to the private sector.

"This is entertainment architecture," he says. "It used to be that architecture was very solemn. But, increasingly, architecture in this century can and must entertain."

Go ahead, say it. McGuggenheim. Last week, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation opened two new museums in Las Vegas, the Guggenheim Las Vegas and the Guggenheim Hermitage, a joint venture with Russia's legendary state museum. That brought the number of its global offspring to seven, at which point the word "franchise" does seem hard to resist. Other Guggenheims are in Venice; Berlin; Bilbao, Spain; and New York (2).

The museum's director, Thomas Krens, prefers to call them "discontiguous exhibition spaces." His former professor at Williams College, Mark Taylor, suggests "the image of a global cultural network is more appropriate."

Whatever one calls the extension of the Guggenheim name worldwide, the questions are the same: Why is one of the world's top museums spreading

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