When Advertising Age told Thomas Krens, CEO-chief artistic officer of the Guggenheim Museum, that he had been named a marketing innovator, he was quiet for a minute. "Is that an honor in my field," he asked, "or is it a negative?"
It's a natural question, considering that for much of his long career at the Guggenheim, Mr. Krens has been both praised and vilified for turning what was once a small New York institution into a worldwide brand, creating the first truly multinational arts institution. Its reputation solidified by the triumphant opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain nearly 10 years ago, Mr. Krens transformed the Guggenheim into one of the best-known brand name in the arts.
And although Mr. Krens gave up day-to-day control of the New York museum last year, his contributions are a permanent part of the museum's collection. Forbes says Mr. Krens has rewritten the rules of how museums are run. And The New York Times has trumpeted his ability to use "architecture as the solution to a marketing, not a facilities, problem," as well as his skillful blending of art and commerce.
But to him, branding the Guggenheim felt more logical than innovative. "We already had a museum in Venice and we were looking for ways to make the museum more efficient, so we began to think of running those together," he said.
"That led to the explicit notion of international expansion. It just made sense, since everything was moving toward a more global economy," he said.
In addition to Bilbao, the Guggenheim has museums in Berlin and Las Vegas; all told, the Guggenheim gets about 2.5 million visitors a year. "Our success internationally has led to the tripling of attendance in New York, and that's held steady for four or five years," he says.
The strength of the Guggenheim brand is something Mr. Krens can discuss as easily as the merits of Kandinsky's "Painting with White Border," his favorite in the collection. "A good brand becomes an article of faith among a consumer audience," he said. "If you buy a BMW or a Mercedes, or stay at a Four Seasons hotel or go the Louvre, you can be pretty much guaranteed a quality experience." And the essence of the Guggenheim brand is cultural quality at the highest level: "We think of ourselves as storytellers, custodians and guardians and framers of cultural narratives, and we do it in an innovative way."
Critics have blasted Mr. Krens over the years for his commercialization of the Guggenheim. Mr. Krens dismisses his media reputation as "mostly inaccurate caricatures. I regard myself as a private person, and I've come to the conclusion that it's not worth making a huge effort to control what people think of me," he said. "I don't want to be a public figure."
But he understands why mavericks aren't always welcome in the world of the arts. By nature, he said, certain nonprofit institutions have to be conservative. "They're cultural stewards. But it's not necessary for the Guggenheim to replicate the Museum of Modern Art. We've become an institution that is clearly international. The collection has about doubled in the last 15 years," he said. "We've made the case for institutional evolution."