Guggenheim: First Abu Dhabi, Then the World?

The Guggenheim Museum's plans to open a new museum in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, stir much debate in the art world. Jerry Saltz, art critic for the Village Voice, offers his insights to Madeleine Brand.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The Guggenheim Museum has announced it will open a new museum in Abu Dhabi. That's the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It'll be the sixth Guggenheim. Well, is the Guggenheim becoming the McDonald's of the art world? Jerry Saltz has an opinion on that. He's the art critic for the Village Voice. I spoke with him earlier.

You once wrote that the Guggenheim's director, Thomas Krens, wanted to turn the museum into a brand and into a worldwide entertainment network. You called it GuggEnron, and is that what you think is happening now?

Mr. JERRY SALTZ (Art Critic, Village Voice): I do think it's turned into a franchise. The programming is spread pretty thin. It's more of a brand than anything else. If you have a new zone of financial activity, the Guggenheim is there.

BRAND: So a zone of financial activity - so that would mean what, exactly? That the Guggenheim has a different priority than showcasing modern art?

Mr. SALTZ: I think so. I think it's more promoting itself than modern art. At this point, to move to Dubai, you wonder will it be there in 50 years? Or in 50 years, perhaps the Guggenheim will go the way of the Las Vegas Guggenheim, disappear, and perhaps this one will become a convention center or more of a tourist attraction.

BRAND: Well, to take the opposite argument, isn't this good for art in that, you know, it could be something else? I could've been a mall that Abu Dhabi built, but instead they're building an art museum.

Mr. SALTZ: I think it's great that there's a museum there. I just wonder, does it have to be the Guggenheim?

BRAND: But does it mean - with more Guggenheims - that there will be more acquisition of art, and that this will be good for upcoming and previously unrecognized artists?

Mr. SALTZ: So far, we haven't seen that effect with the Guggenheim. They're just spreading their name around as a kind of cultural ambassador. They're spreading the idea of modernism around at a time when I'm not so sure that that's what actually needs spreading.

BRAND: Well, tell us from your perspective as an art critic whether or not they've had notable exhibitions in the past.

Mr. SALTZ: They have. The exhibition that most people hate - in the art world, that is - the motorcycle exhibition, I actually found really fascinating. It was looking at one form - almost a kind of formalist exhibition - and following that form all the way through.

On the other hand, you have these massive blockbusters that never really quite come into focus. You have - like Brazil, you have the Aztec empire, others like that. So they are wildly uneven, but they are doing good exhibitions.

BRAND: And it would seem that these would be sexy exhibitions, exhibitions designed to draw in a wide swath of tourists.

Mr. SALTZ: And I'm okay with drawing in a lot of people. But sometimes the Guggenheim has, in a way, betrayed art - that it focuses more on people that would come to the museum, say, one time rather than their core audience that - our life is lived in art.

BRAND: And do you think that they have a responsibility to promote serious art?

Mr. SALTZ: I do. And I do think they are promoting serious art. But again, you build a museum in every hot spot in the world, and you can't help but start to spread yourself thin. Are we going to have the Guggenheim Machu Picchu, the Guggenheim Everest? I mean, where next?

BRAND: Jerry Saltz is art critic for the Village Voice. Thanks, Jerry.

Mr. SALTZ: Thank you, Madeleine.

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