Tom Krens Develops Business as a Museum

A For Profit Paradigm for North Adams

By: - Dec 08, 2015

Krens Krens

While director of the Williams College Museum of Art, before he left to head the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Tom Krens launched what evolved under his successor and former student, Joe Thompson, as the still expanding MASS MoCA.

Three decades later Krens is back in the Northern Berkshires with projects for two new museums. They are a part of what he sees as a Cultural Corridor connecting North Adams and Williamstown.

His concept for MASS MoCA at the time was that museums and private collectors had more work in storage than it was possible to show. The seventeen acre, former Sprague Electric campus in North Adams, had the potential to display and warehouse primarily minimalist works that safely could be displayed without costly HVAC and climate controlled conditions.

The large industrial buildings, with limited conversion, would provide enticing space, open to the public as a museum, to warehouse works loaned by museums and private collectors.

Under Thompson, initially, the vast museum complex opted for installations that rotate annually. The original Krens model evolved as the warehoused Dia Beacon and the Chinati and Judd Foundations in Marfa, Texas. These mega museums feature the permanent display of the low maintenance, minimalist works that Krens had proposed.

More recently MASS MoCA has created buildings displaying works from the Sol LeWitt estate and Yale University which owns the conceptual plans for the multiple wall drawings. With the Hall Art Foundation a building was renovated for a long term installation of works by Anselm Kiefer. The contracts for these buildings call for 25 years for LeWitt and 15 for Kiefer.

With a matching grant of $25 million from the Commonwealth Thompson is developing the final phase of the build out of the North Adams campus. It will showcase extended displays of several artists in a manner similar to LeWitt and Kiefer.

During his visionary but controversial tenure at the Guggenheim (1988-2008) Krens initiated a number of satellite museums. The first, with a design by Frank Gehry, was built in Bilbao, Spain. Its programming features special exhibitions and loans from the New York based museum. There would be other such projects not all of which came to fruition.

Krens rose to prominence in the global museum world during a time of introspection and transition. There was a shift from museums as sanctuaries for curators and scholars to a makeover along business lines.

That transition started in the 1960s at the Museum of Fine Arts. Its director, Perry T. Rathbone, was pressured by an aggressive chairman of the board, George Seybolt. Initially, they worked together but Rathbone was ousted because of the bungled Raphael affair during the museum’s centennial year in 1970.

Since then it has became the norm for museums to have a director, usually a scholar or former curator, partnered with a business oriented second in command.

For the Guggenheim, uniquely, Krens filled both job descriptions. As a graduate of Williams he was a part of what has come to be known as the Williams Mafia of museum directors. He went on to earn an MFA in studio art as well as an MBA. Janus-like he was able to oversee state of the art museology. He proved to be the most progressive, entrepreneurial and visionary of his generation in the museum field.

In North Adams, from the ground up, he is developing a new concept for museums. With private funding he is creating the first “for profit” museum. The new 165,000 square feet Global Contemporary Art Museum will combine generous, open, cost effective exhibition space. There will also be climate controlled storage for works that the museum will acquire through purchase or loans from an undisclosed consortium of collectors.

While we have seen a transition of museums transforming into business models Krens now proposes to reverse that trend. He is creating a business modeled as a museum. The profit motive is no longer in doubt.

As the holdings of museum have become every more extensive and costly to maintain there are strict rules regarding deaccessions. Even when museums face financial crisis there are severe peer sanctions when and if works are sold to meet debt and operating expenses.

Following the lead of the Guggenheim the MFA created a branch in Nagoya, Japan. That opened the door to more loans to kunsthalles which are more like tourist attractions than museums. Visiting the MFA and other museums today it is common to find that signature works are on tour. Some of the best works are away for years at a time.

To fill gaps on the walls museums opt to display works from its basement and reserve collections.

While the ground rules are still being developed it is anticipated that works from GCAM will be for sale.

This legitimizes a long standing practice of major collectors making long term loans to museums. Display in museum collections and special exhibitions enhances their value. At the end of a gestation period the collectors, depending on terms of loan agreements, may sell works.

Krens has stated that his project would not be possible in an urban setting. North Adams has the advantage of cheap real estate and an ever more attractive demographic to attract mega collectors to a bucolic rural area.

The Pittsfield airport has been upgraded and Global Contemporary will be sited next to one in North Adams. At best it is a landing strip for small craft and not adequate for the private jets of mega-collectors. This infrastructure issue has been discussed regarding impediments in developing more Berkshire locations for the film industry.

In addition to improved airports there will be a need for upgraded hospitality to lure this potential for high end clientele. This has been transforming Marfa over the past decade.

Once up and running the six mile Cultural Corridor is likely to attract a range of motels, restaurants, shops and art galleries. This is already happening with development of the nearby former Cariddi Mill (purchased by Greylock Works) and the Redwoods Motel. The Blackinton Mill is also planned for development. There is a lot of cheap industrial real estate in the area as well as in neighboring Adams.

What follows are transcribed comments that Krens made during the recent North Adams press conference. In the brief Q&A session I asked him for further definition of a ‘for profit’ museum and how that differs from major galleries which mount museum quality special exhibitions.

Tom Krens

The Global Contemporary Art Museum concept is based on showing the best of international contemporary art. Most established museums in large size cities, and many private collectors, simply do not have the space to either systematically or sustainably exhibit the explosion of creativity that has taken place in the visual arts of recent time. The work doesn’t get seen. The GCAM is designed to address that with what I feel is an alternative model of what a museum can be. In the process, it will also complement the heroic work that Joe Thompson has accomplished at MASS MoCA over the past 25 years, and find its niche among the great institutions already established in the purple valley.

The concept behind the Global Contemporary Art Museum is important. I have long said that museums are an 18th century idea in a 19th century box, more or less filling its structural destiny toward the end of the 20th century.

This basically means that art museums cannot continue to collect. The Guggenheim has 20,000 objects and it is only 70 years old. When it’s 150 what is it going to do with its 160,000 objects? Or, 100,000 objects? It doesn’t have the space to handle them. New models have to be invented.

Particularly for contemporary art. There’s more contemporary art of great quality than ever before. Work is simply not being seen. It may be seen once in a gallery then sold to a collector. It largely goes into storage.

What we are talking about is building a large, efficient, inexpensive exhibition space that would showcase a whole new echelon of contemporary art. It would fit perfectly between what Mass MoCA is doing and what the Clark is doing. Our idea is that this would be entirely privately funded. There are people interested in building collections and seeing those collections on display. That concept will be further rolled out as we go along.

To give you a taste of what the art might look like, this is very quick and I’m not even going to talk about it, we would be taking stuff that you can’t basically see but once and aggregate in a group of works by that artist. Imagine Andy Hall’s Anselm Kiefers times ten or twelve. That’s basically what it is. Andy Hall and the Hall Foundation are a perfect paradigm of the demand that’s sitting out there. Andy Hall could do fifty of those buildings (Mass MoCA) just based on his collection. Where is the rest of everything? It’s probably in storage.

We’re thinking there’s a demand for this kind of thing. As we try to develop this concept and present it we can see that it’s definitely possible to do and this could be a critical location for it. It’s too expensive to try to do this in a large metropolitan area.

Richard Gluckman, architect.

For forty years we have been doing expansions and renovations of buildings and historic sites. With each of these (Heritage Park and GCAM) the premise has been that the content and the context will reveal the concept. However, in this case it’s been inverted. Mr. Krens, who knows this area well, has developed the concept. We just get to design the buildings.

It seems perfectly logical to us that Tom would want to supplement, complement, exploit the cultural corridor that forms between North Adams and Williamstown. It could also be extended, certainly, a little bit further south.

As Tom mentioned earlier we did initially christen it the Least Expensive Museum Building in the World. The idea was to create an extremely efficient 21st century version of the 19th century mill building using a Butler-like kit of parts.

What most architects won’t tell you is that we are very good at spending the client’s money. Sometimes even exceeding their expectations. But I’ve always been intrigued with low budget projects.

My first project was the renovation of a building in New York City for the Dia Center for the Arts. It cost $19 per square foot. That was followed by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh which was a renovation and addition in the mid to late ‘90s and that cost $100 a square foot. More recently the Picasso Museum in Malaga, eight buildings new and old, cost $300 a square foot. On this new one, working with BIP Structures in Syracuse, we worked with them on the conversion of a warehouse, it took nine months and took $67 a square foot to open up. We’ve come in with some good numbers which are beneath $200 a square foot. I’m not going to say how much lower they are but they give a level of comfort that we can achieve that. The building is a total of 165,000 square feet.

In the upper left is a building (section) of 30,000 square feet for fine arts storage. (Pointing to projected ground plan.) That storage facility has a slightly higher degree of climate control than the rest of the museum.

Tom talks about no artificial lighting. I’ve always dreamed about doing a building with no artificial lighting but I think the North Adams fire marshals might not agree. But it will be primarily lit by natural light. Supplemental lighting of course, with mechanical systems, air conditioning. There will be very simple, industrial scale equipment. (Solar) panels on the roof are not indicated in the budget but we would strive to incorporate them. They would more than take care of the electrical bill.

We came up with a 70’ structural module talking with several steel fabricators finding out that it is one of the lightest and most efficient spans that we could achieve. Inverting the trusses gives us a couple of conditions. You can have a concealed or partly concealed ceiling. There is mechanical equipment above it and a concrete slab on grade. I would like to see it heated with radiant heat. If we can convince ourselves and capital funders that is would be a higher cost at first but lower long term operating expenses. And make it more comfortable for visitors. We left out some of the bays to create an inside, outside experience.

We are fortunate to be working on a railroad museum and a museum on an airport. We need to introduce ships somehow into this.

Tom mentioned the proximity of airport buildings. There is a certain resonance with the hangers and new structures.

This project is a logical extension of the master plan of 2013 that identified Heritage Park as one of the key developments that needed to be done in North Adams. This brings us to the second component of the equation of content and context. Here the content is something we all get: Model railroads, 25,000 square feet of model railroads.


Tammy Daniels (I Berkshires) When will this happen?

Tom Krens The steps of this are that The North Adams Partnership has undertaken to support a conceptual development study. We are planning to have that by the end of the year. That will be a document which has a list of the materials and lays out the concept. The next step would be to do a real plan. That could take as short as six months. My group is fairly sophisticated in this sort of thing. The governor’s input in terms of trains and all that is clearly lined up and we have been working with Richard for more than twenty years. We think he can produce the detailed plan which will have all of the real numbers essentially to put it out to bid probably by the spring. These buildings are simple buildings.

In my conversation with Governor Weld last night we think the Heritage Park project is financeable simply through the revenues generated by the buildings. It simply goes like this. Either you believe in the plan or you don’t. If you believe in the plan and take the numbers in the plan the revenue stream of the six buildings which are obligated to pay would more than cover the cost of getting this be done. It’s not like having to build it all from scratch. Governor Dukakis already did that thirty years ago. That first investment is kind of like riding here. This is fairly inexpensive.

We are going to rely on the advice of the North Adams Redevelopment Authority. In some way or other the state, perhaps, will be involved in this. The Governor (Charlie Baker who did not attend the conference) can advise on that. It could be low interest loans. It could be more direct. It could be guarantees. Once that package comes together it could be realized in as short as two years. I tend to be optimist about those things. I don’t think that the construction of the second half of the train building would compete with the content. It would start right here in these two buildings which are in excellent shape. Of course I would rather see things happen sooner rather than later. If that’s the case we aim for 2018.

Global Contemporary is the same thing. It’s private funding. My partner in this enterprise, Dan Arbess, is here.

(Daniel Arbess of Pridelands Investments is an investor and policy analyst recognized for his prescient calls on some of the largest developments of the past 30 years, including the economic transition toward markets from communism in Eastern Europe & China; the U.S. housing/financial crisis and monetary policy-led market recovery; and the accelerating “virtualization” of our physical world, as part of the economic transition from manufacturing/services toward technology-led growth.)

I made a brief appearance before the Airport Commission this summer about the acquisition of the lease. We are in a really good position about the lease with the Airport Commission. We now have a public platform for the presentation of these projects. It would be up to us to put that package together. Because it’s a larger building it may take a little longer (than two years). Even if they started at the same time. I don’t see waiting around for these things.

Charles Giuliano We have seen major New York galleries like Pace and Gagosian mount museum quality special exhibitions. You have been a visionary in developing concepts for museums. You have talked about your project as not a non profit. You have also discussed the issue of museums running out of space to store their collections. Is a part of your concept that works will be sold over time? In that sense will your museum be more like a gallery and will there be a profit for investors?

TK The short answer is probably yes and no and all of the above. But it doesn’t really make any difference at this particular point. You could ask the same question of Andy Hall at MASS MoCA for instance. Andy Hall has a vast collection. He has made a commitment at MASS MoCA for 15 years. So, theoretically what is going to happen at the end of 15 years? Is he going to create his own museum? Is he going to create his own museum at MASS MoCA? Is he going to sell his collection? God forgive should anything happens to him is he going to give it to his children?

The point is this is an endemic problem. That exists. By putting it in a slightly different framework it does not preclude that option. It will depend on what the group that comes together to do this will want to do.

Sure, parts of it could be sold. Is that necessarily bad? It’s not like you’re taking the art someplace and burning it.

The idea here is what’s motivating this process is the fact that there’s so much sophisticated contemporary art being made and museums are relatively small compared to the work.

There are examples like the seven or so (James) Turrell’s that are going to be installed at MASS MoCA are owned by the Guggenheim. I bought them in 1991. They’ve never been installed. We never had the space for them. That was 24 years ago. So for 24 years those works have been sitting in storage. There’ no benefit to the public for that.

Does it really matter if it stays indefinitely intact? Or if the Guggenheim or anyone else decides they’re going to install it at MASS MoCA for 15 years and then sell it after that time is over.

My point is that it’s a false dichotomy to say that it has to be one or the other. The reality is that you can keep the end open. You can decide what you want to do with it. Works can be gifted to museums for tax purposes. Works can be sold on the market. There are all kinds of ways of dealing with this and dealing with the issues of permanency.

It doesn’t have to be that once work crosses the threshold of museums it enters into some kind of sacred territory. It’s simply unsustainable. That model is unsustainable. I’ve been saying this for 30 years.

There’s no imminent crash or crisis. But how do museums relieve the pressure? Well look at New York City. The Whitney Museum built a new museum downtown. So the Whitney Museum (on Madison Avenue) is sold (leased actually with an eight-year agreement) to the Metropolitan Museum.

(In a recent New York Times piece it was reported that “In seeking to define what the Met will be as a modern art presence in coming years, it seems safe to say it will differ from its famous New York neighbors. It will not be the Whitney (where we fell in love with our first Edward Hoppers and Georgia O’Keeffes). It will not duplicate the Museum of Modern Art (in part because it’s too late to play catch up with MoMA’s peerless holdings of Picasso & Company). It won’t be the ever-expanding Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (still trying to build in Helsinki and Abu Dhabi) or the New Museum (a kunsthalle without much of a collection).

“Yet, the Met’s Modern department might turn into the Tate of Fifth Avenue, with all that that implies about the British fascination with post-colonial cultures and a desire to dismantle Western-centric versions of art history.”)

The Metropolitan Museum doesn’t have the space to do it. Now they are going to be more of a presence in contemporary art because they have the space to do it.

But even that model cannot go on indefinitely. Or all of upper Manhattan becomes an art museum.

So my point here is that this is an initiative that’s valid. It’s absolutely valid. There’s a social good behind it. That the art gets out there and it gets seen. What happens to it in twenty to twenty five years is almost irrelevant. All of the possibilities exist. Some of it can go to museums. Or this becomes a museum. People like it and make it a not for profit activity. I don’t know but it doesn’t have to start out that way.

In fact none of them did including the Guggenheim. Originally it was a private organization run by Solomon R. Guggenheim run out of an automobile showroom on East 54th Street.

So I’ve done nothing here other than think about all of these things and connected the dots. I haven’t changed anything.

You started out talking about Larry Gagogsian and are absolutely right. He runs a museum. From which he sells art. He even runs Monet exhibitions from time to time. Where’s the difference?

Maybe the difference is space. We have a big destination here with MASS MoCA and the Clark. Maybe with a few more things. (Perhaps a few high end galleries if the area does indeed become a destination for art buyers.)

My point is that new models will be forced to come into shape or form. This could be one of them. Is it a private initiative? Yes. What comes out of that definitely remains to be seen.

We’ll work it out.

Part One.

Part Two.