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The Guggenheim Story

In response to:

Go Go Guggenheim from the July 16, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

I have read the Guggenheim gospel according to John and wish to thank him for having given me equal time in the enumeration of directorial misdeeds in the history of that institution. I am not about to deny all the transgressions attributed to me, which is not to say that I plead guilty to them. But I wish to put at least some of them into context.

Since I am introduced as a “non-confrontational Czech” let me readily agree that the characterization is apt. The civilized history of my native country is marked by avoidance of hopeless conflicts and by a preference for more effective strategies. When I came to the Guggenheim as a youthful director with the almighty Harry exerting precedence over family, foundation and board, confrontational politics would have been useless and stupid. Richardson cannot possibly know what feats of courage and steadfastness were required and displayed in the privacy of our offices, nor are these recorded in the minutes for the convenience of eager research fellows. Let me merely insist here that the sale of the Kandinskys in the sixties and seventies was not “sanctioned” but initiated over some trustee opposition by myself for good and valid reasons that I am prepared to defend. As long as we are being quantitative, it might have been fair to mention that the number of Kandinsky works that left the museum during my tenure were matched by no fewer that have come to the Guggenheim through gift and purchase, virtually all through my personal intervention. I selected most of these from the collection in the Hilla Rebay Estate which, after the death of the Baroness, and after some diplomatic effort, was amicably divided between the formerly contesting parties. Both shares, the one allocated to the Guggenheim, and that which legally remains in the Rebay Estate, are now, and have been for years, in the care of the Museum and at its disposal.

The Haacke incident has been covered so extensively and the position of both parties documented so exhaustively that its current rehash in truncated form is as redundant as would be the reiteration of my retorts. Since, however, Richardson makes grateful acknowledgement to Mr. Haacke “for providing the information” I may perhaps be permitted to consider his source just a trifle one-sided.

Now, as for Peggy. Richardson’s statement according to which I “suggested that Peggy put the bulk of her paintings on temporary exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, as a first step toward an eventual amalgamation of the two collections” is of course correct. Many would credit me with sagacity and perseverance for being able to make such a proposal after a more than ten years effort on behalf of my institution. But why was Peggy, as Richardson claims, “in no position to refuse” when every museum in the world courted her, willing to do almost anything to capture what then probably was the most important collection of modern art still in private hands? And why that untenable defense of John Hohnsbeen whose curatorial status was something of a joke and who did little or no work for no pay as everyone knew? When Peggy died Hohnsbeen was nowhere to be found for weeks and I couldn’t have told him “to pack his things” if I had wanted to. Similarly, if after Peggy’s death the family “felt no less shabbily treated” having received “not even a token item from Peggy’s $40 million, 326 piece collection” it must be stated that it was not up to the Guggenheim, indeed not permissible for that institution, to dispense gifts that were public property. Only Peggy could have done so while she owned the works, or through a provision in her will, and she did not do so. Surely, Richardson must know this.

It is true that following Peggy’s death the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni with its precious collection underwent radical repair, restoration, reconstruction and facelifting inside and out. The building was literally falling into the Canal Grande and water was streaming down the adjoining Barchessa walls threatening further damage to works that had suffered neglect over the years. Ivy was eating into the facade before it was removed and the garden was a mudhole before it was paved at considerable cost to the Guggenheim. To maintain a rundown palazzo with an endangered collection as a sentimental record of Peggy’s glorious life was hardly the thing to do. By accepting Peggy’s gift, the Guggenheim, as a museum foundation, had assumed responsibilities which Peggy, as a private person, did not have. The decision to convert a residence into a museum was carefully arrived at, as was the earlier determination to extend the Guggenheim’s collecting scope by accepting Thannhauser’s early Picassos among other treasures.

But I should not be complaining, for by charging me with the incorporation of the collections in the Hilla Rebay Estate, the Justin K. Thannhauser Foundation and the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Richardson has touched upon what is generally rated among the prime achievements of my directorship.

Thomas M. Messer
Director Emeritus
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
New York City

John Richardson replies:

I thought I had done justice to Sweeney. Sorry if I didn’t. He was indeed a generous and unstuffy patron of young artists, but, let’s face it, his enthusiasms sometimes outpaced his discrimination.

As for Peggy. It was Peggy herself who told me she was “in no position to refuse” Messer’s proposal to amalgamate her museum with her uncle’s. None of the institutions which had made overtures to her was prepared to take on the responsibility of her collection without an endowment—something she had not the means to provide. “I was left with no alternative,” she said.

It was also Peggy who told me that she wanted John Hohnsbeen to carry on as her curator. For some years he had helped her run the place on a shoestring for no pay, and he knew better than anyone how she liked things done. Hohnsbeen would have carried out Peggy’s wishes more scrupulously than the present incumbents.

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