Monday, Feb. 5, 2001 | 11:19 a.m.
Talk to Thomas Krens for awhile, and you get the sense he could easily fit in among the top executives of the Strip.
Krens talks like a businessman, at home discussing such items as visitor traffic estimates, capital expenditures, joint ventures and revenue projections.
He also has a flair for trying to push the envelope -- he's currently negotiating with New York City officials to build a $900 million art museum along the banks of the East River in Manhattan, a 44-story metal behemoth that stands out even against the New York skyline, with a design Krens says will transform architecture in the 21st century.
"If he competed head-to-head with me, I'd have a serious challenge," said Sheldon Adelson, chairman of Venetian parent company Las Vegas Sands Inc.
But Krens isn't a casino developer. He's the chairman of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, one of the world's most prestigious museums -- and currently one of the most controversial men in the art world.
The latest step in his aggressive growth strategy, a pair of museums with exhibits from the Guggenheim and Russia's Hermitage Museum is tentatively scheduled to open on the Las Vegas Strip on Sept. 15. It will join a string of new Guggenheims stretching from Bilbao, Spain, to Venice, Italy.
Krens' strategy is drawing furious criticism from the elite of the international art world, who argue the Guggenheim director is starting to think too much like a businessman, rather than a director of one of America's prestigious art collections. The fact that his latest expansion is in Las Vegas is only fanning the flames.
Forbes magazine, referring to the strategy as "McGuggenheim," said Krens "has transformed the Guggenheim from an aloof art museum into an expansion-minded, fast-buck corporation looking for all the world like a chain of theme parks."
"They are after the money," Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, told the magazine.
"It's certainly not the same thing as if they were to send their collection to the St. Louis Art Museum, where they would get zero (revenues), but they would reach a very large public also."
"A compromising sponsorship to clean up the bottom line," Maxwell Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, told the magazine.
Krens bristled at such accusations.
"Give me a break!" Krens said. "Look at the Met. It has 3 million square feet, 3,000 employees, and does retail turnover of about $120 million a year. Who's the business here?"
Adelson also is quick to defend his newest business partner.
"History will write that he was one of the most revolutionary thinkers in art and culture in the 20th century," Adelson said. "He is a visionary ... in the evolution of how art is brought to the people."
People -- lots of them -- is the key reason Krens says he settled on Las Vegas as his newest location. Rather than organizing traveling Guggenheim exhibits that move from city to city, Krens feels he can reach people far more efficiently by simply setting up shop in Las Vegas, a city visited by an estimated 36 million people last year.
While internationally famous, it would be a stretch to consider Las Vegas in the same cultural league as cities such as Berlin, Venice and New York. Still, Krens says the glitz, glitter and glamour of the Strip should not be brushed away so easily by those in the art world. Shows such as the "O" at the Bellagio, and even magic shows such as the Mirage's "Siegfried & Roy," should be admired in themselves, Krens said.
"They're all about cultural expression," Krens said. "I think what they've done here (on the Las Vegas Strip) is an act of veneration and admiration in its own way."
But in coming to the Strip, Krens also says he's reacting to an economic reality for nonprofit museums such as the Guggenheim and the Hermitage.
"I do not expect to get support from the government," Krens said. "I expect that government (assistance) for art will be declining. We're transferring to the private sector. We have to look at this with an open mind and evolve as we go along."
By Krens' estimates, the Guggenheim could pull in $15 million a year for his foundation and the Hermitage. The $7.5 million cut that would mean for the Hermitage would be massive for a museum that currently receives just $7 million a year in endowments, Krens said.
"They're starving to death," Krens said. "One of the greatest art collections on Earth is struggling."
If the museum in Las Vegas can help reverse that, "I feel good about it," Krens said.
It is estimated the art that will hang in the museums will have a value well in excess of $1 billion -- more than it cost to build the entire Venetian resort.
Masterpieces from some of the world's greatest artists will hang several hundred feet away from the casino floor, including works by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Renoir and Gauguin.
And that's just the beginning. The museum's collection will change every six months -- and under consideration is an exhibit made up entirely of pieces from Rembrandt and Rubens, an exhibit "unheard of" in the art world, Krens said.
"We are not dealing from the middle of the deck here," Krens said. "If you're going to get criticized, you may as well do it well."
The Guggenheim-Hermitage collaboration that will be on display in Las Vegas is just the first step in Krens' strategy of alliances with the world's premier museums. Joining the Hermitage-Guggenheim alliance earlier this month was Vienna's Kunsthisorisches Museum, a vast art collection assembled by Austria's Hapsburg dynasty. And Krens says he's busily negotiating with the Shanghai Museum in China to add a fourth partner to his global alliance of art.
"This is a new form of cultural collaboration," Krens said. "Its purpose is to facilitate the use of these collections ... and foster new forms of cultural exchange."
Certainly there are doubters as to whether an art museum of this caliber will be a financial success in Las Vegas. Even Adelson jokes that, when the Guggenheim idea was first suggested to him, that "I was questioning whether it would beat out the topless reviews."
Yet Krens remains convinced the firestorm of criticism he's absorbing will soon disappear.
"I think that will all disappear the day we open," Krens said. "And it will be replaced by jealousy."