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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Hubris Squared

What kind of response other than "Huh?" or "Wow!" can you make to the news that Peter Lewis is stepping down from the Guggenheim's board.

Here's how the situation usually plays out.

Fundamental disagreement develops over time between the chair of a museum's board (a powerful business executive, let's say, who has personally contributed $77M to the organization) and the organization's strong-willed director (who, let's say, has been persistently running a deficit, can't retain staff, and doesn't have universal public support for some harebrained growth ideas that have had mixed success to date). The chair essentially fires the director but gives him the opportunity to resign. The director is sent on his way with a nice severance package, a new director is brought in, and the organization starts down the path of righting itself again.

That's what happens in the real world of museum politics. That's not what happens in the bizarro world of today's Guggenheim.

In that world, the director fires the chairman of the board--getting rid, in the process, of the funding source that has been covering his regular deficits and paying for needed maintenance of core operating facilities.

Those who thought Thomas Krens had been running the Guggenheim on hubris instead of rationality up to this point haven't seen anything yet. Imagine what winning this battle will do for his management style. I wouldn't be surprised in the next few days to see Krens hold a news conference where he claims that he's been given a mandate by the board and that he's earned political capital that he intends to use. It's probably just a matter of time now until Krens announces his plans to invade and occupy the Met, the MoMA, or the Whitney, giving the reason that he needs to preemptively protect the Guggenheim's admission revenues.

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