Guggenheim museum decides money isn't everything and sends billionaire packing

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The Independent US

A long-simmering conflict between the director of a leading museum and its most generous benefactor - who also happened to be its chairman - came to a head in New York this week. But when the dust settled and the gladiators disengaged, something unexpected had happened: the rich guy had lost.

A long-simmering conflict between the director of a leading museum and its most generous benefactor - who also happened to be its chairman - came to a head in New York this week. But when the dust settled and the gladiators disengaged, something unexpected had happened: the rich guy had lost.

The battleground was the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, which, like most other arts institutions in America, depends on the generosity of philanthropists. So it seemed certain that when Peter B Lewis, a trustee since 1993, decided to lay down the law on the institution's direction he would get his way.

Mr Lewis, who runs a car insurance company in Ohio, had been arguing for some time that the Guggenheim's director, Thomas Krens, was erring by striving to build satellite facilities in countries all around the world. He wanted him to focus more on its New York home.

Normally, Mr Lewis should have held all the cards. Over the years, he has given $77m (£41m) to the Guggenheim - four times as much as any trustee in history. That largesse included a donation of $15m just last year to renovate the spiralling rotunda of the museum's beehive-like base on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, opened in 1959 and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

What Mr Lewis was not counting on, apparently, was the loyalty of the rest of the board to the director. The 6ft 5in Mr Krens, whose first love is motorcycling (a few years ago he staged a motorcycle exhibition at the Guggenheim that became one of its most successful installations), has been in charge of the day-to-day running of the institution for 17 years. He is widely respected as an inspiration in the American arts world.

In the end it was a clash between two strong-headed, individualistic men at the top of one of America's best-known and richest arts institutions. Even back in 2002, Mr Lewis apparently saw that their opposing ideas on the best way forward for the Guggenheim would one day end in tears. "He is a maverick, I am a maverick," he said at the time, when asked about his relationship with Mr Krens. "I like Tom, but I am down to tough love. We are going to make this right this time, or else someone is going to have to go." He was right, although he might have been assuming that he would be the one to stay.

Mr Krens has never made any secret of his quest to transform the Guggenheim name into a worldwide brand. It was an ambition that was fuelled by the success of the branch opened in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. Designed by Frank Gehry with its swooping curves of reflective steel, Bilbao draws a million people every year and has transformed the host city into a tourist destination. Other outposts are up and running in Berlin and Venice. Further satellites are planned for Taichung, Taiwan; Rio de Janeiro; and Guadalajara, Mexico.

Acknowledging that he was unable to curb his director's instincts, Mr Lewis parted company with Mr Krens, noting that he is "a man of enormous ability, who will continue to be doing the things he likes to do".

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