Richard Armstrong resigns as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which oversees museums in New York, Venice, Bilbao and Abu Dhabi.
“Sometime next spring I will be leaving the museum,” Armstrong said financial times in an interview published on Friday. “It will be almost 15 years until then, and that is a long time. The board is rejuvenated and active – it’s a good moment.”
Armstrong took over the helm of the Guggenheim in 2008 after Arsonist director Tom Krens resigned. Only the fifth leader in the institution’s history, Armstrong inherited Krens’ ambitious expansion plans, which included opening the Bilbao outpost in 1997 and signing a deal with Abu Dhabi in 2006.
Armstrong – who will remain in office while the board searches for a new director – is leaving the institution at a broader point in the transition. Last fall, the board elected collector J. Tomilson Hill as chairman, succeeding William L. Mack after a 16-year tenure. It also recently appointed Stephanie Rosenthal as Director of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project and hired Naomi Beckwith as Chief Curator last year.
During his tenure, Armstrong led the ambitious global expansions set in motion by Krens, but also focused on making existing programs more international, launching the six-year Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, and exhibits on the Japanese Gutai movement and “Art and China after 1989: Theaters of the World.”
This was a long process and not without controversy, admitted Armstrong FT. “The museum previously presented itself as a global institution,” he said, “but it had a very myopic view of the globe.”
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi became something of an albatross for Armstrong, plagued by delays and raising international concerns about possible human rights abuses among construction workers. (The Guggenheim has always maintained that there was nothing improper about its working practices; the museum broke off talks with activist group Gulf Labor in 2016.) After further delays caused by the pandemic, the Museum of the United Arab Emirates – the United Arab Emirates – has been quietly building a star-studded collection has the government’s hefty budget – confirmed an opening date for 2026.
The Guggenheim also faced opposition to its plans to expand to Helsinki, first announced in 2011. The museum even went so far as to hold an open call for architectural designs for the campus, selecting a proposal by Parisian Moreau Kusunoki architects in 2015. But the Finns government cut funding for the project in 2016, eventually rejecting the institution’s plan for the site.
There was also controversy on the home front, with longtime artistic director Nancy Spector resigning in 2020 after staffers claimed the leadership created an “unfair work environment that allows for racism, white supremacy and other discriminatory practices.”
A museum press release announcing Armstrong’s departure highlighted his progress in DEAI’s efforts and highlighted the appointment of its first director of culture and inclusion, Ty Woodfolk.
“I am proud of what we have accomplished including: caring for employees, embracing principles around DEAI and sustainability, defining our brand for the future, and financial health through the pandemic,” Armstrong said in a statement. “As the leadership team, we have listened, learned and adapted to meet the changing dynamics of our program, our brand, our audience and our funders.”
Armstrong was particularly interested in hiring corporate financiers, having forged collaborations with Deutsche Bank, BMW, UBS, Dior, Van Cleef & Arpels and most recently LG. The museum said the foundation more than doubled to $134 million during his tenure, although it remains smaller than many other major New York institutions, including the Met, MoMA, the Frick and the Whitney.
In 2018, the museum hosted its most-attended exhibition of all time, the groundbreaking Hilma af Klint show, which paid tribute to the Swedish spiritual painter for her abstract art years before the men credited as pioneers of the movement.
In its official announcement, the museum characterized Armstrong’s tenure as “a focus on scholarship, exploring lesser-known stories, and in-depth presentations of individual artists,” and highlighted exhibitions for artists such as On Kawara, Alberto Burri, Agnes Martin, László Moholy-Nagy, and Maurizio Cattelan as well as exhibitions on Italian Futurism, Chinese contemporary art and the German Zero group.
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