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Thomas Messer, 93, Guggenheim’s Rock-Solid Director

Thomas Messer, Guggenheim Director from 1961 to 1988 Photo: ©The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Thomas Messer, Guggenheim Director from 1961 to 1988
Photo: ©The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

In my 2008 tribute to the late Sherman Lee, long-time director of the Cleveland Museum, I had stated:

He was my go-to person (along with Thomas Messer of the Guggenheim Museum) for brilliantly expressed, cogent and thoughtful quotes defending museum standards and ethics. He was always available, always unafraid to speak forcefully, and always generous with his insights.

Now my other go-to person from that earlier era has died at the age of 93. Tom Messer, director of the Guggenheim from 1961 to 1988, was unfailingly available to share his informed, principled insights on issues and controversies regarding the Guggenheim in particular and museum management in general. It always seemed to me that his vision of the Guggenheim—strategically bolstering and expanding upon on its existing strengths—was the antithesis of the do-everything-everywhere-by-any-means ethos of his successor, Tom Krens.

I had a traumatic flashback to the Krens-ian era upon reading this recent article by the NY Times‘ indispensable Patricia Cohen about Edemar Cid Ferreira, the founder of Banco Santos SA and of the exhibition-sponsoring organization, BrasilConnects, who was lionized by the Guggenheim when it mounted its 2001 Brazil Body & Soul exhibition. Ferreira then partnered with Krens in spearheading the creation of a proposed (but never realized) Guggenheim satellite in Rio de Janeiro. As reported by Cohen, Ferriera was sentenced in 2006 by a court in São Paulo to “21 years in prison for bank fraud, tax evasion and money laundering [involving artworks], a conviction he is appealing.”

But back to less complicated times and a director for whom simpler rectitude trumped elaborate opportunism. In summarizing Messer’s achievements, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, the Guggenheim noted:

He was responsible for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s acquisition of two important collections. The first, the Thannhauser Collection, assembled by Justin K. Thannhauser, included Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early modern works, and broadened the museum’s collection beyond its 20th-century focus. The second, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, including the Venice Palazzo that housed it, was secured by the Foundation in the 1970s.

The usually voluble Messer (appropriately) never took the bait when I tried to draw him out on his feelings about the Guggenheim’s change of regime. I occasionally encountered him perusing the presale exhibitions of contemporary art auctions and I last ran into him at the press preview for the Guggenheim’s 2009 Kandinsky retrospective, which coincided with the restoration of the museum’s rotunda to something of the original glory that Messer once knew.

He delightedly admired the installation, pointing out to me that the Kandinskys and the Frank Lloyd Wright space were, in a sense, made for each other: The architect had designed his masterpiece with the museum’s rich Kandinsky trove and the rest of Solomon Guggenheim’s abstract, modernist collection in mind. Messer was the first Guggenheim director to point the way to meeting the Wright ramp’s unique challenges in presenting an eclectic, ever-changing array of both modernist and contemporary works during his long, distinguished directorship:

Tom Messer, left, walking the familiar Guggenheim ramps at the 2009 Kandinsky retrospective Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Tom Messer, left, walking the familiar Guggenheim ramps at the 2009 Kandinsky retrospective
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

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