The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York has a direct link to Kansas City through its director, Richard Armstrong. A Pembroke Hill School graduate, Richard recently reminisced about his Midwestern childhood and working at the Guggenheim.
Kansas City’s distinguished architecture, its system of parks and gracious boulevards together with a father who enjoyed pointing out the merits of various landmarks helped Richard develop a heightened awareness of his surroundings as well as what constitutes visual appeal. While his love for a well-designed building has never waned, seeing Arthur Dove’s Flour Mill II in the Phillips Collection as a teenager inspired him to look at paintings more carefully. The Kansas City Art Institute also had an impact; after lessons at the Conservatory of Music, Armstrong walked around its campus and was intrigued by the students and teachers there. Even now, he attributes his strong interest in contemporary art to his desire to spend more time with artists.
The curving walls and sloping floors of the Guggenheim’s iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building pose numerous challenges to exhibition installations. But the difficulties are offset by many positives. Visitors to the museum come away with the experience of having seen art in a truly unique and memorable setting; the smaller number of works on view also enhances their impact.
Armstrong spends about 30 percent of his time away from New York, frequently visiting other institutions under the Guggenheim umbrella: Frank Gehry’s building in Bilbao, Spain; Peggy Guggenheim’s former 18th palazzo in Venice, Italy; as well as the Abu Dhabi museum (another Gehry design) soon to be under construction. Together with Wright’s New York masterpiece, these museums offer a variety of architectural styles and viewing experiences as well as a kind of poetic justice for the director whose love for art began with his admiration for architecture.