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Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now
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Lisa Dennison with Richard Serra at his studio, discussing his exhibition in Bilbao.
Photo by David Heald. © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation,New York

Interview with Lisa Dennison

As published in Gallery magazine, July 2007


Lisa Dennison, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, has been praised as one of the Guggenheim's 'greatest assets'. Ms Dennison, who is coming to Melbourne to officially open the NGV's 2007 Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now, took time to talk to NGV's Gallery magazine about her role at the Guggenheim and the evolution of the exhibition.

You are both Director of the Guggenheim's flagship New York museum as well as Chief Curator for the Guggenheim museums worldwide. Perhaps you could explain for Gallery readers a little about what those roles entail?
As the Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, my priorities are to strengthen the permanent collection and to lead the effort to increase fi nancial support for collection care, scholarship, educational initiatives and exhibitions. As Chief Curator of the Foundation I work closely with the Foundation Director Thomas Krens on programming at all of the museums in our international network, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain; Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin; and the Hermitage Guggenheim Museum, Las Vegas, as well as special travelling shows such as Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now.

How long have you been at the Guggenheim in New York?
I have been a member of the Curatorial Department since 1978.

It's unusual these days to have such a long association with one institution. Could you give us some background on how you reached your current position.
I came through the ranks of the curatorial department, beginning as an assistant to the curator Diane Waldman, and worked closely with Thomas Messer, the Foundation Director from 1961 to 1988, and then with Thomas Krens. I think it is my profound devotion to both the museum's incredible collection and our unique Frank Lloyd Wright building that has kept me at the Guggenheim these almost 30 years.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was established in 1937 for 'the promotion and encouragement and education in art and enlightenment of the public'. Is this still a guiding principle?
Yes, we stand by that guiding principle, but our mandate has expanded to encompass a broader mission, including the promotion and understanding of architecture and other manifestations of visual culture from the modern and contemporary periods, as well as to collect, conserve, and study the art of our time. Through what I consider to be our exceptional exhibitions, education programs, research initiatives, and publications, we are also reaching an increasingly diverse international audience.

The National Gallery of Victoria approached the Guggenheim about the possibility of an exhibition coming to Australia. How did the concept evolve into the Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now exhibition?
We were delighted when the National Gallery of Victoria expressed its interest in including the Guggenheim in its exciting Melbourne Winter Masterpieces series. While none of the preceding shows had extended beyond the 1930s, our colleagues there invited us to focus on postwar and contemporary art in our collection. Our discussions with the NGV's staff came at a time when we were completing preparations for the most expansive showing of our global holdings to date, The Guggenheim Collection (Kunstund Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland; 21 July 2006 - 7 January 2007). That presentation marked the first occasion that we included contemporary art in a major survey of our collection for a venue outside the Guggenheim network; we have tended to truncate past showings with Pop Art. While certainly some of the selections for Melbourne were informed by the Bonn show - and here I should mention that our curator Valerie Hillings worked on both exhibitions - there are many unique aspects of Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now. For example, the inclusion of a strong group of monochrome, Op, and Kinetic works refl ects Valerie's expertise in that field, as it was the subject of her PhD thesis. Some of the works chosen for the Pop Art section were brought to our attention anew last summer with a collection-based show in New York on Pop Art and the art of Assemblage. Still others were very recent acquisitions that we had not yet had the chance to show in New York or at our affi liates that we thought would be especially engaging for the NGV's audience. So this show is based on both an existing model and a fresh look at how to present art since 1940 in our collection.

How closely have curators from the Guggenheim worked with curators from the NGV to develop the theme and choose the works, and how long has the project been under way?
NGV's Deputy Director (International Art) Tony Ellwood submitted to us a list of artists and works of interest, and that gave Valerie a starting point with which to craft an initial checklist. Tony and NGV Coordinating Curator Amy Barclay came to New York at the end of last summer to discuss the basic format of the show and the selections Valerie had made in consultation with other Guggenheim curators, including Chief Curator Nancy Spector. These meetings were followed by extended email correspondence with Amy and Tony, as Valerie sought to refine both the concepts and the specific pieces chosen. The NGV curators helped her to gain insight into the audience for the show, as well as their own wish list of artists. Valerie and Karen Meyerhoff travelled to Melbourne in October of 2006, and, while the list was essentially resolved at that point, seeing the space led to further conversations and slight modifi cations, which in the end have resulted in a show that is both historic and current.

The exhibition will only be shown in Australia at the NGV. Is it normal to mount such a major show and send it so far, for just one institution?
The Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now will be the first opportunity for an Australian audience to see the Guggenheim's holdings of Pop, Minimalist and Contemporary art and will be the Guggenheim's largest to ever travel to Australia. While I doubt very much that such an opportunity will arise again in our lifetimes, bringing this show to Australia is very much part of our mission to reach an increasingly diverse international audience.

Have you had very much involvement with galleries in Australia, or with Australian art in general in your role at the Guggenheim?
Three other Guggenheim collection exhibitions have travelled to Australian venues since 1984, and we mounted several exhibitions in Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, including a Kandinsky show in 1982. The Guggenheim has also held two exhibitions in New York showcasing contemporary Australian art: Australian Visions: 1984 Exxon International Exhibition, SRGM, and Antipodean Currents: Ten Contemporary Artists from Australia, Guggenheim Museum SoHo, 1995.



NGV: Art like never before