Leading The Guggenheim To New Ground
He’s a visionary, although he won’t admit it. He teams up the best people, supports, encourages, guides, helps his members, and gives them all the credit for success. But the real driving force, the lord of leadership at the Guggenheim is Peter Lawson-Johnston. Grandson of the museum’s founder, Solomon R. Guggenheim, Lawson-Johnston is guardian of the Guggenheim family name.
If you’re looking for paradoxes, you’ll find them with Lawson-Johnston. In his book, Growing Up Guggenheim, Lawson-Johnston says that, when he took the helm of the museum, his job was “not to trail blaze.” Yet, under Peter’s leadership, no other museum in the world has set more trailblazing projects into motion as the Guggenheim. In short, Peter Lawson-Johnston created the world’s first global art museum.
“It really all started with cousin Peggy Guggenheim,” he explains while sitting in the offices of the museum’s newly refurbished Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. “When Peggy left us her collection, we presumed we would be bringing it to New York. But that was not what she had in mind. We ended up with her collection and her palazzo in Venice. That had a lot to do with the fact that we have become a global institution. I think it triggered cities approaching us with the idea of having another museum.”
Indeed, it did. “First, Salzburg, Austria city fathers came to us to build a museum. It never happened but had a lot of publicity,” Lawson-Johnston says. When that fell through, “the Basque government and the city of Bilbao approached us—totally their idea—and I remember Tom Krens and I said, ‘Where’s Bilbao?’ A visit to the Basque country to negotiate a possible partnership impressed us with the beauty of the city and the vision of the wonderful leaders with whom we dealt.”
“I think Tom Krens [the former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation] deserved a lot of the credit for the success of this venture,” says Lawson-Johnston. “As one example, while he was jogging along the Nervion River in Bilbao, he saw an area that needed development and said, ‘That’s where the museum should be.’ Then he proposed Frank Gehry to build the museum, and that was the breakthrough.”
This is the key to Mr. Lawson-Johnston’s leadership. The Guggenheim, under his chairmanship and presidency, put Bilbao on the map, but he attributes this fame, and more, to Krens. “I think there’s no question he created a brand for us as an institution. In 20 years as director, he accomplished a great deal,” asserts Lawson-Johnston. Since Bilbao, the Guggenheim has received hundreds of requests worldwide for partnership museums.
Serving on the board for 45 years and celebrating his 40th year successively as president, chairman and now honorary chairman, Mr. Lawson-Johnston ushered in still-much-talked-about exhibitions of motorcycles, of Armani clothes and, most recently, the museum’s two highest attended exhibitions: Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward and Kandinsky. Going forward, Mr. Lawson-Johnston says he and the board are concentrating on their newest partnership with Abu Dhabi. Designed by Frank Gehry, the new museum there will be ten times the size of the New York space. As Lawson-Johnston divulges, “Director Richard Armstrong told me that the Foundation, with its partner in Abu Dhabi, the TDIC [Tourism Investment and Development Corporation], has already started focusing on purchases for the museum to open in 2013.”
Many people might not realize that the Guggenheim is a family museum. Peter is the third generation Guggenheim to lead the board, and his children are the fourth generation of Guggenheims to be members of the board. Eldest daughter Wendy L-J. McNeil is a vice president, member of the executive and finance committees, and chairs the governance and nominating committee. “Wendy has for 25 years served as the board’s conscience, placing our deliberations and decisions in broader and deeper perspective and extolling the virtues of taking the highest road,” Peter explains. His second daughter, Tania McCleery, serves as a director of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and serves on its finance and administration committee. His youngest daughter, Mimi Howe, was an intern and docent at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and now is a member of the “Friends of Peggy” advisory board. His only son, Peter O. Lawson-Johnston II, serves on the boards of both the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. He is a partner of Guggenheim Partners, a successful financial firm.
“My main goal has been to make sure that there is no blemish on the Guggenheim name. My mother was Solomon Guggenheim’s daughter. I wish to do everything possible for people to be proud of the Guggenheim name,” reveals Lawson-Johnston. “Over the years, nothing negative has happened to blemish the name and, on the contrary, I think everything has fortunately enhanced the name. I guess that’s what has meant the most to me.”
A gentleman of wit, wisdom and integrity, Peter Lawson-Johnston is a proud beacon and guardian of the Guggenheim family name and passionate about art. His ancestors must be very proud of him, indeed.
(Pictured): Harry Frank Guggenheim (portrait), Peter O. Lawson-Johnston’s mother’s first cousin; Peter O. Lawson-Johnston (standing); Peter O. Lawson-Johnston II (seated); and Peter J. Lawson-Johnston (seated on his father’s lap). Photo by Barbara Vaughn.