The metamorphosis from private collection to public museum is an extraordinary transition. For the Guggenheim, this occurred in 1937, when Solomon R. Guggenheim established a foundation empowered to operate a museum that would publicly exhibit and preserve his holdings of nonobjective art. Today the Guggenheim is a museum in multiple locations with access to shared collections, common constituencies, and joint programming. Nevertheless, it is the permanent collection that constitutes the very core of the institution, no matter how far-reaching the foundation’s activities may be.
The story of the Guggenheim Museum is essentially the story of several very different private collections. Central among these are Solomon R. Guggenheim’s collection of nonobjective painting premised on a belief in the spiritual dimensions of pure abstraction; his niece Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of abstract and Surrealist painting and sculpture; Justin K. Thannhauser’s array of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early modern masterpieces; and Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo’s vast holdings of European and American Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, Environmental, and Conceptual art. These collections have been augmented over the last two decades by major gifts from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and The Bohen Foundation, as well as by the series of contemporary art commissions that was made possible by the Guggenheim’s unique partnership with Deutsche Bank for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, the distinct but complementary acquisitions program of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. Together with numerous other important purchases and gifts secured by the Guggenheim’s directors and curators over the years, these acquisitions have contributed to the formation of a richly layered, international collection dating from the late 19th-century to the present.
Unlike most institutions dedicated to the visual arts, the Guggenheim does not divide itself into departments devoted to specific mediums or eras. Rather, the collection is conceived as an integrated whole that may be continuously enhanced in response to emerging talent as well as a mandate to fill in critical historical gaps.
Committed to innovation, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation collects, preserves, and interprets modern and contemporary art, and explores ideas across cultures through dynamic curatorial and educational initiatives and collaborations. With its constellation of architecturally and culturally distinct museums, exhibitions, publications, and digital platforms, the foundation engages both local and global audiences.
Visitors can experience special exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, lectures by artists and critics, performances and film screenings, classes for teens and adults, and daily tours of the galleries led by museum educators. Founded on a collection of early modern masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum today is an ever-evolving institution devoted to the art of the 20th century and beyond.
In 1939 The Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened its rented quarters at 24 East 54th Street, showcasing the collection of American and European abstract and nonobjective artworks that Solomon R. Guggenheim had begun assembling a decade before. In the seventy years since, the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—renamed in its founder’s honor in 1952 and housed since 1959 in Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic building on Fifth Avenue—has grown exponentially, expanding in both historical and stylistic range and depth. The special collections listed below represent several of the major historical additions to the collection, but by no means encompass the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s complete holdings.
In 1963, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s holdings were dramatically enriched when the foundation received a portion of Justin K. Thannhauser’s prized collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and modern French masterpieces as a permanent loan and promised gift. These paintings and sculptures formally entered the collection in 1978, two years after Thannhauser’s death, and were augmented by additional gifts from his widow, Hilde, between 1981 and 1991. The Thannhauser bequest provided an important historical survey of the period directly antedating that represented by the Guggenheim’s original holdings, allowing the museum to tell the story of modern art from its 19th-century roots for the first time.
Between 1990 and 1992, the Guggenheim acquired, through purchase and gift, over 350 works of Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, and Conceptual art from the renowned collection of Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. Widely acknowledged as one of the most important single concentrations of American art of the 1960s and 1970s, the Panza Collection gave the Guggenheim depth and quality in in postwar art commensurate with the strength of its prewar holdings. Its acquisition may be seen as an extension of the Guggenheim’s founding mission to collect and promote abstract art. At the same time it looked forward, allowing the museum to represent the most immediate historical roots of the expanded and pluralistic field of post-1960s art.
In 2010, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum launched the Panza Collection Initiative, a grant-funded project to address the long-term preservation and future exhibition of artworks in this collection.
In 1948 the Guggenheim Foundation purchased the entire estate of New York art dealer Karl Nierendorf (1889–1947). The acquisition of the estate of Karl Nierendorf expanded the breadth of the Guggenheim collection through the addition of important German and Austrian Expressionist works, such as Oskar Kokoschka’s Knight Errant (1915), and Surrealist paintings such as Joan Miró’s Personage (1925). It also ushered in a large concentration of works by Paul Klee—over 50 paintings and works on paper, including Red Balloon (1922)—and several early paintings by Adolph Gottlieb, among the first works by a member of the nascent school of Abstract Expressionism to enter the Guggenheim’s collection.
In 1953 the Guggenheim Foundation received a small but important bequest by one of 20th-century art’s most influential figures, Katherine S. Dreier (1877–1952), who, along with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, had founded the Société Anonyme. Most important among the 33 works donated by the estate were Constantin Brancusi’s Little French Girl (1914–18), Alexander Archipenko’s Vase Woman II (1919), Alexander Calder’s standing mobile Untitled (1935), and a Juan Gris still life Newspaper and Fruit Dish (1916), and two collages from 1920 and 1921 by the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters.
Through her perpetual contact with artists over the course of her lifetime, Hilla Rebay, first director and curator of Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting—which would be renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1952—amassed her own significant art collection. Part of her estate, which included works by Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, and Kurt Schwitters, was given to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum four years after Rebay’s death in 1967.
In 1992, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation named the Guggenheim Foundation the recipient of approximately 200 of Mapplethorpe’s finest photographs and unique objects. Realized in several stages between 1993 and 1998, the gift made the Guggenheim one of the most comprehensive public repositories of this important American artist’s work, and also inaugurated the museum’s photography collection and exhibition program.
In 2001, the Bohen Foundation, a private charitable organization that commissions new works of art with an emphasis on film, video, and new media, gave the Guggenheim its holdings of some 275 works by 45 artists, immeasurably expanding the museum’s collection of contemporary art. Ranging from important photographic works by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Sam Taylor-Wood, and Sophie Calle to room-sized installations incorporating large-scale video installations by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Pierre Huyghe, and Willie Doherty, the collection represents a vital and dynamic cross section of art at the turn of the millennium.