Guggenheim Museum: History And Tour Of NY’s Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum History

Photo by Leslie Lopez Holder

The Guggenheim Museum is one of the most popular attractions in New York City. Its collections of contemporary, early Modern, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art have been viewed by more than one million visitors every year for the last decade. The museum has been in operation for over eight decades. Originally known as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting when it opened in 1939, the museum was founded by the non-profit Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Its first director was artist and co-founder Hilla von Rebay. The organization was renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1952 to honor the late philanthropist and museum co-founder.

Rebay and Guggenheim were avid art collectors. Guggenheim began buying paintings created by European artists of the 18th and 19th centuries in his twenties and thirties. Getting to know Rebay sparked his interest in abstract art. Solomon Guggenheim later opened his art collection at his New York Plaza hotel apartment to the public before forming the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

The foundation was developed to help people appreciate and enjoy modern art. Their first art displays were held in midtown Manhattan in 1939. Works by Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Wassily Kandinsky, Robert Delaunay and others were made available for viewing. The Guggenheim Foundation added so many abstract paintings to their inventory in the 1940’s that they soon realized that they needed a permanent home for their collection.

Solomon Guggenheim and Hilla von Rebay wrote to renowned architect Frank Llloyd Wright in 1943 and asked him to develop a building where their paintings could be displayed and stored. Wright decided to work on the project. He created more than 700 sketches over 15 years before a final design was developed.

Wright envisioned the museum as a “temple of the spirit.” The unique building’s cylindrical shape is larger and wider at the top than it is at the bottom of the structure. He created a ramp gallery that starts at the ground floor and spirals upward all the way to just below the ceiling’s skylight. The circular pattern was similar to the shell of the nautilus, a distinct marine mollusk commonly found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Several well-known geometric forms were incorporated into the museum’s design. Wright gave symbolism to each shape that was used. He stated that “these geometric forms suggest certain human ideas, moods, sentiments – as for instance, the circle, infinity; the spiral, organic progress. the square, integrity.”

Guggenheim Museum History

Photo: H.R. Tsua, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The surface of the Guggenheim Museum was made from concrete. Czech structural engineer Jaroslav Josef Polivka helped Wright with the gallery ramp and structural design of the building. James Johnson Sweeney replaced Rebay as director in 1953 and oversaw the last years of construction. The museum finally opened to the public on October 21,1959 on the corner of the Museum Mile section of Fifth Avenue and East 89th Street in New York City. Frank Lloyd Wright passed away in April of that year, never knowing how his creation would be perceived by the public.

The museum had plenty of critics before it even opened. Some thought that it was inappropriate to place art in such a building, while others thought that people would pay more attention to the structure itself than the creative works inside the building. Twenty-one local artists lent their signatures to a letter that was sent to the Guggenheim Foundation expressing their dislike of having some of their artwork being displayed in a museum that they felt was unsatisfactory.

Despite the opposition, the museum opened to impressive crowds. The building was frequently praised by visitors, art lovers and architects. It also inspired later buildings. The foundation continued to grow their collection of art from around the world. Sweeney acquired paintings by Paul Cezanne, Jackson Pollock and David Hayes and sculptures created by Alberto Giacometti, Joseph Czasky, Jean Calder and others. Thomas M. Messer became the new director of the Guggenheim Museum in 1961 and added more masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet and Vincent van Gogh.

Thomas Krens became the next director of the Guggenheim Foundation in 1998. During his 20 year tenure, the museum acquired minimalist works of art by Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Brice Marden and Robert Mangold among others. Conceptual post-modern art from James Turner, Richard Serra, Lawrence Weiner and Robert Morris were acquired, and 200 photographs were also donated by the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in 1992. Current director Richard Armstrong has continued the tradition of his predecessors by obtaining more quality works of art for the museum’s permanent and temporary collections.

The museum has continued to expand and change over the years to accommodate its patrons and its growing art collection. The original building was renovated in 1992 and a new tower was erected behind it. The skylight’s original design was restored after earlier changes and four new exhibition galleries. The foundation sold several of their works by Chagall, Kandinsky, Modigliani and other artists to finance the changes and upgrades. The sale had its fair share of controversy but still raised more than $40 million.

Additional remodeling and restoration of the original building began in 2005. Cracks were fixed, paint was removed and replaced and an overall evaluation of its condition was performed. The museum was declared to be structurally sound after the project was completed three years later. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 2005 and was officially registered as as National Historic Landmark in October 2008. The Guggenheim Museum has been listed as a New York City Landmark since August 1990.

Exhibitions have rotated in and out of the museum since its opening and several collections have been shared with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain and other galleries around the world. Some of the more notable items in the New York location’s permanent galleries include:


Abstract Speed + Sound by Giacomo Balla, circa 1914.


Brooklyn Bridge (Pont de Brooklyn) by Albert Gleizes, 1915.


The Hermitage at Pontoise by Camille Pissarro, 1867.


Homme aux bras croises (Man With Crossed Arms) by Paul Cezanne, circa 1899.


I can’t work like this by Natascha Sadr Haghighian, 2007.


La cheval (The Horse) by Raymond Duchamp-Villon, 1914.


Landscape With Factory Chimney by Wassily Kandinsky, 1910.


Les Fumeurs (The Smokers) by Fernand Leger, 1912.


Mountains at Saint-Remy by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889.


Pierrot-carrousel by Alexander Archipenko, 1913.


Red Balloon (Roter Ballon) by Paul Klee, 1922.


Red Lily Pads by Alexander Calder, 1956.


TV Garden by Nam June Palk, completed in 2000.


Violin and Palette (Violon et palette, Dans l’atelier) by Georges Braque, 1909.


The Yellow Cow by Franz Marc, 1911.


Visitors are welcome to tour the many exhibits and individual works of art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum during normal business hours. People often recommend blocking several hours out of your day so that you can experience everything that the venue has to offer. You can also view many of their selections online. The Guggenheim is a wonderful place to spend time with friends, family and visitors from out of town. You can appreciate and admire unique pieces that were created by many well-known (and some not so well-known) artists over the last three centuries that represent segments of our ever-changing world. However  in closing perhaps the moist enchanting and exciting experience one encounters when visiting the Guggenheim Museum is the building itself. It will leave you breathless………..

Guggenheim Museum History

Photo: Photo by Tomas Eidsvold



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