Feature

Thomas Messer, 1920–2013

The director who tended the Guggenheim

As director of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, Thomas Messer brought many works of fine art to the distinctive, spiraling rotunda designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. He was initially not a fan of what he called the building’s “circular geography of hell,” but he figured out how to make the best of it. Messer had special plinths installed that allowed sculptures to sit square with the sloping floor rather than strictly upright, so that they didn’t appear tilted, as he said, in a “drunken lurch.”

Born and raised in Bratislava in what is now Slovakia, Messer sought to study chemistry in the U.S., said The New York Times, but “his travels abroad began inauspiciously.” A day after he set sail from Liverpool on Sept. 2, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany, and Messer’s ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat. A second journey was more successful. He eventually quit chemistry to study art, first at the Sorbonne in Paris, then at Harvard. He was director of the Guggenheim from 1961 until 1988, making his tenure “one of the longest of a director of any major American art museum.”

The museum was built primarily to house Solomon Guggenheim’s collection, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). But its board was eager to convince his estranged niece Peggy to leave it her “fabulous” collection of modern art. The Tate Gallery in London had been aggressively courting the famously irascible collector, but Messer used his “Mittel-European charm” to persuade her to keep her collection in the family, writing her letters and repeatedly visiting her in Venice. Guggenheim changed her mind only after falling out with the Tate—reportedly after British customs officials quarantined “her beloved dogs” on a visit to the U.K.

Within months of Peggy Guggenheim’s death in 1979, her collection went on permanent display in Venice under the Guggenheim’s direction, the first step in what would become a global expansion of the franchise to Bilbao, Spain; Berlin; and Abu Dhabi. “The foundation for all this was laid by Tom Messer,” said former Guggenheim president Peter Lawson-Johnston. “And I can tell you, he laid that foundation under budget.”

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