Krens made "Guggenheim" an international brand name for modern and contemporary art and architecture while sometimes riling purists by bringing shows such as "The Art of the Motorcycle" and an exhibition of Armani fashions to the flagship Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Now, under Krens' newly named successor, Richard Armstrong, a pause for reflection is on the agenda.
Armstrong, 59, has a long track record as a curator, including 11 years at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and 16 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where he has been director since 1996 and added to his bona fides by overseeing the museum's signature, triennial Carnegie International shows.
Armstrong, whose appointment was announced Tuesday and who will start his new job Nov. 4, said Wednesday that he hoped to make the Guggenheim "a rich, intellectually engaging place" where "the staff is empowered to realize their most ambitious and interesting dreams" and where the art collection keeps growing.
Under Krens since 1988, the foundation has grown to include the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. A Las Vegas venture closed earlier this year. With construction paid for by oil-rich local authorities, a new Guggenheim museum is planned to open in 2013 in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Now, Guggenheim board Chairman William Mack said, Armstrong's appointment heralds "a natural gravitation toward a period of understanding and consolidation." Mack said Armstrong stood out for his curatorial strength, his experience in New York City and "a positive track record of uniting people."
The Guggenheim's master plan still calls for it to someday plant its banner in Latin America and Asia, Mack said, but the focus in the near term will be on programming instead of expansion, with a renewed emphasis on showcasing the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum in New York and its collection.
Armstrong said his greatest expertise is in American art since 1940.
Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, said he has known Armstrong for eight or nine years. Besides "a wonderful sense of humor," Brand said, the new director "has a very creative outlook but a pragmatism. I think he'll allow them to take a breath, take stock of what they've achieved so far and do something really good with what they've got."
"He's very well known for his curatorial abilities," said Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who worked under Krens at the Guggenheim from 1988 to 1994.
"Under Tom Krens the Guggenheim has been known as an international thinker. It's very good for institutions to have cycles of life, and Richard will consolidate all the things they've done and take them to a new place," Govan said.