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Guggenheim Museum appoint New York University Abu Dhabi leader

Mariët Westermann, director and CEO of its museum
22 Nov 2023 12:01


At a time when cultural institutions all over the country are struggling to make a case for themselves in a digital world, and job descriptions for arts leaders have grown increasingly complex, the Solomon Guggenheim Museum and Foundation on Monday announced that it had named Mariët Westermann, director and CEO of its museum 

Westermann, the vice chancellor of New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) in the UAE, will be the first woman to direct the museum group, overseeing the foundation and its flagship institution in New York, as well as its global outposts in Venice, Italy; Bilbao, Spain; and the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
“She has run a major operation in a foreign country,” said museum chair Tomilson Hill. “She’s got great credibility in the art world, and she will be able to attract and retain extraordinary curators and other talented professionals.”

The choice of Westermann, 61, to replace Richard Armstrong, who retired as director last summer, is something of a surprise, given that she is not a professional museum director and her name usually would not appear on the list of candidates.

But she is familiar to many in the art world, having previously served as executive vice president at the Andrew Mellon Foundation, which supports cultural institutions; as former director of NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts; and as associate director of research at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. In 2019, she became vice chancellor at NYUAD, where she is also the CEO and a professor of arts and humanities.
“I know the clarity of her thinking, the care she has for art and artists, and her commitment to the field,” said Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. “I think she’ll make an outstanding colleague.”
A graduate of Williams College – where she was magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa – Westermann went on to earn a doctorate and master’s degree from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Westermann is a historian of the art of the Netherlands, publishing books including “A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718” and “Rembrandt-Art and Ideas”.

Starting June 1, Westermann will step into the role held for 14 years by Armstrong. She will move to Manhattan to run the Guggenheim.

Westermann will take over an institution still healing from a period of turmoil that included a 2020 letter from “The Curatorial Department” decrying what it called an “inequitable work environment that enables racism”; removal of the Sackler name from an education center in 2022 after protesters called attention to that family’s ties to the opioid crisis; and more than two years of bargaining over a union contract that was finally ratified in August. 

Moreover, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – designed by Frank Gehry, who also did the museum’s Bilbao satellite – has been delayed, and is now scheduled to open in 2026.
Westermann said it was too soon for her to say anything about Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, “except that I have been excited to see the building rising so near to me in a truly remarkable district of institutions of art, natural history, science and culture.”

Westermann will have the daunting task of getting Guggenheim Abu Dhabi over the finish line. She added that she was well aware of the hurdles involved in running “four very distinctive museums in four distinguished buildings in four very dynamic cities”.

“The demands on museum directors today are very complicated,” she said. “The skill set you need for a constellation like the Guggenheim is a challenge and opportunity that seems well mapped onto the kinds of experiences I’ve had.”

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