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Richard Armstrong is retiring as director of the Guggenheim Foundation after 15 years

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Guggenheim looms large among the world's great cultural institutions, from New York City to Venice to Bilbao, opening a window into the souls of artists Kandinsky, Magritte, Ringgold and many more to millions of people. It also now confronts questions about how museums and galleries can be relevant and compelling in a fast-changing, diverse and increasingly digital world.

Well, for almost 15 years, Richard Armstrong has been at the helm of the various Guggenheim museums. And he says he's going to retire sometime next spring. Richard Armstrong joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

RICHARD ARMSTRONG: Happy to be here.

SIMON: What do you think drew you to museums a number of years ago?

ARMSTRONG: I think I had a taste for taxonomy. And when I was a child, I'd gone to museums frequently with my own father in Kansas City. And I had thought I'd have a career more as a writer or even a politician. This was the third path, but it brought in some of the skills from the other two.

SIMON: The politician part I understand, but maybe you can explain that to us a little bit. You need political skills to run a major cultural institution, don't you?

ARMSTRONG: Well, that's become even more evident, I'd say, over the last 30 months or so. But you have friends, and you have people who may not be friendly, but they never need to know that. So if that's the definition of a successful politician, it fits well with being a museum director.

SIMON: I want to take you back to 2019. There were protesters who protested taking money from the Sackler family and putting their name on a wall - family, of course, pharmaceutical business had such a central role in marketing opioids. You eventually cut ties with the family. Take us through the thinking that you went through at that time.

ARMSTRONG: I think that group, which was led by the artist Nan Goldin, was catalytic and shook us into recognizing that our relationship with that set of donors was not one that we could be proud of, and neither should it continue. And what I am proud of is that the trustees of the museum recognize that and collectively, we made the decision to move away in a congenial way with the family, who had been tremendously generous to us in the past. And it was one of those instances, I think, where the conscience of artists really reinvigorated the museum into thinking about itself differently.

SIMON: Then I have to ask about Abu Dhabi. Why is the Guggenheim trying to build a facility in Abu Dhabi? This is a place that's been constantly criticized for its human rights practices, especially its treatment of foreign workers who are needed to construct that building.

ARMSTRONG: In my time there, I've watched very significant amelioration of those pains. And the UAE is a signatory to International Labour Organization rules. It's been a leader in the region in trying to reassert the rights of the workers, and I think we've had a role in some of that evolution, but I have no qualms about who's building the museum, nor who it will serve in the far future, which will be the children and grandchildren of many of these same workers, I reckon.

SIMON: And do you have any concerns about what I'll refer to as the donor base of the Guggenheim and other cultural institutions being overwhelmingly white and any effect that might have on the kind of institution they are? Does it seem to exclude that part of America growing?

ARMSTRONG: To the contrary, I think, certainly in our case, our donors and our reconstituted and much larger board and more diverse board really are very keen on support from a wide variety of donors. I think people who've been interested in culture will go on being interested in culture as philanthropists, and I think they're also keen to share the delights and joy and information they've had through their whole life with people who may not have had that previously.

SIMON: Mr. Armstrong, how do you get more people from more of the backgrounds that is the growing and new America into museums and the Guggenheim specifically?

ARMSTRONG: Well, targeted advertising, but another obstacle frequently is the cost. So I think removing some of the economic barriers after sharing the information with those audiences will be crucial to the success of diversifying attendance.

SIMON: Mr. Armstrong, have you walked around the museum? Will you do that more in the months you have left on the job?

ARMSTRONG: I try and do it every day when I'm here, but I - sometime in the spring, I can take off my tie and do it in a more casual way, I suppose.

SIMON: Yeah. Do you stop? Do you linger? Do you overhear people?

ARMSTRONG: I try and overhear people. I try and also make certain that the floor is clean...

SIMON: (Laughter).

ARMSTRONG: ...Because there is quite a lot of detritus here and there. But I'm keen to find out what it is people are looking at, why, and if I think that they have some notion of what it is they've seen and its value - not monetarily, but its value as a cultural marker. So I am very interested in being snoopy that way.

SIMON: Richard Armstrong is the outgoing director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.