In 1937, the American business man and art collector, Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861–1949) and his long time advisor, the German painter, Baroness Hilla von Rebay (1890–1967), founded the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation as a not for profit organisation, dedicated to promoting the understanding and appreciation of modern and contemporary art. Von Rebay was the director of the museum when it opened in 1939 for this purpose, which was soon too small for their expanding collection. In 1943, they found in Frank Lloyd Wright the perfect architect to build the striking spiralled museum. When it opened in 1959, none of the three were present.
In the seventies, the then director, Thomas M. Messer, convinced Peggy Guggenheim to bequest her collection to her uncle’s Foundation, which is housed in an 18th-century Italian palace, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice, where she lived for thirty years (1949-1979). Later, The Palazzo underwent several adjustments and enlargements and is now the official American premises during the Venice Art Biennale.
The ‘Guggenheim’ really began to expand during the reign of director, Thomas Krenz (1988-2008), when the Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by Richard Gehry, was built and was quickly recognized as one of the 20th century’s most important buildings. The next, and largest, ‘Guggenheim’ is currently in the process of being built in Abu Dhabi, also designed by Gehry.
Alongside the four satellites, the Guggenheim Foundation works internationally in the field of contemporary art, architecture and design with institutions and collections such as Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative and the Robert H. N. No Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative.
Solomon Guggenheim, a descendent of a rich mining family (among other initiatives, he founded the Gold Yukon Gold Company in Alaska) started by collecting old masters. After retiring in 1919, he devoted his time to art. When he met Hilla Von Rebay in 1926 she introduced him to German Avant Garde and, with her, he visited Kandinsky in Dessau, whose work he started to collect, as well as the work of artists around him.
In addition, work from artists such as Marc Chagall and Ferdinand Leger formed the basis of his collection.
In the eighties, with the addition of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a large number of Surrealist works were added to his collection, which grew over the years through gifts or purchases: Justin K. Thannhauser’s Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early modern art; Karl Nierendorf’s collection of German expressionism and early abstract expressionism; Katherine S. Dreier’s gift of paintings and sculptures; Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo’s European and American Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, Environmental, and Conceptual art and major gifts from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and The Bohen Foundation, as well as purchases for ‘Bilbao’ of Spanish contemporary art. It is this breadth and variety which gives the Guggenheim its distinctive character.