October 21, 1959, on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, thousands of people lined up outside awaiting the grand opening of the Guggenheim Museum.


Solomon R. Guggenheim was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1861 and was the son of Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss-born businessman who made his family fortune in mining and smelting.  Meyer and his wife Barbara had four sons.  In 1919 Solomon retired from the family mining business and from his Yukon Gold Company in Alaska (which he founded), and in 1937 started the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, a non-profit corporation dealing in philanthropy and the arts.  In 1949 Solomon passed away and was never able to see the completion of his new museum.


The museum originally called “The Museum of Non-Objective Paintings.” was founded to showcase avant-garde art by early modernists.  The museum first opened in 1939 in a former car showroom in New York.  Within a few years, the collection had outgrown the space and the museum had to move.

In 1943, Solomon Guggenheim contacted architect Frank Lloyd Wright and asked him to design not just a museum, but a “temple of spirit,” where people would learn to see art in a new way.  It took 16 years for the museum to be complete with delays from the war as well as the death of Solomon.  When Solomon passed away, the museum’s board of directors agreed to change the name of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.  Wright also passed away just six months before the museum opened.

To Wright’s fans, the museum was a work of art in itself.  Inside, a long ramp spiraled upwards for a total of a quarter-mile around a large central rotunda, topped by a domed glass ceiling.  Upon opening the building has some critics because it was such a sharp contrast to the more typically boxy Manhattan buildings that surround it, but over time it became accepted.

In 1992 Gwathmey Siegel & Associates added and extension to the museum, a ten story limestone tower behind the original spiral.  The new tower provided flat walls for paintings, complementing the display of sculpture around the spiral gallery.  With an ever-expanding art collection, the Guggenheim is home to over 900,000 visitors each year.

The Guggenheim Foundation has continued in recent years to expand its international scope by opening the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, Germany in 1997, as well as a large museum the Frank Gehry-designed Abu Dhabi Guggenheim in the United Arab Emirates.  Also opening The Vilnius Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Lithuania, and The Guggenheim Guadalajara in Mexico.

References in popular culture

  •  In the film L.A. Story, Steve Martin’s character has fun roller-skating through an art museum as a friend videotapes him. An acquaintance he meets in the art museum asks him, “Have you tried the Guggenheim?”
  •  In “The Race,” a 1994 episode of Seinfeld, George claims to have been the architect of the 1992 addition.
  •  In the episode “Art” of the Dilbert TV Series the Guggenheim is seen as being remodeled in accordance with a popular modern art fad.
  •  The exterior of the Guggenheim Museum can be seen in the opening sequence of The Critic.
  •  In the movie Aftershock: Earthquake in New York, it is destroyed by an earthquake.
  •  The movie Men In Black has Will Smith chasing an alien along the ramp (and up the side of the building).
  •  The movie “The Order – From Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle 3” was also filmed here.
  •  The Guggenheim Museum can be built as a landmark in Sim City 4 Rush Hour
  •  The Guggenheim can be seen in the film Downtown 81 starring the artist Jean Michel Basquiat