The Museum as a Transnational Actor

Patricia M. Goff

Patricia M. Goff is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. She is also an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Specializing in international political economy and international relations theory, she is the author of Limits of Liberalization: Local Culture in a Global Marketplace and Irrelevant or Indispensable?: The United Nations in the 21st Century.  


The museum has recently embarked on a new phase of transnational activity, marked by the establishment of international satellite branches. While it resembles for-profit and not-for-profit transnational actors in important ways, museum satellites are also unique in their motivation, impact, and partnerships. This observation can be a jumping off point for a new round of transnational actor theorizing that can accommodate entities like the museum.

DOI: 10.18278/aia.2.1.7


In the last 25 years, museums have opened satellite branches in international locations—the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Las Vegas, and Berlin; the Hermitage in Las Vegas and Amsterdam; and soon, possibly a Guggenheim in Helsinki and a Guggenheim and Louvre on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. For decades or longer, museums have participated in international exchanges or traveling exhibits of parts of their collections. In this respect, museums have long been active across borders. But, establishing a satellite branch is transnational activity of a different order. The branch strategy is driven by different motivations than the traditional art exchange and involves a different constellation of actors. Whereas art exchanges are typically effectuated between museums, establishing a foreign branch usually (though not always) implicates governments. Satellite branches can exercise distinct forms of political, cultural, and commercial power, making the museum relevant to scholars of global politics in a new way.

In particular, satellite branches draw our attention to the museum as a distinctive transnational actor. It resembles many other transnational actors in some ways. Nonetheless, it fits uncomfortably into any standard category that we use to understand transnational activity. Situating the museum as a transnational actor is made more challenging by the fact that the drivers, mode of execution, objectives, and consequences of existing satellites are not identical to each other. Anecdotally, by way of example, one can point to the fact that the Guggenheim is a private museum, while the Hermitage and the Louvre are both quasi-public. What kind of transnational actor, then, is the museum? This article offers an exploration of the museum based on the typology of transnational actors that dominates debates in International Relations.

The one entity that most closely resembles the museum as a transnational actor is the university, which has also taken its transnational activity to a new level, not just exchanging faculty and students as it has long done, but also making its curriculum available digitally and opening branch campuses in far-flung locations. I flag it here to underline that understanding the transnational museum is intrinsically interesting in itself, but also indicative of a larger set of activities by transnational actors with unique economic, political, and ideational influence. Current transnational actor categories accommodate these new actors poorly.

This article proceeds in four parts. First, I describe the museum satellite phenomenon with special attention to the Guggenheim, Hermitage, and Saadiyat Island incarnations. Second, I explore why museums and their partners engage in this kind of transnational activity. Third, I attempt to situate the museum in the transnational actor categories on which we typically rely. The fourth section concludes.

The Phenomenon of the Museum Satellite

At this time, we can point to a handful of museum satellites that have come to fruition, but many more have been discussed or are under discussion, including Hermitage in Shanghai; Guggenheim in Guadalajara; British Museum and Victoria and Albert in China; Rodin Museum in Brazil; and Pompidou in Shanghai (Maher 2007). Several other museum branches have been established regionally. I will not discuss them here, but note that these include Pompidou Metz, Tate Britain, and Louvre Lens.

The Guggenheim

Before other museums followed suit, the satellite strategy was associated solely with the Guggenheim and, specifically, with Thomas Krens. Krens became the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1988 when the museum faced significant financial challenges (Guasch and Zulaika 2005:16). He initially sought to sell off some of the Guggenheim collection, but was criticized for this (MacCannell 2005:23). The International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Ethics suggests that such a practice is an inappropriate fund-raising activity as it may compromise the public trust in the museum’s stewardship role (ICOM 2004). In 1990, Krens floated a $54.9 million bond issue, largely to finance a branch of the Guggenheim in SoHo, which ultimately failed (Haacke 2005:115). In the meantime, Krens had reportedly put out a number of feelers about possible international expansion sites, including in Salzburg, Berlin, and Madrid. While responses from these locations were luke warm, the city of Bilbao pursued the opportunity. A deal was struck in 1991 and the museum opened in 1997, touching off what many have termed “the Guggenheim Effect.” The Guggenheim Bilbao is not just a museum, but an architectural landmark and a symbol of the city. It is tied to a strategy of urban renewal and has spurred tourism and economic growth.

The agreement between Krens and Bilbao emerged against the backdrop of Spanish politics in the 1970s and 1980s. The Basque Autonomous Region or Euskadi was created in 1979. In part, the Basque government sought to shift the depiction of the Basques as “the Indians of Europe” (MacCannell 2005:23). They soon also confronted serious economic challenges. Formerly home to thriving iron and steel mills, as well as mining, shipbuilding and a busy port, the region was undergoing deindustrialization by the mid-1980s. “The metropolitan area had lost 20% of its population and 47% of its industrial jobs in the two preceding decades” (Fraser 2005:47).

Economic woes were compounded by skittish investors who hesitated to put their money in a region known for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) terrorist activity (Haacke 2005:118). At the same time, the region was aware of the need to find a meaningful identity within the growing European Union. These considerations led to a modernization and economic revitalization strategy to evolve from an industrial to a services city (Azua 2005:74). This plan presumed job creation, economic modernization, infrastructure development, increased tourism, and stimulus for local firms. Bilbao was the centerpiece of the regional strategy, which included a substantial cultural component.

Under the terms of the deal between the Basque Autonomous Government and the Guggenheim Museum, Krens asked for $20 million up front for the use of the Guggenheim name (Zulaika calls this the “franchise fee” (Zulaika 2005:150)); a commitment of an additional $100 million toward construction costs; $50 million for an art acquisition program; and an ongoing subsidy of $7 million per year for operating costs and maintenance (MacCannell 2005:23; see also Haacke 2005). More money would be forthcoming for acquisitions in later years (Haacke 2005:117). In return, the Guggenheim would offer its brand name, works from its collection, and travelling exhibitions. The Guggenheim retained complete control over programming, operations, and acquisitions. Bilbao would be the first experiment with a new strategy. “The Guggenheim’s primary assets were its collection and its image…. instead of selling works from its collection, the museum hit on the idea of renting them—to itself. Branch museums financed by foreign governments and corporations, but directed entirely by management in New York, would pay the Guggenheim for the privilege of presenting its exhibitions and collections” (Fraser 2005:56).

Obviously, this was a huge risk on the part of the regional ministry of culture. It has paid off in many ways. “Immediately, the image of the Guggenheim became the international icon, displacing the ETA terrorist as the prime symbol of the region” (MacCannell 2005:24). From the first year, more than a million people have visited the museum annually, the vast majority from outside of Spain (MacCannell 2005:24). The Guggenheim Bilbao stimulated the Bilbao economy by bringing tourists and creating a need for cognate services. It also rebranded the city and the region from the seat of Basque terrorism and a deindustrialized economy to a must-see global cultural center. “Although interpretations of the numbers differ, the museum reportedly generated economic activity that added 47% to the gross regional product in its first year of operation, contributing to the maintenance of 3800 jobs, mostly through tourism” (Fraser 2005:51). Of course, the Bilbao experience has not been free of controversy. It has been criticized for promoting the Frank Gehry-designed building housing the art over the art itself. Also, while the Guggenheim museum gave Bilbao a foothold in the international art scene, it has arguably only stimulated the local arts community in limited ways. Some new arts institutions have grown up around the Guggenheim in its wake. However, the charge of “cultural imperialism” is enduring.

Few other Guggenheim satellites have taken hold like Bilbao. Helsinki and Abu Dhabi are in the relatively early stages, both plagued by controversy in different ways. The Berlin and Las Vegas ventures have long since closed their doors.2  The Berlin Guggenheim dates to 1997 and a joint venture with Deutsche Bank. Krens had reportedly approached the bank a year earlier. He struck a deal with Hilmar Kopper, then president of the bank and chair of its supervisory board. The museum would be located in the bank’s regional headquarters on the Unter den Linden in Berlin. The franchise would be called Deutsche Guggenheim. The terms of the Berlin deal remain a closely guarded secret (Haacke 2005:119). Kopper expressed the bank’s rationale thusly: “Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin is an advertisement for Deutsche Bank’s global expertise, quality, and innovative potential” (quoted in Haacke 2005:119). The space featured exhibitions from the Guggenheim and Deutsche bank collections, as well as commissioned works and works from international museums. The Deutsche Guggenheim officially closed in 2012. In its place is the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, which continues to mount exhibitions that seem still to have a Guggenheim connection of some sort.3

The Guggenheim opened two branches in Las Vegas in 2001, both in the Venetian Hotel. The Guggenheim Las Vegas and the Guggenheim Hermitage were both designed by Rem Koolhaas. The Venetian paid for them, made other undisclosed contributions and shared operating income with the Guggenheim (Haacke 2005:121). Guggenheim Las Vegas closed after 18 months and one exhibition. The Guggenheim Hermitage closed in 2008. The Las Vegas Guggenheim branches were done in partnership with other cash-strapped museums, namely the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. “Their ostensible common purpose is to mount shows from their respective collections in Las Vegas, Bilbao, New York, and in Venice, occasionally sponsored by Deutsche Bank” (Haacke 2005:121). The Berlin and Las Vegas Guggenheim branches, as well as the Hermitage Las Vegas, are noteworthy because, unlike the Guggenheim Bilbao, which was developed in partnership with the Basque government, they are partnerships with private-sector actors.

The Guggenheim’s most recent undertakings, in Helsinki and Abu Dhabi, return to the original approach of partnering primarily with governments. In June 2015, the winning architectural design for the Guggenheim Helsinki was announced. However, that project has encountered a number of roadblocks. The first came shortly after the museum presented its initial proposal to the City of Helsinki in 2012. The skepticism with which this proposal was met led to the submission of a revised proposal in 2013, which included extensive changes to the financial model and the museum operating structure (SRG Foundation 2013). While some welcome the prospect of increased tourism that a Guggenheim might generate, others reject a model of Finnish taxpayer subsidization of an American initiative. The opposition has been so strong in some quarters that it spawned a parallel competition alongside the one launched by the city for the architectural contract. The “Next Helsinki” parallel competition invited proposals for alternative strategies for developing the cultural life of Helsinki. “Our competition—not really a competition at all, rather a call for ideas, an anti-competition—sought to ask first if a massive foreign museum was the highest and best use for public resources, especially in an aspirationally egalitarian social democracy like Finland.”4 Incensed that Helsinki might “surrender such a fabulous site to some starchitect supermarket,” “the cultural equivalent of Starbucks,”5  the initiative assembled an international jury and reviewed 217 proposals from 40 countries.

While the parallel competition arguably had more of a symbolic impact on the progress of Guggenheim efforts in Finland, in September 2016, the Finnish Government cut $45 million of funding for the museum as part of a larger austerity package. Many thought the project might be dead, however Guggenheim has since come back with a restructured funding package relying to a much greater degree on private contributions. The City of Helsinki will soon vote on this latest proposal.

The Hermitage

The Hermitage joined with the Guggenheim for the failed Las Vegas satellite. However, The Hermitage Amsterdam, opened in 2009, has been a success. The Hermitage did not initiate the satellite project in Amsterdam; instead, their Dutch colleagues approached them. Ties between the Russian and Dutch art communities were relatively close due to numerous art exchanges. Significant historical ties exist between the Netherlands and Russia and the Hermitage has the greatest collection of Dutch masters outside of the Netherlands.

Philanthropic support to the Russian state museum had previously been forthcoming from the Netherlands. In 1996, coinciding with a traveling exhibition from St. Petersburg on “Catherine the Great, the Emperor, and the Arts,” a major fundraising campaign was held in the Netherlands to provide the Rembrandt Gallery in the Russian Hermitage with a new roof, daylight control, and lighting. Money from private individuals and organizations provided enough funding for three major restoration projects in St. Petersburg and provided the foundation for the Friends of the Hermitage that would later fund the Amsterdam branch.

Much of the impetus behind the Hermitage Amsterdam came from Ernst Veen, director of Amsterdam’s De Nieuwe Kerk. He had a personal relationship with the Hermitage director, Mikhail Piotrovsky. He made the initial approach on behalf of the city of Amsterdam when a heritage building, centrally located on the Amstel River, became available and city leaders were looking for a creative use for it. Veen proposed a Hermitage branch, which would both complement the city’s already thriving art landscape and benefit from existing Dutch-Russian ties. Timing was propitious with the main fundraising for the Hermitage Amsterdam taking place just before the 2008 financial crisis. The initial Hermitage Amsterdam agreement specified that there would be no new Hermitage satellites in close European cities for a period of time. Veen did a press junket to Paris, Berlin, and other European cities in advance of the Hermitage Amsterdam opening. The message was that “Europe is getting a new museum.”

Piotrovsky was receptive, partly because a satellite would create a welcome new revenue stream. “The museum was facing both a surplus of deferred maintenance projects and a lack of funds. Its new Dutch friends put sufficient funds at its disposal within an incredibly short time” (Tromp 2009:202). As Piotrovsky put it, “art is more important than money. But money is not unimportant” (Tromp 2009:202). The St. Petersburg Hermitage gets one euro per visitor to the Amsterdam branch (Tromp 2009:202). Operations ostensibly cost five million euros a year, with half coming from receipts and the other half through fund-raising (Tromp 2009:216). Hermitage Amsterdam operates more or less independently from St. Petersburg (Tromp 2009:203). The Amsterdam branch mostly shows art from the St. Petersburg storage and some exhibits from local Dutch museums.6 When asked about the Hermitage “expansion” to Amsterdam, Piotrovsky took issue with the terminology. “Sure, but it’s not about expansion, it’s about access. We have extensive and marvellous collections. Here we can only show a small part of them” (Tromp 2009:201). The Hermitage ostensibly holds over 3 million objects in its collection. Approximately 65,000 of them are on display in the 350 galleries of the St. Petersburg museum (Russia Gallery).

There were some contributions from the city, the province and the state to get the Dutch museum up and running. But, there is no public money for Hermitage Amsterdam operations. There are several long-term sponsorships from corporate donors, like Phillips and Heineken. This sort of activity contributes to their corporate social responsibility mission and they benefit from the fact that they can use the museum building a few times a year for their events.

Guggenheim and Louvre—Saadiyat Island

Saadiyat Island is a development project of the Government of Abu Dhabi under the auspices of the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC). The cultural district is one part of a larger development that includes a business district, residences, beach resorts, marinas, golf courses, schools, and universities. It is just one component of a far-reaching urban planning vision, called Plan Abu Dhabi 2030. The Saadiyat Island cultural district will be an “iconic precinct” (Abu Dhabi UPC 2013:11) in the capital city, featuring three museums: the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Sheikh Zayed Museum, named for the founding President of the United Arab Emirates, and focusing on the history and traditions of the UAE. None of these museums has formally opened. The Louvre was originally scheduled to open in 2012, however that has been pushed back to 2017. The Jean Nouvel building is complete and an inaugural director was appointed in late 2016. Guggenheim construction is yet to begin. In the meantime, events are being held to create buzz and anticipation about the eventual openings, including public lectures by the architects and sample exhibitions in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi was established as a result of an agreement signed between the Government of France and the Government of Abu Dhabi in 2007. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is not intended to be “an outpost” of the Paris museum. They will collaborate, but the Abu Dhabi Louvre will ostensibly build a permanent collection that contains more twentieth century art than its French cousin (Future 2012). For the Guggenheim, the “Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), an independent company of ADTA, will own the museum, while the Guggenheim Foundation will create and manage the museum’s programs including collection development, exhibitions, and educational projects” (Thompson 2008:23).

Saadiyat Island is just one piece of a much larger story of Gulf state participation in art markets (McClellan 2012). The Qatari royal family has become a major player. In recent years, it has broken records by purchasing art works for hitherto unseen prices. (Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players for $250 million in 2011; Paul Gauguin’s When Will You Marry for $300 million in 2015). They have also supported other initiatives, like a large-scale sculpture by Richard Serra in the Qatari desert and built the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei. Sharjah, another Emirate, hosts a thriving gallery scene and a biennial. It was also named the cultural capital of the Arab world by UNESCO in 1998.

Why have museums opened satellite branches? 

As the previous section suggests, the various stakeholders in museum satellites have different motivations. This is especially true for the public and private sector partners. A number of factors seem to be driving this strategy for museums. In some cases, museums are experiencing a reduction in funding or are confronting a need to enhance their funding to finance their operations. The Guggenheim was in poor financial shape when Thomas Krens sought out international partners to serve as satellite locations. To a certain degree, the Hermitage was also looking for new sources of revenue when it agreed to establish an outpost in Amsterdam. In all cases, they can leverage their “inventory”—their extensive collections in storage—to create new streams of revenue. The Louvre was entirely funded by the French government until 1993. Since then, the government only provides 70 percent of its needs (Ajana 2015:322). So, it, too, can benefit from new revenue streams. Travelling exhibits have offset some costs. For example, loans from the Louvre to the High Museum in Atlanta reportedly netted the Paris museum $6.4 million to use for gallery restoration (Maher 2007). When the Hermitage takes an exhibition abroad, it typically asks for one or one and a half million dollars (Tromp 2009:202). This suggests that satellites are the next natural step in an already transnational projection of its collections, partially to augment funds.

The governments who partner with museums have multiple motives that are both material and ideational. In several instances, the city or region perceives a need or an opportunity to stimulate its economy. They see the museum as a magnet or an anchor that can attract tourists and also generate jobs in the museum itself and in cognate services. Bilbao is the obvious example of such a strategy. “Supported by the governing conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and publicly financed to the tune of $150 million by various levels of government in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, the Guggenheim Bilbao is the product less of cultural policy than of economic policy” (Fraser 2005:47).

Saadiyat Island is an economic stimulus strategy of a different sort. Whereas Bilbao sought to reinvigorate a declining, deindustrialized region, Saadiyat Island is the centerpiece of a new economic development project that is being created from scratch on an island off Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is extremely rich. At the same time, there is benefit to be derived from enhancing this wealth and diversifying its economy away from oil and toward tourism (Thompson 2008:22; HRW 2009). The appeal of increased tourism and possible accompanying job creation also resonated in Amsterdam, Helsinki, and Las Vegas.

In addition to the commercial prospects, numerous other motivations are in play when governments partner with museums. For example, related to the desire for economic stimulus is an effort at (re)branding. In order to build a brand, there must be a narrative, ideally of distinctiveness, which is then disseminated through “brand channels,” like the media (Plaza et al. 2013). Bilbao clearly sought to fashion a different identity that would distance it from declining industries and terrorist presence. Abu Dhabi is arguably seeking through its development of the cultural district on Saadiyat Island to “reshape the ‘image’ of the Arab world” so that it includes “world-class” cultural hubs (Ajana 2015:316). Verena Formanek, senior project manager for the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, said “Most of the people visiting us today don’t know the difference between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, so we needed to work with the Guggenheim brand. No one in the world would have looked at Abu Dhabi without that name” (quoted in Batty 2012). The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority describes Saadiyat Island as “a destination everyone in the world of art and culture would have to visit, annually and more than once, by building a series of permanent institutions—museums, performing art centers, exhibition halls, educational institutions in the arts—that through its collections, architecture and programs will become one of the greatest concentrations of cultural experience anywhere in the world” (cited in Thompson 2008:23). Las Vegas sought to rebrand itself, through the museum satellites as well as high end retailers and top-chef restaurants, as a destination for tourists who may not be attracted by the gaming industry. In Amsterdam and Helsinki, supporters have invoked a version of the branding motivation, suggesting that the arrival of a Hermitage or Guggenheim could reinforce or augment their brands as European cultural centers. The Bilbao experience suggests that allying with a globally recognized museum can allow a place to establish an international reputation quickly (Ajana 2015:317), however others have noted that this was as much about Bilbao as it was about the Guggenheim—a unique constellation of factors came together in that place at that time to create the outcomes that Bilbao experienced (Bathurst 2014).

In addition to these elements, we might also point to the opportunity for art partnerships to create opportunities for dialogue. “Equally important to the rationales of these projects is the desire to create a bridge between Western and Arabic art and a platform for retelling the histories and stories of the region, some of which have remained undocumented so far” (Ajana 2015:316). Even Helsinki is being sold in this way. In the Guggenheim’s recent revised proposal to the City of Helsinki, they write, “Residents of Finland and international visitors alike would become active participants in the exchange of relevant contemporary ideas within an expanding global arts community” (SRG Foundation 2013:10). It further notes that, “Finland serves as an active bridge between East and West and is located at the nexus of the Nordic and Baltic regions” (SRG Foundation 2013:13).

The foregoing begs the question, why do corporations get involved in some of these arrangements? The Deutsche Bank provides perhaps the greatest insight because they partnered with Guggenheim for the Berlin location. Outside of the relationship with Guggenheim, Deutsche Bank has identified the promotion of art as a component of its corporate philanthropy. This sort of corporate social responsibility practice can burnish the bank brand and provide it with an opportunity to forge a distinctive corporate social responsibility policy. Beyond its partnership with the Guggenheim, Deutsche Bank oversees Art Works, its “global art program.” The bank has its own collection of art, some of which it exhibits on its premises. It supports a myriad of projects, including an “Artist of the Year” award and a magazine about art, ostensibly making are more widely accessible.  Ultimately, then, the various actors who participate in the transnationalization of the museum do so for their own political, economic, and cultural reasons.7

The Museum—What kind of transnational actor?

The seeds of the current conversation about transnational actors date to the early 1970s when scholars like Keohane and Nye questioned the state centric nature of the international system (Jönsson 2010, 23). They saw greater complexity of as well as significant activity by non-state actors. Early versions of this debate asked whether increased influence by transnational actors translated into declining influence for the state. Attention returned to transnational actors again in the 1990s with a spate of scholarship on globalization, transnational advocacy networks, and epistemic communities (see Risse 2002 for a review of this second wave).

Contemporary definitions include the following: transnational actors “operate on a cross-border basis, pursue the same set of goals everywhere, and address a global audience. This does not mean that their national affiliates, subsidiaries, or chapters have no autonomy: but they possess a clear overall image and exist as international, often legal entities, whether as church, corporation, or federation” (Josselin and Wallace 2001:3). The term, transnational, “refers to actors, interactions and flows that cross conventional borders, go beyond established patterns, and can be seen as an alternative to state-centric perspectives” (Jönsson 2010:40). These definitions seem able to accommodate the museum as a transnational actor, but what kind?

There is no authoritative typology of transnational actors (Jönsson 2010:31). Yet there are some standard categories in the IR literature. Risse (2002:256) distinguishes transnational actors along two dimensions: their internal structure and their motivations. Internal structure captures whether the actor is a formal organization or a looser network (Risse 2002:256). In Risse’s formulation, motivations can be instrumental, focused on the interests of the organization itself, or geared toward the common good or principled advocacy (2002:257). This emphasis on motivation is echoed elsewhere in the literature. “A distinction is commonly made between for-profit and non-profit organizations, between firms and so-called non-governmental organizations (NGOs)” (Jönsson 2010:31; see also Higgott, Underhill and Bieler 2000:1 and Downie 2013). This dichotomy has been expanded and rendered more complex. But, these basic categories provide a good starting point for situating museums in the conversation about transnational actors.

For-profit transnational actors 

There is no doubt that satellites have evoked for many the corporatization or the commercialization of the museum in a way that invites comparisons to the multinational corporation (MNC). For example, Guggenheim Bilbao has been described as “the museum idea dreamed up by Krens to make the Guggenheim an international corporation interested in questions of growth and expansion, as well as stimulating business in the visual arts” (Guasch and Zulaika 2005:17). Krens has been both lauded and criticized for “his appropriation of for-profit business models, aggressive globalizing through an international network of branch museums, ties to corporations, deals with foreign governments, and exhibitions featuring luxury consumer products” (Fraser 2005:56). Much of the terminology used to discuss the Guggenheim evokes transnational business, including reference to the “Guggenheim Consortium” (Guasch and Zulaika 2005:16) and satellites as franchises.

In some instances, the Guggenheim itself makes the connection to MNCs. Peter Lewis, the president of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, has called the Foundation “the parent corporation of the Guggenheim Bilbao.” Much has been made of the fact that Krens has a master’s degree in studio art and a master’s degree in business from the Yale School of Management (Fraser 2005:55; Haacke 2005:114). And, of course, not only for the Guggenheim, but for all of the museums involved, raising revenue is a key objective.

More recently, the commercial dimensions of the Abu Dhabi initiative have also been criticized, implicating not only Guggenheim, but also the Louvre. Philippe Regnier, the editor of Journal Des Arts, claims that a museum is—or should be—distinct from a commercial or corporate enterprise (in Maher 2007): “The only really troubling thing in this project is that Abu Dhabi was determined to acquire a [desirable] name—in this case that of the Louvre, the name of the most prestigious museum in the world—and France sold the name of the Louvre like one might sell the name of a shoe store, or a store for ready-to-wear clothes. In other words, like a brand name […] And with that, you get into a whole new view [of museums] that is no longer simply artistic but is also very much commercial.”

What other attributes do museum satellites share with MNCs? MNCs expand their reach across borders; they create subsidiaries and franchises; they strike deals with governments. The deal between the French and Abu Dhabi governments creates a 30-year arrangement during which time the Abu Dhabi museum has essentially bought rights to the Louvre name. The deal also gives the Abu Dhabi museum access to advice from a consortium of 12 French cultural entities, assembled under the title Agence France-Muséums, as well as a commitment to organize joint exhibitions. In return, the Louvre reportedly earns $1.26 billion (Economist), $525 million for use of the name alone (Maher 2007). At the same time, the Louvre Abi Dhabi is not a branch of the Louvre Paris. The branch and its permanent collection are owned by the Government of Abu Dhabi. A similar arrangement exists for the Guggenheim. It will be involved in the programming and guide acquisitions, but Abu Dhabi will own the building and acquire its own permanent collection (Brake 2006). All of this money changing hands in exchange for consulting services and licensing rights resembles MNC activity.

Museum satellites, like most modern museums, have a strong consumer orientation, leading one commentator to suggest that they are transforming “from public educational institutions into corporate entertainment complexes…” (Fraser 2005:42). Popular culture exhibits, like the Guggenheim’s The Art of the Motorcycle and Armani, have a wider attraction (Fraser 2005:50). Museum gift shops and restaurants can also make the museum a consumer destination that does not require a visit to the art collection. Just as the cities and regions that partner with museums are often concerned about their brand, so do the museums themselves engage in image or brand control, reminding us of MNCs. Fraser (2005:46) argues that “the museum is aggressive in policing its image and has threatened unauthorized reproductions with legal proceedings. When a local artist who runs a pasta shop started selling dry macaroni in the shape of Gehry’s building, the response from museum lawyers was swift and unequivocal: cease production of the noodle or prepare to be sued.”

The commercial aspects of MNCs are not the only attributes that resonate in a conversation about museum satellites. Just as Walmart, Starbucks, and McDonalds have been criticized for offering a cookie cutter product that is identical in every incarnation and that threatens to homogenize the broader landscape in their respective sectors, so does the Guggenheim especially come in for criticism as a cultural imperialist force. Not just the commercialization of art, which the Louvre Abu Dhabi also arguably represents, but the projection of a museum model that threatens the socio-cultural distinctiveness of the communities where they locate, is part of the concern raised especially about Guggenheim hewing too closely to MNC practices.

Furthermore, the Guggenheim and the Louvre have been embroiled in controversy about worker’s conditions in the Emirates. In many ways, it evokes the campaign aimed at MNCs to stop using sweatshop labour. In 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled, “The Island of Happiness’: Exploitation of Migrant Workers on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi.” The report chronicles worker abuse in the construction projects, notably “employee-paid recruiting fees; visas controlled by employers; very low wages often far below what was promised workers in their home countries; and restrictions on organizing and no real access to legal remedies” (HRW 2009:1). These conditions are in addition to long hours in extreme heat. Many of these practices are apparently illegal in the Emirates, yet the laws are not enforced (HRW 2009:2). The organization called upon the Guggenheim and Louvre foundations, New York University, and the international architectural firms active in Abu Dhabi to obtain contractual guarantees from their partners responsible for constructing their facilities in Abu Dhabi to uphold worker rights (HRW 2009:9).

All of this seems quite persuasive in underlining the similarities between MNCs and museums. Still, we must stop short of saying that the museum is now an MNC. Museums are not earning money for their shareholders, but rather to fund operations. Museums retain a distinct mission to conserve and exhibit art and to educate the public about it. MNC-like attributes are on display across the museum sample to varying degrees, however perhaps the Guggenheim (and to a certain degree, the Louvre in Abu Dhabi) evokes the MNC more than the Hermitage. Museums are borrowing from the MNC playbook and noticing this is important. However, simply equating globally minded museums with MNCs forecloses an inquiry into many other aspects of the transnational museum’s activity. Let us turn to the other familiar category, the NGO.

Non-Profit Transnational Actors

“If firms are private actors pursuing private profits, NGOs are private actors pursuing public purposes” (Jönsson 2010:31). Museums share some attributes of the NGO, but not others. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment” (ICOM 2007). While NGOs are often associated with a principled cause, museums are not typically involved in advocacy and they do not typically seek to influence policy processes. One could argue that museum’s raison d’être is itself a principled cause of sorts—arts preservation and education, as well as cross-cultural understanding. Indeed, the commercialization of the museum and its appropriation of MNC practices arguably diminishes this more principled mandate. In the absence of the satellite strategy, museums might more comfortably fit in the NGO transnational actor category.

Depending on the country, museums are non-governmental actors to varying degrees. The Guggenheim Foundation, for example is a private entity. The Louvre and the Hermitage, on the other hand, receive funding from their respective governments. It is worth noting that NGOs generally are not completely autonomous from the state (Higgott, Underhill and Bieler 2000:6). At a minimum, they exist along a spectrum (Josselin and Wallace 2001:2). Some are creations of the state; some are enlisted by states to do work on their behalf, which is also true of the museum.

A museum is like a foundation in some ways. However, foundations are more typically granting organizations that fund research, often relating to policy issues (Stone and Garnett 1998:4). A museum evokes some of the characteristics of an epistemic community in that it is a repository of expertise and can offer advice. Both the Guggenheim and the Louvre have been operating in this capacity with some controversy, offering advice to government partners, especially in Abu Dhabi, on art purchases. Nonetheless, it is actually an empirical question the degree to which there is a museum community characterized by “principled beliefs, …shared causal beliefs, …shared notions of validity, … and a common policy enterprise” (Haas 1992:3). These attributes suggest a cohesion across the museum community that is unproven. They may have more in common with “transnational communities” (Djelic and Quack 2010) than epistemic communities.

Even if we can identify those driving the museum satellite phenomenon as some sort of community, it tells us little about their objectives and effects. The same can be said of classing museum branches as public–private partnerships. “Partnerships can be understood as voluntary cooperative arrangements between actors from two or more societal spheres (state, market, civil society) with non-hierarchical decision-making procedures” (Jönsson 2010:36). The satellite museums are surely this, but this tells us little about the drivers, nature, and consequences of the partnerships. Museum branches are also surely part of a network. According to Jönsson (2010), networks are “informal constellations without official status….Networks represent a more horizontal, ‘flat,’ non-hierarchical mode of organization” (Jönsson 2010:39). “Networks represent more than fleeting encounters, but less than permanent institutions” (Jönsson 2010:39). The Guggenheim is, itself, a sort of network. Exhibitions can circulate among the various Guggenheim locations (SRG Foundation 2013:20). This tells us something about the flows and interdependencies, but again, little about the origins and substance of the links between the various nodes. Therefore, the museum is, by definition a non-profit entity, but it does not map perfectly onto any variant of the non-governmental organization.

Cultural diplomat 

While not typically part of the transnational actor discussion, there is a fruitful overlap with the cultural diplomacy literature, which increasingly recognizes the contribution that non-state and private sector actors can make to cultural diplomacy. Many formulations of cultural diplomacy presume that governments are its key agents (Mark 2010). However, a shift in focus toward the preferred outcome of cultural diplomacy—greater mutual understanding—can accommodate non-governmental actors as cultural diplomats (Cummings 2003; Goff 2013, 2017; Schneider 2003). Some of the modern museum satellites situate their work in this way.8

Interestingly, the Guggenheim is not the first private museum that tried to develop international franchises. Nelson Rockefeller, a benefactor of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York had for many years tried to open a series of MoMA franchises in several Brazilian cities, including São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte (Guilbaut 2005). Indeed, Rockefeller was vying with the French at the time for this kind of cultural influence in Brazil. This effort was part of a Cold War fight against the spread of communism, founded on the idea that if Latin Americans embrace American art, they will also embrace the ideology that animates it (Guilbaut 2005). MoMA’s goals in this endeavor were more political than economic as compared with contemporary museum branches. They were tools of cultural diplomacy.

Ernst Veen sees the Hermitage Amsterdam as having a cultural diplomacy dimension. “I am a product of the Cold War. Here and now I want to make a nice exhibition. But, at the same time I also want our institution to make a small contribution to open political relations between Russia and the Netherlands” (Tromp 2009:217). When asked why he did not choose to collaborate with the Louvre or the Met, which might be simpler, Veen says, “It arises from the choices we have been making for years as we have put together our exhibitions in De Nieuwe Kerk. Why do we do shows on Afghanistan, or on Morocco, or Turkey? It has to do with our wish to use art to say something more about other cultures. Hopefully, it helps people to understand each other better” (Tromp 2009:217). An entire room in the Hermitage Amsterdam, called The Russia Gallery, is dedicated to the origins of the museum against the backdrop of historical relations between the Netherlands and Russia. It traces “warm contacts” between the two nations from the time of Tsar Peter the Great in 1697. The establishment of a Hermitage satellite in Amsterdam is portrayed as the culmination or a natural outgrowth of centuries of positive ties. In this room, the Amsterdam museum is lightheartedly referred to as an “embassy” and an “ambassador” of Russia’s national museum.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi aims to be the world’s first universal museum, ranging across millennia and multiple societies, cultures, and civilizations. At a 2013 exhibit promoting the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, HE Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, Chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, said that, “even before opening its doors, Louvre Abu Dhabi is setting its precedent as a place of cross-cultural dialogue and exchange” (“Louvre” 2013). It is arguably not only exposure to the art that bridges cultures, promotes dialogue and understanding. For some, the business partnerships themselves contribute to this objective. As McClellan puts it (in Maher 2007): “the rhetoric you hear consistently around the openings of these [new] museums is that they will foster dialogue between east and west. And that’s a very important justification for museums I think all over the world. And they’re putting that into operation, in effect, by bridging the east and the west through this partnership.” Supporters of the Helsinki Guggenheim also invoke a similar argument about the prospect of bridging difference and fostering dialogue.

Whether museums can effectively function as cultural diplomats is an empirical question for another study. Nonetheless, that museum satellites evoke aspects of cultural diplomacy complicates efforts to categorize them as transnational actors. It drives home the fact that museums do not fit easily into the standard categories that we use.


The satellite museum has emerged in recent years as a distinctive transnational actor. It straddles many of the standard categories in the field and bleeds into others that are not traditionally part of that conversation. Drawing on Risse’s (2002) two dimensions, the structure of museum branches evokes both formal organizations and looser networks. In terms of motivations, museum satellites exhibit attributes of both for-profit and non-profit actors. Museum satellites are also unique transnational actors in terms of their purpose and influence. Transnational actor studies, including those devoted to activist networks and epistemic communities, often focus on direct policy impact. Indeed, Downie notes that the “principal question most scholars seek to answer” about transnational actors is, “under what conditions do transnational actors influence policy outcomes?” (Downie 2013:176). While museum satellites exhibit all the attributes of a transnational actor, they do not share this objective. Their impact can be quite significant—stimulating economic development; contributing in positive and negative ways to meaning-making, identity formation, and narratives about nationalism and place; shaping the physical landscape—but it is not typically a policy influence.

This preliminary analysis, then, delivers a clearer understanding of what museums are not as opposed to what they are. While a useful first step, it invites a shift away from an inquiry into what museums are toward what they do. What are the practices that define their activity? It is likely in subjecting specific examples of museum satellites to this kind of analysis that we can gain greater purchase on their unique brand of transnational activity. Future research should reflect this orientation.


Image Attribution: By Zarateman (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons


1. Museums have been amply studied by cultural studies, cultural policy, and urban planning but less so by IR scholars, with the exception of Christine Sylvester (2009).

2. The Venice Guggenheim is the bequest of Peggy Guggenheim, opened in 1976. The collection is housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, where Peggy Guggenheim lived from 1949 until her death in 1979. Therefore, although the Venice satellite is a key location in the Guggenheim network, its existence did not come about as a result of the Krens satellite strategy.

3. For example, in early 2016, this space showed Jackson Pollock’s mural, Energy Made Visible. The exhibition notes indicate that the painting is held by the University of Iowa Museum of Art and had recently undergone an 18-month cleaning and conservation process at the Getty in Los Angeles. The exhibition is curated by the Senior Consulting Curator from the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. At the same time, the mural was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim in 1943 and has recently been on view as part of her collection. <http://www.deutsche-bank>.

4 <;.

5 Ibid.

6 For example, in the summer of 2015, the two exhibits were “Alexander, Napoleon, and Josephine,” from St. Petersburg, and a portrait exhibit from the Rijksmuseum.

7 .

8 On museums as agents of cultural diplomacy, see Cai (2013), Grincheva (2013), and Nisbett (2013). On museums and cultural policy, see Jenkins (2005, 2014).


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