Thomas M. Messer, 93; ran ICA

The Guggenheim took its first steps toward becoming a global institution with Mr. Messer in charge.
The Guggenheim took its first steps toward becoming a global institution with Mr. Messer in charge.(DAVID M. HEALD/GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION/FILE 1985)

NEW YORK — Thomas M. Messer, whose leadership of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum over more than a quarter-century established its place among the world’s great museums of modern art, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by family spokesman Adam Lehner.

Mr. Messer was serving as the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston when he was named director of the Guggenheim in 1961, just two years after it moved into its famous building on Fifth Avenue with a spiral-ramp gallery, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. He retired in 1988, as the Guggenheim Foundation, of which he had been director since 1980, was celebrating 50 years of supporting modern art.


During his tenure, one of the longest of a director of any major US art museum, the Guggenheim deepened its collection, expanded its exhibitions program, vastly improved its publications, and took its first step toward becoming a global institution.

Perhaps Mr. Messer’s most significant contributions were the acquisition of two magnificent private collections. In 1963, Justin K. Thannhauser, the son of a German art dealer, presented as a permanent loan a significant portion of his collection: dozens of Impressionist, post-Impressionist, and early modern works, including more than 30 by Picasso.

In 1969, after years of encouragement from Mr. Messer, Peggy Guggenheim agreed to exhibit cubist, surrealist, and abstract expressionist works from her private collection at the museum that bears her family name, evidently no easy feat of persuasion, as the independent-minded Guggenheim spent much of her adulthood estranged from her family and was known not to admire the museum building. (It looked like ‘‘a huge garage,’’ she wrote in her autobiography.)

The exhibition was a success, and Guggenheim, who died in 1979, finally donated the whole of her collection, along with the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, her former home on the Grand Canal in Venice, to the Guggenheim Foundation.


The gift not only strengthened the foundation’s holdings substantially — it includes Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, de Chirico, Ernst, and Pollock — it also gave the Guggenheim its first foothold internationally. The museum has since opened the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, and is planning a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

‘‘It was due to Tom’s charm, grace, diplomacy, and — and this is a point that none of us should ever forget — his love of great art that Peggy gave her collection and palazzo to the Guggenheim,’’ Peter Lawson-Johnston, who was the Guggenheim’s president during Mr. Messer’s directorship, said at a celebration of Mr. Messer’s 90th birthday. ‘‘Here we are, three decades later, with Guggenheims in Bilbao, Berlin, Venice, and soon to be Abu Dhabi. The foundation for all this was laid by Tom Messer, and I can tell you, he laid that foundation under budget.’’

Thomas Maria Messer was born in Bratislava, in what was then Czechoslovakia and is now Slovakia. His father was an art historian and a professor of German; his mother came from a family of musicians.

Although he had an artistic bent, Thomas Messer was sent to study chemistry, first in Prague and then in the United States, at Thiel College in Pennsylvania. His travels abroad, however, began inauspiciously.

He left home Sept. 2, 1939, for England, whence he would cross the Atlantic. The next day England declared itself at war with Germany, and within hours the Athenia, the ship on which Mr. Messer was traveling, was torpedoed and sunk. He was rescued and subsequently made it to the United States on a different ship.


He left Thiel to study modern languages at Boston University, graduating in 1942. ­Afterward he joined the US ­Army, serving in Europe as an interrogator for intelligence. He remained in Europe and formally studied art for the first time at the Sorbonne.

When he returned to the United States, he became director of a museum in Roswell, N.M., and earned a master’s in art history from Harvard.

He served as director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston from 1956 to 1961. One of his major goals was to kindle a nascient interest in modern art among Bostonians, who tended to favor the more traditional masters found in the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Gardner Museum, Mr. Messer told the Archive of American Art in 1995.

Because the ICA had no permanent collection, Mr. Messer focused on working with the public to mount exhibitions, most of which he organized.

The task was a struggle.

“Boston . . . had the feeling that art is a duty, particularly modern art, that was something that had to be done no matter how much they disliked it,’’ he said in the 1995 interview. “So you were continuously caught between people who seemed to be telling themselves on every step that this is something that has got to be done and so they did it, even though with a clear distaste.’'


In 2006, he was invited to see the new ICA on the South Boston waterfront and marveled at the change in direction and attitudes.

“During my time here in the ’50s, the ICA was constantly moving and on the verge of bankruptcy,’’ Mr. Messer told The Boston Globe. “This is quite incredible.”

At the Guggenheim, Mr. Messer had cultivated a strong roster of curators, opening up opportunities for women, and gave them unusual flexibility, especially in the realm of contemporary American art. At the same time, he championed ­European artists, among them Dubuffet and Beuys, for whom appreciation in the United States was lagging.

Mr. Messer leaves no immediate survivors. His wife, the former Remedios Garcia, died in 2002.

Michael Bailey of the Globe staff contributed to this obituary.