When Thomas Krens planned for a new museum in the Spanish city of Bilbao, he wanted it to be 'the greatest building of the 20th century'. And when the controversial director of the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum decided to host an exhibition of Chinese art, he wanted it to be 'the greatest presentation of Chinese culture ever to appear in the West'. 'I don't like to be half-hearted about projects,' said Mr Krens - who since he arrived at the Guggenheim has ruffled feathers all around the comfortable nest of New York's modern art world. After he joined the Guggenheim, Mr Krens restructured the board, bringing in new business school finance models (said, by some, to be of the 'no guts no glory' 1980s tradition) and sent the scale and scope of the Guggenheim soaring. Soaring out of control, some say; others like his wheeling and dealing, bring-art-everywhere attitude. And now he wants to beat the Metropolitan Museum, British Museum, Royal Academy and anyone else who thinks they know what a Chinese art exhibition is all about. Mr Krens has spent four years (a short time for a show of this scale) trying to ensure that China 5000 Years will have the best, most comprehensive, and most interesting perspective on Chinese art ever curated outside China. 'China has had the most innovative cultural life of anywhere in the world. We want to show how it has moved into the 20th century, by looking at the best examples of ancient art, and showing the changes through time,' he said. It is an awesome task, one that is in many ways impossible. And the art world will only know how close he has come to being successful when the exhibition finally opens in New York in January 1998. It was rescheduled from the original plan of holding it in June to coincide with Hong Kong's handover, in a bid for time, after the logistics of putting it together by the summer began to prove impossible. It will be in two parts, Mr Krens said, and in New York will be showing in two separate venues. At the main Guggenheim museum building will be the bulk of the exhibits, taking visitors from 3,000BC to the 19th century. Then, in the central, recently renovated SoHo gallery will be the more modern pieces, from late Qing to late Deng. 'It makes sense to divide it there: in the late 19th century there was much more Western contact, and the introduction of some Western technology. So you see some artists painting traditional subjects in oils, others using Western images with inks,' Mr Krens said. 'It is an interesting transition.' Then the exhibition will trace the movement of Chinese 20th century art through 1920s modernism, to the Soviet-inspired socialist realism ('This was the height of kitsch but there were also many talented artists') to 90s pop art, Mr Krens said. But it is the antiquities element of which he is already most proud: if everything works as planned and promised, the Guggenheim will be borrowing some of China's greatest treasures. 'It will be drop dead stunning, there will be gigantic Buddhist statues half the size of these columns,' he said, pointing enthusiastically to the great ceiling supports in the Grand Hyatt's lobby. The project was helped immeasurably by the early support of Chinese vice-premier Qian Qichen, he said. 'I had a meeting with him in 1993, and he liked the idea. Which meant we could go ahead, and do something important. 'They gave us an endorsement and said go forward. So we did.' First the team organised a curatorial budget of between US$4 million (HK$30.92 million) and US$5 million, half a million of which was needed immediately. Then Mr Krens, with a team of experts, identified 650 pieces they wanted to borrow, all from China. The official line is, and has to be, that China has the best art treasures. What Mr Krens is unable to comment on is the content of Taiwan's National Palace Museum in Taipei, full of exquisite and important pieces brought over by the fleeing Kuomintang in the late 1940s. The international art world had already witnessed the troubles that the Metropolitan museum in New York had putting together its huge and fabulous Chinese artworks show last year, borrowing solely from Taiwan. They had run into political problems and no-one would want to repeat that. The pieces on Mr Krens' wish list include a marble Bodhisatva and rearing gilt bronze dragon from Shaanxi, Han pottery from Sichuan, Yuan jars from the National Palace Museum in Beijing, and Yuan Dynasty scrolls from the newly-renovated Shanghai Museum. 'It has to be a blockbuster,' he said with determination. Despite the initial agreement from Mr Qian, it has been a long negotiation with the Chinese authorities for each of the 350 ancient pieces Mr Krens wanted, and particularly for the 100 or so pieces that were initially refused. 'It is a long process: we have had to build partnerships.' After the first round, the Guggenheim was 'given' half of what they asked for. Then, Mr Krens said, the Bureau of Cultural Relics conceded 60 per cent, then 70 per cent. 'But I wanted 100 per cent.' He asked for more time, and said that, miraculously, now almost all of the pieces 'except for a few of the paintings' have been agreed upon. One of his associates on the project has in the past been one of his strongest critics, Mr Krens noted. 'I went to Williams College in Massachusetts [the college at which he later taught for 20 years before joining the Guggenheim in 1991] in the 70s, with the idea of studying political science and economics. 'Then I took my first ever art history class from Sherman Lee, in Chinese landscape paintings, and there I was hooked.' Professor Lee was one of Mr Krens' more vociferous critics when he started making major changes at the Guggenheim in 1991. 'I contacted him, and said you might not remember me, but you are responsible for the damage I'm wreaking on the art field now,' Mr Krens said. He asked his former teacher to join him on the China project. 'That was his chance to make amends.' After New York, the show will be one of the opening headliners of the new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao next year. So, if Mr Krens has got his superlatives right, it will be the greatest Chinese exhibition in the greatest building of the 20th century. And even if he hasn't, it should be a strong crowd-puller to the Basque country in northern Spain, an area that until now has been rather under-represented in the tourism - and especially the cultural tourism - stakes in Europe. The new Guggenheim museum has been designed by American architect Frank Gehry, and is due to open to the public this September. It will have cost an estimated US$100 million and will have taken four years to build. The glass, steel and stone building is 24,000 square metres, including 10,500 sq m of gallery space, as well as libraries, cafes and restaurants which are intended to make this a living and learning space, as well as merely a viewing one. To put those square metres in perspective, Mr Krens showed a diagram comparing the Bilbao museum to the Sydney Opera House: it was about two and a half times longer. Indeed, it occupies only a fraction less street length than the New York Metropolitan museum, and - with its towers and curves - is considerably higher. The idea was first proposed by the Basque Government in Bilbao. They fitted three of Mr Krens' aims: to expand the reach of the Guggenheim into Europe, to support 20th century architectural initiative, and to experiment with the reinvention of the 'art museum'. 'Museums are an 18th century idea, put in a 19th century box, and which had more or less fulfilled their destiny as a treasure house by the middle of the 20th century.' Now, Mr Krens said, while he could see a future for museums in the 21st century, they had to change their ideas. He describes those ideas in terms of narrative, event and experience. Just going to a big building and seeing something attractive (or unattractive) is not enough: 'You have to be able to locate something in the great human drama.' The Basque Government saw a future in museums - firstly to help the people of Bilbao, members of the Basque minority of Spain, have a sense of their own culture, and secondly to make money by tourism. They have pledged millions of dollars to make that happen, including a purchasing budget of US$50 million to cover acquisitions. 'They had the nerve to trust us,' Mr Krens said admiringly. 'And I think it will work. After all, that is the only place the Chinese show will go, so any Europeans who want to go and see it will have to go there, stay the weekend. 'It will be very good in Bilbao, but my real ambition is to see the exhibition concluding its tour in China; it's not up to me of course but I really hope that will happen. It would be a good way to finish.'