Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: a democratic folly


One more highlight of my summer away was visiting, at long last, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. It’s only 2 hours’ drive from my family home, so it was an ideal day trip – and a fairly affordable one, too, with tickets priced at €13 (full price), €7.50 for seniors and under-26 and free for children under 12, all including an audio guide. When some galleries are closed for installation, the prices can drop as low as $8 and $5.

The first surprise was the city itself: as references to the ‘Bilbao effect’ usually imply that it was somehow saved from its post-industrial grime, I expected to see at least some signs of this not-so-distant derelict past – so it was a pleasant shock to walk along the wide riverside promenade, watching modern light rail glide by and studying with envy the stunning city centre apartment buildings. Basque towns are usually quite delightful – from posh Biarritz to picturesque Bayonne and maritime San Sebastian – but in Bilbao is on a whole different level: less quaint, more grand and prosperous, colourful and design-conscious.

Footbridge over the Nervión river

Footbridge over the Nervión river

Wheatpasting under 'La Salve' bridge

Wheatpasting under ‘La Salve’ bridge

There would be much to say about the building and the collections, so instead I’ve chosen the cultural tourism angle to look at the inner workings of this so-called ‘Bilbao Effect’.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, close up on titanium and glass "skin"

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, close up on titanium and glass “skin”

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, with Daniel Buren's Arcos rojos / Arku Gorriak (2007) in the background

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, with Daniel Buren’s Arcos rojos / Arku Gorriak (2007) in the background

The museum approach has a ritualistic feel to it: visitors slowly ascend towards this modern temple of culture, admiring its exterior signs of grandeur – two giant animals frame the building, Maman by Louise Bourgeois at one end, Puppy by Jeff Koons at the other, highly accessible and recognisable works by household names that look great in holiday snaps.

Maman, Louise Bourgeois  (first created 1999)

Maman, Louise Bourgeois (first created 1999)

Puppy, Jeff Koons (1992)

Puppy, Jeff Koons (1992)

Inside, once over the slight commotion of the ticketing area, groups – mainly families and couples in relaxed casual wear on that summer weekday – are spat out, one by one, audio guide set to their own language in hand, ready to give themselves to the experience(s) laid out for them.

Atrium, looking down

Atrium, looking down

Atrium, looking up

Atrium, looking up

One of the very first things that all visitors get to hear, when they listen to the first orientation track and stand in the majestic atrium as instructed, is that the museum was created through a partnership between the Guggenheim Foundation, the Basque Country autonomous community, the province of Biscay and the city of Bilbao – and that it was very much intended to offer access to the highest standards of art and architecture to everyone.

The terms of the 75-year agreement are defined as such in an article published in The Art Newspaper:

The Basques agreed to cover the $100 million construction cost, to create a $50 million acquisitions fund, to pay a one-time $20 million fee to the Guggenheim and to subsidize the museum’s $12 million annual budget. In exchange, the Guggenheim would manage the institution, rotate parts of its own permanent collection through here and organize temporary shows.

Far from art for art’s sake, this public investment is a concerted effort of regeneration through culture, and it seems to have paid off:

In its first three years, almost 4 million tourists visited the museum, helping to generate about €500 million in economic activity. The regional council estimated that the money visitors spent on hotels, restaurants, shops and transport allowed it to collect €100 million in taxes, which more than paid for the building cost.
(Wikipedia via Financial Times)

Museums are increasingly used as “urban economic reactivators”, as outlined in this 2009 article found on Scholars-on-Bilbao, a public online archive of “academic works that analyse the urban regeneration of the city of Bilbao (e.g. strategic plans, infrastructures, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and dilemmas, cultural tourism, gentrification, uneven development, creative industries, artists … etc)”.

Authors Beatriz Plaza and Silke N. Haarich conclude:

The case of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a symbol for the modern use of museums and their possible impact to change the fate of an entire city region. However, the reality is that the change was also due to a traditional strategy of urban revitalisation of a former industrial area in the heart of Bilbao. In addition, it was part of a wider strategy for structural change and economic reanimation of the province of Biscay and the Basque Country which included important investments in transport and environmental infrastructure, housing and entrepreneurial initiatives and industrial projects.

So if museums can play a key part in cultural regeneration planning, it is worth noting that they’re only the highly visible cherry-on-the-cake in the redevelopment and reputation of a city. In Bilbao, much of the work was started before the museum was erected – new subway system, new city airport, new bridges over the Nevion river – and much accomplished afterwards: Bilbao’s mayor, elected two years after the Guggenheim was built, just won the World Mayor of the Year 2012 Award for “transforming (a) declining city”.

View across the river Nervión

View across the river Nervión

Tall Tree and the Eye, Anish Kapoor (2009)

Tall Tree and the Eye, Anish Kapoor (2009)

Moreover, infrastructure needs to be connected and animated: this is when the intricate web of partnerships that supports an appealing cultural tourism offer comes into play. How to get there, where to stay, where to eat, what else to do: to every successful city break, there’s a myriad of negotiations, reciprocal agreements, media investments and decisions to be made.

“Cultural tourism is not a quick fix”, says Helen Palmer, director of Creative Tourist Consults: beyond partnerships, it takes leadership and a “brutally honest appraisal of (the) collective cultural offer”.

I couldn’t really speak for Bilbao as it was siesta time when I came out of the museum, but for a sampler of what’s on offer, this Guardian Travel feature is a good start.

Siesta Time

Siesta Time

I will continue this museum series in further posts, (virtually) looking at Centre Pompidou-Metz (2010), Louvre-Lens (2012) and Marseille’s MuCEM (2013).

All photos @artoffestivals – click on image for large version

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