Guggenheim art museum regenerates decaying Spanish city
Oct 18, 2007, 15:46 GMT
Madrid - When the northern Spanish city of Bilbao opened the Guggenheim Bilbao modern art museum a decade ago, the project met with skepticism.
How did the trendy, futuristic museum fit in with the grey and gritty atmosphere of the port city with its closed factories and dying shipyards, where unemployment should surely have been a bigger concern than art, and where the Basque separatist group ETA spread terror with its attacks?
Why invest millions in an art museum, when the city was sorely in need of professional retraining programmes and investor incentives to lift up its slagging economy?
Yet from the very moment that the shiny, ship-like building designed by Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry opened its doors to the public in 1997, exactly 10 years ago this Friday, it soared to become a success story unique among the world's art museums.
Not only did the Guggenheim Bilbao put the city of 400,000 residents on the world's art map, it also helped to bring about the longed-for economic recovery and changed the face of the city.
'Bilbao is no longer the same,' says Teresa, a psychologist and long-time resident. 'The Guggenheim has transformed it. In this case, it is fair to say that the city reinvented itself.'
The museum, which has 11,000 square metres for permanent and temporary exhibitions, has organized more than 50 of the latter, ranging from Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko to African art and fashion by Giorgio Armani.
The Guggenheim is, however, best-known for its architecture, with its wavy titanium-clad forms evoking a strange ship or fish that has been washed ashore on the bank of the River Nervion.
The museum has transformed the riverside, where junk yards and rusty warehouses have been replaced by lawns, promenades and cafes.
The Guggenheim draws about a million annual visitors, 60 per cent of whom come from abroad. Many travellers come only to see the museum, which has turned Bilbao into an important tourist destination, bringing hotels, restaurants and boutiques.
The museum is credited with creating more than 4,000 jobs, and it has contributed to the general rebirth of the city, now better-known for its architectural landmarks than for its industrial decay or ETA.
Bilbao boasts an underground designed by Norman Foster, a footbridge and an airport terminal by Santiago Calatrava and a library by Rafael Moneo, among other creations signed by top architects.
'The success is almost a miracle,' deputy mayor Ibon Areso said. 'We have regained our self-esteem.'
The main criticisms of the Guggenheim are, that residents see it as something for tourists rather than for themselves, and that its artistic contents have not always matched its spectacular form.
But nobody in Bilbao now questions the value of the museum, the total cost of which came up to nearly 170 million euros (240 million dollars).
Many Western cities would like to imitate Bilbao, and some have approached the Guggenheim Foundation in the United States with requests for museums, but Bilbao's 'Guggenheim effect' may not happen elsewhere.
'The miracle in Bilbao - I'm still not sure how it all happened,' architect Gehry admitted.© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur