Guggenheim: Bilbao Places its Bets

The European Magazine  London, 1997, 1,900 words; extracts
Versión en español | Versione italiana  

2/cont. Krens himself says he admires the Basque politicians' courage in pushing through the project. "I remember asking Juan Ignacio Vidarte, director of the Bilbao project, why they wanted the Guggenheim here," he says. "He said to me that it was a challenge, that it was not about us exporting our culture, but about the Basques learning from our situation and their capacity for take on board new things.  It's a very progressive way of seeing things."

Unusual factors were at play when Krens started talking to Bilbao in 1991. First the region had developed financial independence; second, the PNV (Partido Nacional Vasco) party, which held power in the regional government, also had control of decision-making at provincial and city levels and, most important of all, there was a strong groundswell of support for reviving Bilbao's dying industrial economy and quashing the region's terrorist-torn image.

Gehry's brief from Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim Foundation's director, was to built a 21st-century museum which could accommodate today’s outsize art and that of the future.

"Krens sold the project here because he spoke an economists' language also spoken by the local politicans," explains Alberto Tellitu, journalist and co-author of The Guggenheim Miracle, a book that traced the museum's story. "They did not buy a cultural venture. For them the museum is a high-risk economic and social cure."

The idea of spending on culture as urban investment had been winning support outside Spain after Frankfurt had led the way by regenerating its urban landscape with seven new museums in the 1980s. Later studies in London and New York suggested just how profitable such investment could be. In London, a study prior to fund-raising for the Tate Modern suggested it would generate 650 local jobs, another 2,400 indirectly and would have a much wider knock-on effect on the city's economy. A New York study of the city's winter art season found that each year it generated over 465 million euros. Basque politicians also presented the investment as comparing favourably to that of other infrastructures. Politician Josefa Arregui pointed out, for example, that at 1996 costs, the museum's total price to local taxpayers would be the same as that of 40 kilometres of motorway.

While in public Krens spoke the language of investment, in private he played cut-and-thrust politics to push through a fast deal. When the Basques wavered after local socialist opposition blasted the project with criticism he pulled in Gianni De Michelis - Italian foreign minister, friend of Spanish socialist president Felipe Gonzalez and Guggenheim patron - as cosignatory and got the deal signed by the end of 1991.

The Basques were to make a $20 million down payment - formally a donation - for a renewable 75-year agreement guaranteeing a rolling loan of selected masterworks. They would also spend $50 million on new art, cover expenses along the way and foot the $100 million bill for the building. In the end, if the relationship foundered, Gehry’s design would be the lasting legacy to the city.

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