Guggenheim: Bilbao Places its Bets

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

4/cont. Krens is an impressive talker. He is articulate and smoothly unruffled. "I think the unseen work for the permanent collection and the generosity of spaces is going to surprise many people. Some of the galleries are simply the best spaces in the world to show contemporary art and my objective is to make them take second stage to what we put in them."

Some Spanish critics have already suggested that Krens has raised expectations too high. But if the outside of the building has silenced critics, why not the inside too? After all, Gehry stresses he designed it "from the inside out", in collaboration with Krens and some of the artists who will show there.

Gehry himself makes it sound easy. 'We took a little more freedom with the living artists so they can make their own statement.'

Others have weighed in to support the project. "There's no other museum like this," comments Richard Serra, the American sculptor, one of whose giant iron sculptures was the first work installed in June. "It sets a new potential for how artists can think about the possibility of scale. Frank's providing another kind of playground for artists."

As usual Gehry himself makes it sound easy. "With the dead artists, the guys who cannot defend themselves if you like, we have been respectable and stodgy. But we took a little more freedom with the galleries for the living artists so they can make their own statement."

Those who have slipped through the security net say the effect is stunning. The architectural scale - the largest gallery is more than 100 metres long - magnifies the art's impact but does not compete with it. But whether or not the Basque public, targeted as 40% of the 700,000 visitors needed for the first two years of the museum's life, will pay the $5 for the entrance ticket is a quite different question. And it is not a minor one. If the region likewise turns its back on the Guggenheim, the estimated $7m deficit, to be covered by local tax-payers, could spiral out of control and leave the region's cultural policy mortgaged for decades to come. Bilbao may have acquired a stunning icon and the Basques a symbol of autonomy, but as they know only too well, that is not the same as foreign investment or new jobs.

A local joke captures the lingering sense of scepticism. One Bilbaino asks another if he knows how many millions El Guggenheim has cost. "It's fine just as long as he can score goals," comes the reply.

UPDATE: The success of the Guggenheim Museum exceeded anyone's expectations. Despite the economic recession it has outperformed the original estimates both for the number of visitors received and the indirect impact on the Basque economy. In 2014, for example, it attracted over a million visitors and generated 297 million euros for the region's GNP. And that is quite apart from the intangible power of the building's curves: it is now one of Europe's great urban landmarks.

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