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 Bilbao  |  17 September 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

October 19th 1997, the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, opens its doors to the public for the first time. From the subsequent architectural frenzy to the growth of the brand, we take a look at the flagship of cultural globalisation 20 years after the inauguration of Frank Gehry’s emblematic design. Happy Birthday Guggenheim Bilbao!


Today, Guggenheim is more than a surname; it’s a brand – a trademark whose global reach and mainstream position have ensured untouchable success. The formula is simple; to build locally and exhibit globally. As has been the case for 58 years now, the dialectic is straightforward, yielding striking results. From New York to Bilbao (passing via Venice), the golden triangle of the masterpiece trend is off the scale.

Things have not always been plain-sailing and there have inevitably been some challenges along the way in Guggenheim’s quest to increase their global presence. Whilst the New York flagship, anchored on Fifth Avenue, has stood the test of time since 1959, and the Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal, Venice, has been home to the Peggy Guggenheim collection for more than thirty-five years, conversely, the SoHo (New York) arm closed in 2001 and Las Vegas’ Hermitage Museum followed suit in 2008. The Berlin Guggenheim, known for its radical minimalism (its entire exhibition space was open plan), closed its doors for the last time in 2013. The Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, home of many important pieces, was also forced to close, unable to overcome the multiple hurdles in its path.

These closures in quick succession – the woeful result of a mismatched marriage of art and money – were difficult setbacks to recover from. Other Guggenheim projects didn’t even get off the ground; firstly in Guadalajara, Mexico, then in Vilnius, Lithuania, projects for two further museums were quashed. Similarly, the proposal for the Helsinki Guggenheim was abandoned to the cold harbour waters, following ongoing political-financial tumult. Rejected by the Helsinki local council in 2016, the prospect of a new architectural utopia was hampered once more by financial constraints, proving deeply disappointing for the architects winning the competition to design it, Franco-Japanese couple Moreau-Kusunoki, whose glass and burnished wood design will never progress to more than a model. Only Abu Dhabi remains, still in construction on the UAE sands, just a stone’s throw from Jean Nouvel’s anticipated Louvre….

A Triumph for Globalisation

In short, the long-held dreams of grandeur held by controversial figure Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation between 1988 and 2008, have been achieved in spite of these setbacks- and with style. The Bilbao Guggenheim is an embodiment of the triumphs of globalisation and the museum ticks every box: architectural acclaim, phenomenal public reception and huge growth of the brand. In winning circumstances that could only be produced by a roller-coaster journey of globalisation, tucked away in the least unlikely corner of old Europe, the Bilbao Guggenheim steals hearts, and steals the show.

And so it is in the heart of Spain’s Basque region, in the province of Biscay, that Frank Gehry’s iconic design has taken form. Opening in October 1997, in just 5 years, like a flower with over 33,000 petals, the titanium mass has risen from a bend in the river, en route to an industrial estate. A giant flower, or rather a 24,000m2 satellite, which, in a sort of controlled chaos, typical of Gehry’s construction methods, has catapulted Bilbao into the postmodern. Nothing will be how it was before- and the Guggenheim doesn’t do things in half-measures. Between 1993 and 1997, everything changed for Bilbao and a revolution without limits was born. More than a former harbour-turned-cultural super-hub, the course of local history changed and social identity reformed. Gehry doesn’t pull any punches- he abuses organic forms, pushing the boundaries of non-linear aesthetics to the very limit. The visual impact of the building is entirely at his will. Furthermore, the museum turns the whole city into a symbol; an urban development model that places art at its very core.

A Model for Urban Regeneration

This month marks twenty years since the Guggenheim first opened its doors to the public – so what has changed since October 19th 1997? The passing of time has allowed the calcite rock to harmonise with the glass and titanium facade and a veritable marketing euphoria continues in the north of the Iberian Peninsula. Over twenty years, this urban restyling has put Bilbao on the international map of unmissable places to see- arguably up there with the Acropole or the Taj Mahal. There is a slight difference, however. Here, over the course of two decades, a new paradigm has been created: reurbanisation through culture.

Far from being an isolated case, Gehry’s Guggenheim has sparked a series of similarly influential projects, of varying levels of success- a path for development that moves away from traditional approaches to urbanisation. A new Bilbao is born, claimed by the upper strata of the international construction scene. In 1995, Norman Foster completes the Bilbao metro, followed two years later by the Zubuzuri Bridge, which was designed by fellow ‘starchitect’ Santiago Calatrava. In 2008, world-renowned Japanese architect ArataIsozaki completes his twin towers on the site of a previously disused warehouse. The list goes on; in 2011 César Pelli, known for his work on high-rise structures, completes the Iberdrola tower, distinguished by its triangular footprint. Zaha Hadid’s 838,000m2 development on Bilbao’s artificial peninsula Zorrotzaurrre is eagerly awaited. Bilbao is rediscovering its river, the Nervion, gradually forgetting its industrial crash of the 1980s and forcefully projecting itself into the 21st century. Indeed the city is becoming so creative it was named the ‘Best urban project in the world’ at the 2004 Venice Biennale – something of a miracle for a city that was until recently monikered ‘the black city’! Furthermore, this metamorphosis is now known as ‘the Bilbao Effect’, often taught as an economic model on urban planning courses – and jealously admired by officials of neglected towns in need of regeneration.

Culture as a Strategic Pivot

From a commercial stand-point, Guggenheim Bilbao is a runaway success. From its inauguration until the end of 2016, the museum has generated a 4.26 million euro contribution to GDP and more than 650 million in additional revenue for the Basque treasury. The collateral benefits to the region’s economic activity in the hospitality, restaurant and transport sectors are an estimated 485 million euros for the year 2016 alone, contributing to the maintenance of just over 9,000 jobs. The city owes this financial windfall to the foresight and well-judged gamble of local institutions, who have long considered culture a strategic pivot. With the Guggenheim touch confirming Bilbao’s position on the landscape of international cultural institutions, Bilbao is enjoying the opportunity to form alliances both long-standing and profitable; from the Tate (London), to the Pompidou Centre (Paris), not to mention the MoMA (San Francisco) and the Whitney (New York). Despite these achievements, for the Guggenheim Bilbao, being a key player on the global art scene is not enough; the museum seeks to foster the emergence of a slew of new cultural institutions locally. Amongst these are Azkuna Zentroa, a multi-disciplinary space created in what was formerly a wine warehouse and the BilbaoArt Foundation, which has launched an artistic production centre – not to mention the Ria Maritime Museum Tabakalera, the International Centre for Contemporary Art in San Sebastian, the Artium Museum in Vitoria. The cultural offering is vast.

19,347,440 Visitors to Date

And that’s just what’s going on outside the museum- however, there’s plenty going on inside too. Funds from the Guggenheim Foundation allowing, the museum has always held the ambition of housing its own collection. Focusing on art from the second half of the twentieth century until today, the collection currently comprises 130 works of art from 74 artists. Its estimated value is 729 million euros- almost 7 times the initial investment. There are no restrictions concerning technique, medium or style, although particular attention has been paid to the dialogue between American and European art. The collection as a body of works can be broken down into 4 principal axes. There are of course the masterpieces – seminal pieces such as Maman, by Louise Bourgeois, Lighting with Stag in Its Glare,by Joseph Beuys or Villa Borghere by Willem de Kooning.

Then comes the focus on contemporary artists, with a significant body of work from present-day artists including Anselm Kiefer and Eduardo Chillida. The third axis focuses on the work of Basque and Spanish artists- Antonio Saura, Pablo Palazuelo and Cristina Iglesias, amongst others. The final section of the collection is formed of pieces especially commissioned for the gallery space, such as The Matter of Time, by Richard Serra, Installation for Bilbao by Jenny Holzer or The Red Arc by Daniel Buren, a facade for the nearby La Salve bridge.

In total, in the 20 years that it has been opening its doors to the public, the museum has held 163 exhibitions (93 temporary exhibitions and 70 presentations of the permanent collection) as well as a new event every six weeks. Themed exhibitions such as Moving Pictures, The Panza Collection, or The Luminous Interval but also solo shows from artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney and Andy Warhol. Of the notably successful exhibitions, the Jeff Koons retrospective in 2015 brought in over 493,730 visitors. Talking figures, the Guggenheim Museum has welcomed 19,347,440 to date, two thirds of each million of which are foreign visitors. With entrance at 13 euros, we’ll leave you to do the maths! Revenue from ticket sales and merchandise combined, the museum is self-sufficient for up to 70% of its costs.

‘Reinventing for tomorrow’

The museum appears perhaps to be approaching the next 20 years in a rather relaxed fashion. Appearances can be deceiving however, and for Director Juan Ignacio Vidarte, who has been steering the ship since December 1996, the Guggenheim Museum can’t limit itself to capitalising on its brazen success to date. Guggenheim is more than acclaimed surname- and it must ‘reinvent itself for tomorrow’. This means embracing the trend towards interactivity and inclusivity in order to put the focus on developing the ‘visitor experience’. Transforming the museum into a social space, circulating new ideas – what it all comes down to is conceiving innovative strategies in the context of curatorial significance and the global reach of the museum. It will also be important respond to the transition to digital and to attract constantly connected digital natives, or millennials. Today, the museum is no longer simply a place for contemplation, but a hybrid space where virtual experiences take place. Director Juan Ignacio Vidarte is a dreamer; perhaps he is considering projects that go beyond the walls of the museum – or maybe a fundamental change, that would completely rework the museum model and serve as a reference point for new museums to come in the 21st century. ‘A project designed to produce different experiences at a museum, a platform for inspiration, of dialogue and of action, a changing space which is constantly evolving and rebuilding itself, following different rhythms’. There’s a bold future ahead for Guggenheim Bilbao- we look forward to seeing where we are in another twenty years!




The Guggenheim Bilbao in Numbers

The Guggenheim Bilbao houses 130 works, from 74 artists.

It has held 93 temporary exhibitions since opening and 70 different presentations of the permanent collection.

The ‘China: 5,000 years’ exhibition holds the record with 538,479 visitors.

The collection is worth an estimated 729 million euros.

There have been 19,347,440 visitors to the museum to date.





Bill Viola:  A Retrospective

Life, death, transfiguration… This exhibition is the story of a quest both intimate and universally recognisable. It is the journey of Bill Viola, pioneer of the art video and one of the major artists of our time. The retrospective proposed by the Guggenheim Bilbao shows the breadth of Viola’s career, from his first experiments with video and video strips in 1976 to his more recent work. It is an ambitious exhibition which offers a broad view of Viola’s work and brings to life the way audiovisual art has developed. From moving paintings to monumental installation pieces, ‘Bill Viola:  A Retrospective’ is showing the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao until November 9th 2017.



Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Avenida Abandoibarra 2, Bilbao, Espagne.

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