Well, that´s an interesting question. ‘The Guggenheim Effect’ has been much described and much debated since the building materialised in 1997. It is one of the world’s iconic regeneration projects, using art and culture to revive a dying industrial landscape, and now copied in one way or another across the world. On the one hand, it is credited with rescuing the city from its disastrous industrial collapse by signalling its daring, dynamic approach to regeneration to an admiring world – attracting many new businesses, creating many new jobs and leading the way for many other cultural projects, as well as bringing tourists in large numbers to a city which tourists had little reason to visit before. On the other hand, it is criticised as a monstrous capitalist high-art imposition which has little or nothing to do with the real Bilbao or its Basque tradition, doesn’t do anything to foster or even exhibit Basque art, only attracts art-tourists who have no regard for the real culture and traditions of the city and its surrounding coast and countryside, disfigures the environment, and has helped to displace ordinary people from their homes by catalysing a process of gentrification without actually attending to the social and economic needs of ordinary people.
There’s no doubt that the museum has been incredibly successful, as part of a wider regeneration project, in many ways. Everyone agrees that Bilbao has been transformed from a city marked by industrial pollution and decay into a handsome city, and from a place known for terrorist violence into a place of peace (though the latter has as much to do with other political processes as with the transformation of the city). Before the Guggenheim, Bilbao was simply not on the tourist agenda; now it attracts millions each year. Businesses have been attracted to the city, and the unemployment rise (from 3% to 25% between 1975 and 1985) has been reversed (it’s now around 15%, and was lower before the recession).
But there are other sides to the argument. It´s interesting, for instance, that research shows that the majority of tourists who visit Bilbao check in for about 24 hours. They stay in a hotel near the museum, have a meal in one of the tourist-oriented restaurants near the museum, and basically just visit the museum before moving on, without attempting to get to know, or understand the complexity of, Bilbao. The vast majority don´t come anywhere near the atmospheric old town where we live; and we certainly rarely hear languages other than Spanish and Basque being spoken anywhere except close to the museum. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Not sure…. But you can see lots of reasons – cultural, political and economic – why some might resent or criticise it, especially at a time of austerity and in a city with a complex cultural and political identity.
There’s a strong argument that, despite its rather abstract attempts to link physically with its environment, it´s not a very hospitable building spiritually. It squats self-importantly in the middle of the city; it´s oversized and not very people-friendly; there’s little about it that reflects the very dynamic life of the city around it or attracts anyone other than tourists to it. Whilst there are some successful public spaces around it, there are also some pretty dead spaces too; and the public spaces are really only used by tourists visiting the museum – there´s no other reason to go to them.
Linked to this architectural criticism, there is the controversy surrounding the commodification of art and culture in the service of economic regeneration which many felt the Guggenheim represented. The whole project seemed to treat art as merely capitalist commodity; many local artists and cultural figures objected strongly – embittered also by the channelling of huge amounts of Basque public money into this one flagship project. A major Basque Cultural Centre which had been planned – and which is to this day a huge omission from the cultural life of Bilbao – was jettisoned in favour of the Guggenheim, and many other local and regional arts projects had their funding cut.
So there was a great deal of hostility to the project locally, especially from left-wing Basque nationalists, who saw the whole thing as selling out to the forces of globalising American cultural imperialism and sidelining the real culture and people of Bilbao, as well as their immediate economic and social needs. This investment in the regeneration of inner-city industrial wasteland through glamorous cultural projects designed to attract tourism, business and other capitalist benefits to a city has even been described (disparagingly) as ‘McGuggenisation’ in recognition of the role that the Guggenheim played in developing this model of American corporate-style expansion (Donald McNeill, ‘McGuggenisation? National identity and globalisation in the Basque Country’, Political Geography 19 (2000) 473-494).
The Basque terrorist group ETA certainly didn´t like it when it was built. They hatched a plot to blow it up around the time of its opening. The plot was discovered and prevented, but a policeman was killed in the process.
The politics of the Guggenheim are complex, though, as McNeill explains. Many Basque nationalists objected - but in fact it was Basque nationalists (centre-right ones) who forged the deal that brought the Guggenheim to Bilbao. They saw it not only as a catalyst for regeneration but also as part of a move towards establishing the Basque Country as an independent player in global culture and politics – two fingers up to Madrid, in effect. Because the Spanish constitution devolves power extensively to the autonomous regions that make up the country, the regions are able to make many significant decisions independently of Madrid; this is particularly true of the Basque Country which is not only comparatively wealthy but also, relative to all the other regions of Spain, has a high level of fiscal independence. So the Guggenheim was Bilbao’s way of saying to Spain: ‘look what we can do without you.’
So that´s the Guggenheim. What you probably didn´t know is that there is another superb – and arguably far more culturally integrated – art museum in Bilbao – the Museo de Belles Artes. And that will be the subject of a future post….