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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s 20th anniversary: How a museum made an architect and a city famous

As Guggenheim Museum Bilbao turns 20, here’s relooking at the museum which made both its architect Frank Gehry and the Basque city famous the world over.

art and culture Updated: Oct 04, 2017 14:01 IST
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao,Guggenheim,Art
Initially, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was criticised for its glittering design, which some felt overwhelmed the art .(AFP)

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was inaugurated 20 years ago on this month by the Spanish royals. It made both its architect Frank Gehry and the Basque city famous the world over. A marvel in its own right, the architectural phenomenon spun out to produce what has been deemed “the Bilbao effect”: the concept of using striking architecture to prompt urban regeneration. Other such examples include the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France (designed by Shigeru Ban, 2010) and the Louvre Abu Dhabi (designed by Jean Nouvel, due to open next month).

As The Guardian put it, it’s a scheme whereby “a famous art institution created an architecturally conspicuous outpost in an unglamorous city”. Juan Ignacio Vidarte, the museum’s director, wished for an epic structure to catalyze a turnaround of the declining Basque city blighted by separatist terrorism. Gehry was told: ‘We need the Sydney Opera House. Our town is dying’. The Canadian-born architect — who was esteemed for his signature designs in Los Angeles, although nothing like the celebrity he has since gained — came up with the titanium and stone behemoth for the banks of the river Nervión.

The Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation of New York — which already boasts the famed architectural spiral by Frank Lloyd Wright on 5th Avenue — became an early instance of an international collaboration between a regional government (committing to paying for construction, contributing to acquisitions) and cultural institutions (lending its good name, giving access to its permanent collections and its curators).

The museum regenerated Bilbao in other investments in urban infrastructure. “It revived belief that architecture could be ambitious, beautiful and popular all at once,” The Guardian pointed out. However, some derided the arrangement as “McGuggenheim”, or an act of cultural imperialism. In addition, the spectacular size and silhouette of Gehry’s building was critiqued in that its glittering design overwhelmed the art.

But its success is ultimately undeniable. Since it opened on October 19, 1997, the museum has presented more than 160 exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, and welcomed over 20 million visitors from around the world, at a rate of about one million per year. Anniversary-related plans include an immersive performance of instrumental compositions by hundreds of saxophonists stationed throughout the museum’s dramatic atrium, a large-scale video projection on the building’s façade, and free museum admission for all visitors on October 21 and 22.

The exhibitions on view during the anniversary include Georg Baselitz: The Heroes (through October 22), Bill Viola: A Retrospective (through November 9), and Anni Albers: Touching Vision (October 6, 2017-January 14, 2018).

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First Published: Oct 04, 2017 14:00 IST