Guggenheim Bilbao 10 year anniversary

Orginally published in Display Magazine (Barcelona) 2007


On October 19th, 1997 you were probably having Pasta Primavera at one of Terence Conran’s restaurants in London, Paris or New York, still trying to shake that Spice Girls tune out of your head while making plans to go see Titanic. What you probably didn’t know then was that at the same time in the region of Vizkaya in northern Spain, history was in the making.

When the European branch of the Guggenheim Foundation opened its doors to the public ten years ago, it was the main ingredient in the master plan designed to revitalize Bilbao and transform its container areas and blast furnaces into riverside promenades with cultural attractions. The Basque capital had been in economic decline since the early eighties when the local government in 1991 managed to convince the Guggenheim Foundation that Bilbao was the ideal city for their international expansion project. American architect Frank Gehry, renowned for his warped forms and complex spatial structures, was hired to design the building. In late 1993 construction began.

As the sweeping lines started to take shape on the south bank of the river Nervión, the international media’s attention was caught by the unique project. Soon after the opening, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao became one of the most important tourist attractions in Spain having attracted over nine million visitors so far, eight million of whom have come from outside the Basque region. The avant-garde architecture of Frank Gehry has proved to be worth millions of euros as The Bilbao Effect has drawn large investments and thousands of job opportunities to the city.

With the Salomon R Guggenheim Foundation contributing its collections of modern and contemporary art, the Museum has shown everything from retrospectives of important artist like Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder to thematic exhibitions displaying Chinese or Russian historic art. One of the most ambitious projects is Richard Serra’s The matter of time, a series of sheet iron pieces specifically conceived for the Museums eastern wing and a part of its permanent collection. Here, the American sculptor’s ideas of space conditioned by movement, time and materiality come into play. Walking between the seemingly endless double-curved iron plates evokes contradictory feelings of nausea and immediate presence as the intense rust-coloured shapes press inwards and push outwards alternately. Few museums offer installations of this magnitude dedicated to the intentions of one artist.

Though largely overshadowed by the eye catching exterior, the interior of the Museum is surprising and delightful. Organized around a central atrium, the exhibition rooms offer everything from intimate niches to grandiose galleries up to twelve meters high. Many of the spaces are visually connected by balconies, giving the visitor the possibility of experiencing the work from different angles and distances. This summer’s big exhibition at the Guggenheim is dedicated to Anselm Kiefer, one of the most prominent artists in post-war Germany. His abundant paintings and sculptures incorporate reflections on our collective history, adding personal thoughts on mythology, literature and music. When entering the exhibition one is confronted with his site specific installation Work in Progress, a sky map painting of monumental scale, stretching 15 metres up into the spectacular atrium.

In addition to establishing itself as an international art institution par excellence, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has redrawn the map for cities around the world, now striving for the same success by building architectural landmarks. In order to stay in the picture this Museum has to continue to expand its own collection as well as to deliver varied and relevant temporary exhibitions. Judging from the ambitious back catalogue of exhibitions and still shining titanium building, I have little doubt that the success story of the Guggenheim Bilbao will continue for many years more.