Ten years ago, the city of Bilbao was sliding towards seemingly irrevocable ruin. ETA bombing campaigns were rampant, its twin industries of shipbuilding and steel had collapsed and the once famous port was turning to rust. In the words of one native, “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bilbao resembled an Eastern bloc country of the 1960s. It was horrible.”
But then, in the autumn of 1997, the Guggenheim Museum opened and with an alacrity that would surprise everyone, the city began to turn itself around. Today, the Basque capital has transformed itself into a glamorous European destination with a buoyant economy and an aura of affluence comparable with Paris and Milan. Last year, the museum generated over €234m in revenue and kept almost 5,000 local workers in employment.
A million people visited the city during 2006, new hotels barely able to cope with the increasing influx (in 1997, for example, there were just 29 hotels here, dealing exclusively with the business trade. There are now twice that figure in what is still a comparatively small place, with a population of 350,000).
It would be an oversimplification to suggest that art has improved the quality of life here, but it’s undeniable that it has been of assistance. “As long ago as 1992, we knew we had to make major changes in order to survive, because we had no future to speak of,” says Idoia Postigo, a project manager of Metropoli-30, an association for the regeneration of metropolitan Bilbao.
“We are lucky here because we have always been a rich area [Basques pay tax directly to the Basque government, giving the area a self-sufficiency bordering on the full autonomy the separatists desire], but when our historical industries began to collapse, we knew we had to move forward, so we became a service industry instead.” According to Postigo, the opening of the Guggenheim further propelled a redevelopment scheme that was already under way. This included the new metro system designed by Sir Norman Foster, architect Santiago Calatrava’s futuristic airport and the modernisation of the only other gallery of note, the Museum of Fine Arts. But it was the Guggenheim that made an international impact, accelerating a makeover that many since have tried to ape.
Almost 50 years after the first Guggenheim opened in Manhattan, the foundation embarked upon plans to extend outside the US in the early 1990s, and considered offers from London, Paris and Berlin. But the Basque capital asserted itself, with the finances ready ($100m – around €75m) and a plot in the heart of the city. The deal was clinched, and architect Frank Gehry, basing his design on a sketch he’d made on the back of an envelope, set about creating what would become one of the most distinctive buildings in the world.
Initially there was much local opposition. With unemployment at 25 per cent, people couldn’t quite understand their government investing in, of all things, a museum. But gradually they began to realise its potential worth in terms of transforming the city into something that was previously unthinkable for Bilbao: a tourist destination.
It went on to prove a success, registering 250,000 visitors in its first year. By 2006, that figure had quadrupled and the museum has now welcomed a total of nine million people through its doors. Unemployment has dropped (it now stands at 9 per cent), and though the area is in economic boom-time, it hasn’t quite become the hive of creativity Metropoli-30 would have desired.
Postigo says, “We haven’t yet become a truly artistic hub but we are working on improving that by encouraging new artists to settle here, and to thrive. We would like a greater number of tourists as well because, although being a cultural destination is still new to us, we like it.” But this is on its own stubborn terms.
As Marta Martinez, a 36-year-old native who works in food technology, explains: “We are an open-minded city, but we also have a strong sense of identity. We are Basque people and we love the way we live. We are glad to have visitors, but we are not going to change because of that.” It’s a sentiment that is echoed throughout the city, because although Hilton and Sheraton hotel chains have arrived, you will find few fast food outlets, few other museums or galleries, and no child-friendly fun parks. In its place is what Bilbao has always offered: fabulous three-course lunches that give way to two-hour siestas and a vibrant bar scene.
Gonzalo Negro, 33, is a teacher now living in nearby Durango but he grew up in Bilbao. Proud of his identity (he teaches school-level Basque, the language Franco wanted eradicated), he voices a note of concern over his birthplace’s transformation: “My fear is that the city will price out its original people and replace them with wealthy outsiders. Regeneration has been good for us but I can’t help seeing the negative side, too. Also, I think that tourists may feel cheated because we don’t pander to them. It is not the Costa del Sol here. Hopefully, it never will be.”
The official line, however, is one of success. Local shopping malls feature photography and art exhibitions of the city’s changing face, while the tourist board speaks of promotion to premier-league status. Last year, delegates from 40 nations arrived to learn the secrets of its success. “We are on the global map now,” says Marta Astorqui of Bilbao Turismo. “We intend to stay here.”
But just how easy is it to replicate what has happened in Bilbao elsewhere? Tate Modern in London, which opened in 2000 in Southwark, has enjoyed even greater success, its five million visitors a year making it the world’s most successful gallery. Across the UK, largely in former industrial cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Gateshead, new museums such as BALTIC have sprung up, each boasting a radical futuristic design as if, in the words of art critic Tim Marlow, “[like Bilbao] they have become emblems of the cities’ desire to improve themselves.” The key, however, is to stage really great exhibitions. Is there enough to go around? Well, that’s the question.
Consequently, there have already been casualties. The National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, for example, designed by architect Nigel Coates, was forced to close its doors within a year of its 1999 opening due to a lack of visitors, while the Guggenheim in Las Vegas also bombed, leading to the €900m plans for a second New York branch to be shelved.
Meanwhile, the Guggenheim’s name itself has come in for criticism, some art critics suggesting that it now represents less a mark of high art than simply a brand name. When it featured a collection of works by Giorgio Armani (a show which Armani financially supported), some questioned its artistic worth. The unveiling of plans for a Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi – an attempt echoed by the Louvre, which has also set its sights on the Middle East in a bid to place a little international culture into an area otherwise dominated by business – has also been the cause of debate.
“You can’t just parachute a museum or gallery into any world city and hope that it takes off,” argues Donald Hyslop, head of regeneration and community partnerships at Tate Modern, “but it is true that the arts can be an incredibly powerful tool for any location. They just shouldn’t be developed in isolation.”
The Guggenheim’s immediate future plans are to play things comparatively safe, having unveiled potential projects for cities already internationally recognised as cultural centres – Tokyo, Rio, Edinburgh – and so for now Bilbao holds on to its reputation as one of a kind. But then maybe Metropoli-30 is right when it suggests that it wasn’t so much the museum that rejuvenated the place as much as its people themselves.
The Basques always possessed self-belief. They built it, the world flocked, and they’ve not looked back since. “Foreign delegates keep visiting,” Bilbao Turismo’s Marta Astorqui says with a smile, “and so do the tourists, so we must be doing something right.”
The view from Japan
If there’s one thing Japan has no shortage of it’s art museums – there are 347 of them, ranging from Tokyo’s hulking national museums to small local ones. The zenith of museum building in Japan was in the economic bubble years of the 1980s. Then, local governments had more money than they could spend. Today, the construction of museums in Japan has slowed to a trickle and most local governments want to consolidate what they have.
The 21st Century Museum in Kanazawa is the closest thing Japan has to a Bilbao. Housed in a striking circular building, designed by Tokyo architect Kazuyo Sejima, this contemporary art museum has attracted three million visitors since it opened at the end of 2004.
“We have a clear concept,” says museum spokesperson Yuko Endo, “which is that the museum is open to the town like a park. The architecture is barrier free; it is surrounded by grass areas and people can walk around. There’s a charge-free zone and people can visit casually”. The museum has proved its worth by bringing in an estimated ¥32.8bn (around €200m) to the Kanazawa economy and revitalising its commercial centre.