The Guggenheim Effect

The Guggenheim Effect

Frank Gehry's museum has been a flashy addition to Bilbao, but it still depends on razzle-dazzle shows to complement the architecture.

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THE SOURCE: “The Return on Investment of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao” by Beatriz Plaza, in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, June 2006.

When a decaying industrial

city in the Basque country decided in the 1990s to spend the equivalent of about $200 million on a modern art museum, critics sputtered over the squandering of so much public money on something so irrelevant and exclusive. But today, Bilbao, Spain, is known throughout the world for its “Guggenheim effect.”

Bilbao provides an ideal laboratory for the study of the effects of “signature architecture” on a city. Unlike London, Madrid, or New York, where museums and cultural attractions are launched almost as frequently as computer upgrades, Bilbao changed only one major thing in 1997: it opened a spectacular Guggenheim museum. Noted, if at all, for its pollution and past Basque separatist activity, Bilbao was transformed by the inauguration of Frank O. Gehry’s building, considered a masterpiece of ­20th-­century architecture. Yet many of its original critics have questioned whether it has performed the ­hoped-­for economic ­miracle.

Beatriz Plaza, an economist at University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, reports that the museum paid for itself in nine years, a world record. When it opened, tourism increased immediately. The number of hotel stays rose by 61,742 a month, Plaza writes, producing an “extra” 740,000 hotel stays a year. The museum has generated 907 jobs, and helps support 4,500 more. It has had positive effects on such occupations as translation, library services, and handicrafts, and has increased the demand for knowledge of foreign languages, tourism packaging, advertising, mar­keting, film, and business ­management.

Plaza notes that signature architecture, even by celebrity architects, is no guarantee that expensive high culture can turn around a stagnating city. Bilbao was fortunate in getting Gehry’s most acclaimed building. “It must be remembered that it could also have failed,” Plaza writes. Even the most noted architects have their “off” buildings. The new Santiago Calatrava wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum has not attracted as many visitors as first projected. The Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, England, which expected 1.3 million annual visitors, has had fewer than 200,­000.

Rare for Europe, the Guggen­heim has adopted ­market-­oriented budgeting aimed at making the museum staff more efficient and sensitive to customers’ tastes. Seventy percent of operating costs must be covered by museum revenues and 30 percent by the Basque government. To raise the necessary funds, the museum has staged blockbuster ­exhibitions.

Bilbao should not be “uncrit­ically replicated elsewhere,” Plaza cautions, because the risks were high, and success even now depends on the curators’ coming up with new ­razzle-­dazzle shows to complement the architecture and keep the public ­coming.

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