The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (GMB) – Location, Location, Location?


By Meg Emmitt

Ahhhh the GMB… so much to say about this espectaculo and I feel so conflicted over the subject! Without a doubt, the building is something special. It literally radiates… The titanium glistens like a rare gem. Its like seeing a HUGE celebrity and not being able to divert your gaze (which happened to occur to me this morning  in my little hotel buffet breakfast when none other than U2´s BONO plopped down next to me!) You just cant help but be captivated, yet, at the same time, you say to yourself, what is this celebrity/museum doing here?? Why is this uber famous New York museum in this little port city and why is Bono in my 70 euro a night hotel?!

I spent my first semester of graduate school trying to answer this question. My curiousity was peaked after a trip to Bilbao 10 years ago when the museum had just opened and there was a palpable excitement in the air.  It was fascinating to return and witness the changes this institution had caused in Bilbao.  Firstly, post Franco era, the city had become a run down, abandoned industrial port with a heavily polluted river running through its cener.  Just ten years later, its much cleaner and the once abandoned riverfront has become a lively space where people meet to chat and take their evening “paseo”.  Secondly, Bilbao has become an important tourist destination for international art lovers and this reality has revived the city´s economy.

However, every single local person I have talked to is in agreement about one thing… the GMB is a site to see, a grand structure, but not a museum. The locals don´t ravenously awate outside its doors for the blockbuster exhibitions like the current Cai Guo Qiang retrospective.  “For art, I prefer the Museo de Belles Artes,” is the common response of the people here.

This idea of the GMB as an attraction to be admired from afar is a major issue the employees of the Guggenheim are working to overcome. I was fortunate enough to meet with the Director of Corporate Membership, Patricia Gonzalez, while visiting the museum.  “We find it very difficult to get people back and to not view us as a museum you visit once in a lifetime.”

For the local people of Bilbao, what does the museum have to offer? For the most part, there is little local relevance in the museum´s exhibitions.  Besides a couple of exhibits featuring Basque artists designed specifically for the museum´s 10th anniversary last year, this is clearly an institution geared towards the international art market.  Gonzalez admits herself, the GMB feels no obligation to be locally relevant.  Huh, well it seems clear to me.  If you want locals to frequent your museum, and not just take their daily paseo past it, maybe the objective should be to create shows with a Basque edge. If there is one thing i can say with certainty about the people of this city it´s that they have an intense pride in their heritage.  For the most part, where you are born is where you marry, raise your family, and grow old.  Regional pride is something distinct to many parts of Spain and to not be in tune with this is something that I think, in the long run, might cause problems for the GMB.  It will be interesting to watch the development of this fascinating institution.

6 Responses to “The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (GMB) – Location, Location, Location?”

  1. 1 Mikel Falces

    Very good story, I have really enjoyed reading it, you’ve captured very well the personality of the people here, I hope to see you again and can teach you many more interesting sites nearby. Mikel besos

  2. 2 Gonzalo Azcúnaga

    I am really impressed on how well have you described, how the Guggenheim museum has transformed our city. We never thought on seen in our small villa people such us Jimmy Carter, Gwineth Palthrow, Roman Polanski, Michael Douglas and many others. I am looking forward to read what you tell us about San Sebastian (Cillida Leku), Valencia, Madrid and Barcelona.

  3. 3 Meg Emmitt

    Gracias chicos! Y gracias para tu amabilidad cuando yo estaba en bilbao!

  4. very nice article. informative and fun!

  5. 5 Fred

    Having relatives in Bilbao, this American has been admiring the Guggenheim since the early days of its construction during more or less annual trips to the Basque region. The sheer audacity of the conception was–and continues to be–astounding. One of my favorite European views is that of the Museo looking up the Calle de Iparraguirre: those titanium waves (or sails or petals, however you choose to describe them) sandwiched between the orderly rows of Belle Epoque buildings and the high green hills overlooking the whole scene. The transformation of the precincts surrounding the Museo is finally beginning to take hold, and the planning for new communities downriver is most exciting. The birth of a vibrant new neighborhood out of the railroad tracks and tired industrial wasteland that preceded the construction of the Museo must be gratifying to the visionaries who acted with such decisiveness nearly 20 years ago. Does the building outshine the art contained therein? Yes, but some exhibits more than measure up (and I’m not just talking motorcycles here). Will Picasso’s “Guernica/Gernika” ever be moved to the Guggenheim? Perhaps it is best not to hope for too much.

  6. 6 bloonsterific

    Just wanted to tell you all know how much I appreciate your postings guys.
    Found you though google!

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