More to Love Another Guggenheim for Bilbao


About a year ago, the General Deputy of the Biscay County Council, Jose Luis Bilbao announced his intention to build a new annex of the Guggenheim Museum in Urdaibai, a 220-square-kilometer Natural Reserve about 20 minutes from the museum’s current location in Bilbao. Looking to repeat the effects of the iconic Gehry building, Mr. Bilbao presented the idea as the linchpin of an economic stimulus plan to boost the region’s worsening economy. The Biscay County Council—Mr. Bilbao declared—would provide up to 100 million euros for the development. The Guggenheim Museum Director declined to add further information, and the news passed unnoticed for over a year outside Spain, perhaps regarded as an ephemeral campaign promise.

An announcement made by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao last week re-approached the issue. Following a meeting attended by officials of the Basque Government and the Biscay County Council, the Director of the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation in New York, Richard Armstrong, and the Director and trustees of the Guggenheim Bilbao, the museum released the first documentation of its expansion plan, supported by a favorable economic impact study, and geological reports of the plot where the new Guggenheim would be erected.

Conceived as a “discontinuous” expansion of Frank Gehry’s building, the new Guggenheim Urdaibai would not be “a simple annex to house another part of the collection.” Mr. Bilbao said that the new structure “aims to become a new world benchmark for cultural innovation.” Located in a significantly non-urban setting, that makes the Guggenheim Urdaibai’s an unlikely hub for an international network. The press release emphasizes that the site will function as a “laboratory,” and notes that the site could eventually include an artist residency.

Biscay County officials hope the new museum will contribute to boost the region’s economy, which currently has an unemployment rate of about 12%. According to the economic impact study recently unveiled, the construction of the new museum could have an impact of 384 million euro on the region, and employ over 3,500 people. Once operating, the Guggenheim Urdaibai expects to attract around 148,000 every year, and create 900 new jobs. One of the largest tourist attractions in the region, the Guggenheim Bilbao attracts 680,000 foreign visitors a year, who stay an average of 1.8 days in town. “With an additional attraction of this kind,” Mr Bilbao said, “this could go up to 2.4 or 2.6 days.”

A think tank formed by artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Pierre Huyghe, architects Adriaan Geuze, Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, and stakeholders from the Basque cultural and economic fields is working to define the museum model and the process to select its architect. The results will be presented to the Board in December, and if approved, the Guggenheim Urdaibai could open its doors as early as 2013.

Despite the Biscay County Council official’s enthusiasm, the project still lacks the support from the Basque Government. According to the Basque Government Cultural Affairs Officer Blanca Urgell’s initial comments, it will not be an easy nut to crack. In an interview with Radio Euskadi last Friday, she said, “it is not the right time to build a second Guggenheim in Urdaibai.”

Rather, she said, she would dedicate this time “to inventory and evaluate the state of Basque Country museums,” alluding to recent cases of corruption/embezzlement that affected the Guggenheim Bilbao. However, she also said, she awaits to read the museum’s feasibility studies in December. Then we will know if this plan has better luck than the proposed Guggenheims in Taipei, Rio de Janeiro and Guadalajara, Mexico.