Twenty years ago the Guggenheim put Bilbao on the map. But can art really transform a city?by Andrew Dickson / November 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
At 10am on a crisp autumn morning, Bilbao was bustling. Tourists were drifting down to the riverside, filling the cafés across from the Guggenheim Museum. Around them, men in shorts fussed with spotlights and loudspeakers, preparing a sound-and-light show to commemorate the museum’s 20th anniversary. As gardeners began to replant Jeff Koons’s flower-covered Puppy sculpture—it was looking a touch threadbare—the nickel-bright whorls of Frank Gehry’s building shimmered in the sun. All across town there were hoardings and adverts carrying the legend el arte lo cambio, “art changes everything.”
Since the museum opened in 1997, that motto has been both creed and catechism. Back then, so the legend goes, the tired old port of Bilbao was a basket case: polluted, filled with rotting heavy industry, crushed by unemployment, dying a slow death on every available measure—the Kingston upon Hull of Spain. These days it is the very model of a modern European cultural destination, filled with new buildings and bustling cafés. Literally a model, in fact: the “Bilbao effect” is an established part of the urban planner’s lexicon. It enshrines the idea that, by investing heavily in culture—ideally an iconic gallery or museum—down-on-their-luck cities can embrace a dynamic new future.
Yet the curious thing about the Bilbao effect is that no one can agree what it is. Few terms in urban studies are so bitterly disputed. For proponents, it is a formula for how post-industrial cities can use architecture and art to fast-track redevelopment, one that planners have attempted to replicate in locations as diverse as Perth, Metz, Belo Horizonte, Aarhus and Hong Kong.
NEW: listen to Andrew Dickson discuss Bilbao’s future on the Prospect podcast, Headspace!
British cities have been especially keen to do a Bilbao: huge amounts of money was spent remodelling Glasgow for its stint as European Capital of Culture in 1990, while
Liverpool, West Bromwich and Margate have all invested heavily in cultural infrastructure in the last decade, with varying degrees of success. (The fact that the “Glasgow effect” now refers to the city’s high mortality rates indicates how divergent the results can be).
Even if it succeeds, for more critical commentators the Bilbao effect isn’t something to aim for, but something actively to avoid. It has become sinister code for tearing the heart out of communities and turning their inhabitants into service-sector drones, catering to the…