Art critic Vanessa Wong takes us on a sensory voyage through the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (GMB): Gem of Contemporary Art and Architecture

Take A Sensory Voyage Through The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
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Art critic Vanessa Wong takes us on a sensory voyage through the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (GMB): Gem of Contemporary Art and Architecture:

This year is a very unusual year and everyone is learning to adapt to changes and the new normal. Travel is certainly being missed, but at the same time, I have spent more time organizing and decluttering. Seeing my photos taken at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (GMB) which I went with my family a year ago brings back memories full of art and culinary delights.  

GMB is a renowned museum inaugurated in 1997. The Frank Genry designed architecture is iconic and beautiful, while the collection of the museum artworks is world-renowned. Biblao is a post-industrial city where its revitalization plans and  development has turned the city from dying to attraction. Nowadays, with a population of about 350,000,  Biblao is the economic, social and cultural centre of the Basque Country.  It is the 36th largest city in Europe, similar in sie to Dublin, Liverpool and Florence. 

Biblao-  History, Development and Transformation

Located in the north of Spain, the capital of Biscay, an Atlantic gulf and is an urban region of approximately 41 square-kilometers, Biblao is about 1 hour 10 mins by car from San Sebastian, a coastal city known for its beaches, quaint Old Town and first-class restaurants.  Biblao was founded in the year 1300 as a medieval villa or town.  In 1511, when the trade and shipping office or Consulado was created, it became a trade outlet and subsequently, at the end of the nineteenth century, it was transformed into an industrial city covering its entire metropolitan area and has become one of Spain’s major ports and the entry port for heavy manufacturing. However, due to the profound crisis in the 80s of the decay of the industrial system, the city’s fundamental economic sectors is hugely affected. Biblao faced the declining situation similar to that of other former industrial cities such as Pittsburg, Glasgow, Hamburg, Rotterdam and Turin.  Facing this challenging situation, Bilbao needed to reinvent itself, find a new model for the future and initiate a comprehensive urban transformation. A series of revitalization plans with focus on developing the tertiary sector and creating job opportunities, building transportation systems and infrastructure and establishing cultural landmarks have been launched and developed in the 1990s. Bilbao’s transformation has earned the city a few prizes and awards: the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize (2010), the European Public Sector Award (EPSA) 2011 for the project “Political Management based on Financial Rigor and Strategic Budgets”, culminating in the World Mayor Award bestowed on mayor D. Inaki Azkuna in 2012.


Public- Private  Partnerships- Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Bilbao

Bilbao was chosen as the European location for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The agreeement was reached to establish the Fundacion Del Museo Guggenheim Biblao to manage the independent institution for a period that could last 75 years. The GMB is the result of a unique collaboration between the Basque administration and the Solomon R. Foundation.  The project plan has encountered opposition from many people and cultural groups in Biblao. It is often said that the GMB as an international art franchise did not fit well with local traditions, values and culture of Bilbao and the Basque Country. The academic response to the “Biblao effect” has been divergent. However, from the economic and socio-political perspectives, it has brought great impact.  The GMB has boosted the local economy, creating 3800 jobs and new tourism revenues. In a city of around 350,000 people, despite a slight dip in attendance after the 2008 financial crisis, Biblao has welcomed more than 20 million visitors—two-thirds of them from abroad—since it opened on 19 October 1997. The Museum is currently closed until suspension due to Covid. 


The Architecture designed by Frank Gehry

The museum is located along the Nervión river. The titanium-clad building is designed by Canadian American architect Frank Gehry, the museum is with 24,000 m2, of which 9.000 are dedicated to exhibition space, Gehry’s design creates a spectacular sculpture-like structure integrating within Bilbao’s urban pattern and its surrounding area. "the randomness of the curves are designed to catch the light". The interior "is designed around a large, light-filled atrium with views of Bilbao's estuary and the surrounding hills of the Basque country." The atrium, which Gehry nicknamed The Flower because of its shape, serves as the organizing centre of the museum.  42,875 titanium panels make up the iconic facade of the  GMB. The titanium was mined in Russia it was processed and rolled by Timet (Titanium Metals Corporation) in Pittsburgh.  Arranged on three levels, the museum’s 20 exhibition galleries are interconnected by several bridges, corridors, elevators, and stairs.

Renowned Contemporary Collection – International and Local artists

The museum’s collection is mostly focused on contemporary artists of the 20th and 21s centuries. Guggenheim Bilbao features a large number of paintings and sculptures it has acquired or commissioned site-specific pieces, including works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Anselm Kiefer, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Clyfford Still, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, Mark and Robert Rauschenberg and Mark Rothko.  The 130-strong collection of post-war and contemporary art, acquired over the years for €110m, was valued at €729m by Christie’s in 2015.

At the river façade of the GMB, a gigantic spider standing 30 ft high and over 33 wide, is the work “Maman” by renowned English artist Louise Bourgeois.

“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. My family was in the business of tapestry restoration, and my mother was in charge of the workshop. Like spiders, my mother was very clever. Spiders are friendly presences that eat mosquitoes. We know that mosquitoes spread diseases and are therefore unwanted. So, spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.”— Louise Bourgeois

At the entrance of the museum stands Jeff Koons, “Puppy”, a permanent installation. Twice a year, in May and October, all of the plants that make up the sculpture’s exterior are replaced with fresh seasonal varieties, including pansies for the fall and winter, and begonias, impatiens, and petunias for the spring and summer. The museum recently undertook this complex job, which requires 20 people and 9 days to complete, and freshened up Puppy’s coat for the summer with approximately 38,000 new flowers in hues of red and pink. 

The museum’s collection also pays special attention to modern and contemporary Basque and Spanish artists, including Eduardo Chillida, Juan Muñoz, Jorge Oteiza, Antonio Saura, and Antoni Tàpies. The integration of Basque and Spanish artists was one of the goals of the GMB from the beginning.


Bilbao Effect or Guggenheim effect is a term often used to express the cause and effect relationship that occurred when a single world-class project became the catalyst for reviving the once economically distressed, post-industrial city.  GBM has been impactful to the transformation and has played a major role in the activation of the local travel industry, attracting tourists and business travellers. There are also other factors contributing to the success of the tourism.  Avant-Garde architectures in Biblao and Culinary attractions such as dining at Biblao or San Sebastian are also factors attracting tourists. Currently the museum is exhibiting Wassily Kandinsky until May 23, 2021.  The wonderful art exhibits along with the gastronomic delights are truly mesmorizing that we long to visit again.

Tags: BilbaoVenessaWongMuseum
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