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Global Guggenheim: Abu Dhabi Slowdown, Helsinki Progress

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, digital rendering of the east elevation

According to the Associated Press
, the just-announced decision by Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Co. (TDIC) to start over in soliciting bids for concrete work on the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is “raising questions about the future of the high profile project.”

But TDIC asserts that the project will go forward, after new bids are sought for concrete work—some 162,000 cubic meters for “back of house” areas and for a platform on which the new museum will be built, according to TDIC’s now out-of-date update on the project (p. 7). The value of the concrete package had previously been estimated at around $109 million.

At the very least, it appears that this bidding do-over will delay the project’s completion. Back in February 2009, Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s director, had told me that the 450,000-square-foot museum would open in 2012-13. But Georgina Adam of the Art Newspaper reported today that, according to a TDIC spokesperson, the opening will be delayed to 2015.

When I asked Eleanor Goldhar, the Guggenheim’s deputy director and chief of global communications, if the Art Newspaper report was accurate, she replied, “Yes.” She assured me, though, that the project is going forward.

In September 2009, a Request for Interested Contractors to Submit Pre-qualification for the construction project had put its total construction cost at “in excess of $750 million.”

Kevin Brass of the Abu Dhabi-based National, reported today on what he had learned from a TDIC spokesperson:

“This [concrete] work, which forms a part of the multiple work contracts that make up the [Guggenheim] project, will be re-tendered at a future date, and all renewed interest from contractors will be welcome,” the spokesman said.

Work has already been completed on land reclamation, the seawall and the building’s foundation piles. Work on the design by the architect Frank Gehry is due to be completed early next year, the TDIC said….

Throughout the [United Arab Emirates] region, clients are re-tendering projects as they look for ways to cut costs and the competition for work intensifies among contractors.

Real estate analysts from the region, quoted in an article on the Guggenheim situation by Orlando Crowcroft, business news editor for Gulf News, cast some doubt on the project’s future:

Saud Masoud, a senior analyst, Real Estate and Construction, at Rasmala Investment Bank, said that “cash flow and market pressures have impacted development work and continue to affect certain projects’ viability [emphasis added]. Engaging in further loss-making activities becomes a tough choice, especially when market trough is not apparent. If tender economics don’t meet requirements then the project could see delays.”

Another analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, said the decision [to re-tender the contract] was “consistent with other moves that the Abu Dhabi government has taken recently to slow down or delay real estate projects [emphasis added].”

Meanwhile, confounding the skeptics (including me), the Guggenheim recently posted on its website an update on the proposed Guggenheim Helsinki, which would “raise the profile of Finnish art.” The study team for the project is expected to make its recommendations by the end of this year, after a final meeting of its steering committee in New York on Dec. 9. If it gives a thumbs-up, approval would still be needed from the Guggenheim’s board and Helsinki authorities.

Elected to the Guggenheim’s board in 2008 was Carl Gustaf Ehrnrooth of Helsinki, an investor in his family’s Corbis Investments S.A., which counts Finnish textile and clothing design company Marimekko among its holdings.

According to the Guggenheim’s upbeat update on its website:

It is expected that this window onto the world for the Finnish community, and portal into Finland for artists and audiences everywhere, could help galvanize many aspects of cultural life in Helsinki….

Through its curatorial staff—envisioned to be based both in Helsinki and New York—and through its connections with the entire artistic ecosystem in Helsinki, the new museum would generate exhibitions and programs in partnership and dialogue with the other Guggenheim museums.

This nonhierarchical approach is fundamental to the Guggenheim’s drive to democratize art, connect audiences to art, and reaffirm the radical proposition that art has the potential to effect change in the world.

If the concept is approved, a new building would be constructed. According to this news report based on information from Finland, the project could cost 100-200 million Euros and could open in 2017-18. No architects have yet been approached, but Cooper, Robertson & Partners is currently working on a space, site and program analysis, Goldhar told me.

The feasibility study is directed by Ari Wiseman, deputy director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and Juan Ignacio Vidarte, the foundation’s deputy director and chief officer for global strategies (as well as long-time director of the Guggenheim Bilbao). Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén, director of the Helsinki Art Museum, is the City of Helsinki’s representative.

Contrary to prior practice, the Guggenheim would not tell me how much it is being paid for this feasibility study. To its own financial benefit, it has engaged in serial romances with other cities—Rio de Janeiro, Salzburg, Guadalajara, Taichung and Vilnius, to name a few—that were never consummated.

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