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Latest Global Guggenheim Developments: Helsinki & Singapore

In another insult to second-class journalists (i.e., everyone who doesn’t write for the NY Times), the Guggenheim vigorously promoted a major press conference Thursday morning to announce its new “global cultural exchange” and then made attendance superfluous by delivering the entire story to Carol Vogel a day early. Everyone who showed up at the Gugg’s 9 a.m. breakfast had already read and digested Carol’s buttery croissant. (Happily, I hadn’t planned to attend; I was traveling that morning on assignment for one of those less favored news organizations.)

Rather than practice ketchup journalism, I’ll let you read the Guggenheim’s next-day announcement here. I’ll also throw in Carol’s spoon-fed scoop—Guggenheim Project Challenges “Western-Centric View”. (If only someone at the Guggenheim would challenge the museum’s Times-centric view!)

The “new initiative” involves “identify[ing] and support[ing] a network of art, artists and curators from South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and North Africa in a comprehensive program involving curatorial residencies, acquisitions for the Guggenheim’s collection, international touring exhibitions, and far-reaching educational activities.”

First stop for the “Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative” (aka Gugg-U-Map-Gai, for short?) is Singapore, which was one of the sites on the long list of unrealized Global Guggenheim branches that were envisioned by former director Tom Krens. The Guggenheim is splashing corporate logos all over its programs—the UBS project joins a branded list that also includes the Hugo Boss Prize and the BMW Guggenheim Lab (the latter also announced in the Times on the morning of its roll-out, preempting the press briefing for the rest of the scribe tribe).

Now let’s quickly move on to something that the Times hasn’t yet gotten to—an update on the proposed Guggenheim Helsinki.

This just in from Tasneem Brogger of Bloomberg Businessweek: Helsinki’s mayor, Jussi Pajunen, today “proposed [that] the city council approve the plan to establish a Guggenheim museum in the Finnish capital….The city should set aside 2.8 million euros ($3.7 million) to pay for the museum’s license and 500,000 euros to establish a foundation to run the museum, the proposal said.”

My Finnish broadcasting colleagues (scroll down) also tipped me off about today’s formal announcement, and added that the final decision on whether to proceed will be made by the city council next year, after the conclusion of an architectural competition. Other Global Guggenheims—both built and unrealized—didn’t involve formal competitions.

A large proportion of Helsinki council members are reportedly opposed to the project. What’s more, YLE/Uutiset, Finland’s national public broadcasting company, reports that Culture Minister Paavo Arhinmäki has indicated that his office cannot provide funds for the project and also commented that “the Guggenheim brand is going down, rather than up, and that it would take advantage of the stronger Helsinki brand. Arhinmäki also said that the original feasibility study on the potential construction of a Guggenheim museum in the Finnish capital came with “exaggerated proposals.”

If you want to weigh in on the project or ask a question, a live Facebook discussion with Mayor Pajunen is going on right now, until 3:30 p.m., New York time. But from the looks of things, you may have to brush up on you Finnish!

Here’s my own view of the project, informed by my detailed perusal of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s $2-million, 186-page feasibility study, a sales pitch that covered everything from “A Brief History of Finland” to “Site Analysis.” I was left with the impression that this satellite museum, while probably good for the Gugg, was possibly not so fine for the Finns.

As I previously mentioned here, it’s easy to understand why the Guggenheim craves the
$30-million windfall that it would receive as its “licensing fee”: Its 2010 annual report (the most recent that’s posted online) stated (on p. 59) that “while 2010 was financially stable, the Foundation is still challenged by a relatively small endowment.”

A big selling point to the Finns for the Helsinki spinoff was the purported benefit of being part of the Guggenheim’s “robust global network.” As of the end of this year (when the modest Deutsche Guggenheim space at Deutsche Bank headquarters in Berlin will close), that vaunted “network” will be down to one (aside from the longstanding Peggy Guggenheim Collection in the Venice palazzo given to the museum by Solomon Guggenheim’s niece).

Aside from the moribund Deutsche Guggenheim, the only firm beachhead that the Guggenheim has managed to firmly establish in its numerous campaigns to plant colonies abroad is Bilbao. And that stunning international success owes much more to the name “Gehry” than the brand “Guggenheim.” Like its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed New York flagship, the Guggenheim’s Frank Gehry-designed outpost is a good museum housed in an iconically great building. In both locations, the building, not what’s inside it, is the chief draw for international tourists. The Guggenheim’s second “Frank” masterpiece is what got me to visit Spain’s Basque region a few years after it opened.

While the Guggenheim suggests that the increase in cultural tourism from the proposed new museum will benefit other Helsinki institutions, my own experience in Bilbao suggests otherwise. When I made the architectural pilgrimage, I also took a short walk across Museum Plaza to Bilbao’s Museum of Fine Arts (whose then director, Miguel Zugaza, subsequently became director of the Prado). There was barely another soul in the galleries.

Ever since the 1997 opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Global Guggenheim campaign has been littered with unrealized projects, making it hard to understand why anyone still takes its manic “feasibility studies” seriously. There have, to my count, been at least nine international flops (Rio, Guadalajara, Taichung, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Salzburg, Moscow, Singapore, and let us not forget, Vilnius) and three domestic ones (Las Vegas and Manhattan’s SoHo, both closed; and an enormous Gehry Guggenheim for Lower Manhattan, designed but never built). Many of the fizzled foreign forays were accompanied by detailed feasibility studies and impressive designs by major architects, including Jean Nouvel, Enrique Norten and Zaha Hadid. They generally foundered on funding and political controversy.

And then there’s the enormously ambitious, Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. With delays and setbacks having pushed back its projected opening date to 2017 from the original projection of 2012, it now seems on shaky sand.

The Guggenheim’s “economic impact” predictions for Helsinki (anticipated income from tourist spending and increased tax revenues) are speculative at best. What seems less doubtful is that the increased expenditures for the museum’s design and construction (about 140 million euros) and its operations (about 14.7 million euros a year, some of which may be defrayed by the city) will siphon off limited resources that might otherwise be available to the city’s large existing local network of museums, some of which are considering their own expansions.

And the proposed $30-million licensing fee for the Guggenheim’s “brand” won’t even buy the Finns extended access to works in the Guggenheim’s collection. According to the feasibility study, “The permanent collection of the Guggenheim Foundation will not form a centerpiece of the new museum. Since the museum is largely non-collecting [emphasis added], featuring works of art for long periods of time is not anticipated.”

The Guggenheim envisions this facility as a “cutting edge, multidisciplinary” venue—“a place of production, an ‘incubator of ideas’ that reverberates locally and internationally. Communication about and around the art object will be facilitated by the creative use of media, technology and events.” The focus for loan shows and self-generated exhibitions would be modern and contemporary “transnational” art—a buzzword throughout the study, which describes Finland as underexposed to “much of the great art produced over the last 100 years.”

To me, the biggest question surrounding this project is the most basic: Why would a sophisticated, culturally rich city like Helsinki feel the need for Americans to descend and condescend to oversee a new cultural institution that we think they need? Projects like this should percolate from the ground up.

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