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Snowball’s Chance in Helsinki: Guggenheim Again Seeks Council Approval (plus Abu Dhabi update)

Will the Guggenheim Helsinki, proposed in 2011 and stalled ever since, finally get off the drawing board?

On Monday, the Helsinki City Board voted 8-7 to revive this persistent project, which will be up for approval by the full 85-member City Council on Nov. 30. In May 2012, the City Board had voted 8-7 to stop it.

Janne Sirén, left; Richard Armstrong, center; Ari Wiseman, right

Promoting original Guggenheim proposal in Helsinki, almost six years ago, L to R: Janne Sirén, then director of Helsinki Art Museum (now of the Albright-Knox Gallery); Tuula Haatainen, then Helsinki deputy major; Richard Armstrong, Guggenheim Foundation director; Jussi Pajunen, Helsinki mayor; Ari Wiseman, Guggenheim deputy director

The project was recently dealt another serious blow when the Finnish Government, in its fall budget negotiations, declined to provide any funds for the proposed museum. This prompted a rushed revision of the financial plan, to compensate for the loss of hoped-for federal funding: Estimates of private funding for the museum have been raised and the 20-year “licensing fee” for the Guggenheim’s “brand” has been reduced—from $30 million to $20 million. The projected construction cost remains unchanged at 130 million euros. The annual operating budget has been reduced from 14.5 million euros in the original plan to 13.1 million euros in the revised 2013 plan to 11.6 million euros in the new financial plan.

As announced by the City of Helsinki and by the Guggenheim Helsinki Supporting Foundation (GHSF), the new proposal calls for the city to shell out up to 80 million euros towards the construction costs. The remaining 50 million euros for construction would be paid with $15 million euros in private funds raised by the GHSF, and with a 35-million-euro loan, for which payments, fees and interest would be covered by the GHSF. Established in 2014 to support the proposed museum, the GHSF (members here) would also be responsible for paying the Guggenheim’s $20-million licensing fee.

According to the City of Helsinki’s announcement, the city would “cover the cost of building maintenance [about 6.5 million euros per year] but would not finance the museum’s operation in any other way.”


Winning design for Guggenheim Helsinki by the Paris firm of Moreau Kusunoki Architectes

If all goes according to the proposed project schedule, construction will occur in 2019-2020 (or “if objections,” in 2020-2021).

While we await the full Council’s decision, here’s a quick update on the Guggenheim’s other ill-fated international initiative—its struggle to create a Frank Gehry-designed Abu Dhabi outpost, first proposed in 2006, which I recently described as “a protracted, no-win war.”

The museum’s website says that project is “currently under development.” But “currently undeveloped” seems a more accurate description. In response to my queries about its status this month, the museum’s spokesperson told me:

Construction has not yet begun and no contract has been awarded. We remain committed to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project and to its transformative potential.

The spokesperson also confirmed to me this Art Newspaper report about the departure earlier this year of two members of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s New York-based team—associate curator for Middle Eastern art Reem Fadda and assistant curator Fawz Kabra.

Both of the Guggenheim’s pending foreign forays have dragged on way too long, with too little to show for them. Maybe the Helsinki project will ultimately come to fruition, although it remains to be seen whether the significantly revised financials will work for all parties. As for Abu Dhabi, a decade has passed with little to show for it, other than a nascent collection, owned by the Government of Abu Dhabi, that was acquired for what is still a nonexistent facility. Some of those works will be exhibited next March at the Manarat Al Saadiyat on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, where the proposed Guggenheim, if built, would be located.

The fatal flaw in these projects is their attempt to create and organize under American auspices cultural institutions that are best conceived and managed by the countries where they reside. As I wrote in my Apollo magazine piece on this subject:

Launching and managing a satellite museum in a foreign country that is capable of conceiving and managing its own cultural institutions is not collaboration; it’s colonization.

Museums should be homegrown.

an ArtsJournal blog