an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Guggenheim Helsinki: Might Antarctica Be Next?

Does this new Guggenheim have less than a snowball’s chance in Helsinki?
(Above, left to right: Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén, director, Helsinki Art Museum; Tuula Haatainen, deputy mayor, Helsinki; Richard “Strong-Arm” Armstrong, director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; Jussi Pajunen, mayor, Helsinki; Ari Wiseman, deputy director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)

Back in May 2003, when the plans were in full swing for the Guggenheim Rio (now dead) and a feasibility study was underway for the Guggenheim Taichung (ditto), I published my first (and probably last) spoof piece for the Wall Street Journal about high hopes for the Guggenheim Antarctica: Perpetual Motion: Where Next for the Guggenheim?. (As with all such spoofs, some WSJ readers actually believed me.)

So I found myself rubbing my eyes in disbelief yesterday upon seeing a headline about a Guggenheim Helsinki. There’s no architect, there’s no program, but there is a $2.5-million fee to the Guggenheim for yet another feasibility study. There were quite a few such studies enriching the Guggenheim’s coffers but coming to naught under the directorship of the foundation’s previous director, Tom Krens. But who knew that Richard Armstrong wanted to carry on this dubious tradition (which in 2006 actually resulted in an architectural retrospective of unbuilt Guggenheims)?

What makes all these projects particularly problematic, as I tried to express in haste yesterday to WNYC‘s Marlon Bishop, is that they seem to arise more out of a desire to use art as an economic engine than out of a deeply felt cultural imperative. Here’s what Helsinki’s mayor, Jussi Pajunen, said about the need for a “cultural infrastructure” in yesterday’s press release from Helsinki:

It is
widely recognized that cultural destinations can help drive economic growth for
a country, provided they are created within an intelligent overall plan for
development. We have such a plan—and the Guggenheim, as a truly global
institution, is the ideal institution to collaborate with us in studying how to
realize our goals.

This is a collaboration that can help Helsinki and Finland
prosper in an increasingly interconnected and competitive world.

The mayor’s stated role model, of course, was the economic success of the Guggenheim Bilbao. It always amazes me when the next Guggenheim aspirant fails to recognize that the Bilbao Effect has not traveled well. People make pilgrimages to the Basque country more for Gehry than for Guggenheim. In its long-time director, Juan Ignacio Vidarte (who had a great deal to do with his institution’s success), the Guggenheim Bilbao has a savvy operator who navigated perilous political waters in his homeland and negotiated a European non-compete clause for future Guggenheims.

That right to regional exclusivity is probably behind the statement in the Helsinki press release that “the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao must…approve any agreement under which the Guggenheim would manage or operate the
new museum.” Vidarte, as the Guggenheim’s chief officer
for global strategies, is a principal manager of the study team for the Finnish project. As CultureGrrl readers may remember, Vidarte took a dim view of the Guggenheim Hermitage Vilnius project, which also was the subject of a feasibility study-to-nowhere.

That other Guggenheim satellite launches proved to be duds was largely due to a lack of sufficient support from the citizenry and the government bodies that ultimately had to buy into these expensive, foreign-hatched plans. The Guggenheim label, under the Krens regime, was an expensive designer brand name.

So far, the Scandinavian project is just a brand—no architect and no coherent vision for the institution, except as an economic engine. Once the luminaries pictured above throw their snowball pitches on the bare pavement, those frozen orbs are apt to disintegrate.

Maybe they should consider Antarctica.

an ArtsJournal blog