Cultural value: The ‘Bilbao effect’

Bilbao has pulled itself out of economic turmoil to become one of the world’s best destinations for art. And it’s all down to the Guggenheim museum.

Driving an Audi A5 Coupé to Spain’s Bilbao

Art is often described as an agent of change, but tangible examples of this are rare, which makes the story of Bilbao even more remarkable. In the early 1990s, this city in northern Spain’s Basque country was in economic crisis caused by the collapse of its metal industry. A plan took shape in the form of a regeneration scheme, centred on a new Guggenheim museum of modern and contemporary art.

  As we enter Bilbao in our refined and economical Audi A5 Coupé, it’s clear that the city has evolved from a post-industrial hulk into a vibrant regional hub. The ‘Guggenheim effect’ has become shorthand for the power that cultural investment can have on social and economic growth, and a number of cities are using Bilbao as a model for their own development.

  After opening its doors in 1997, Bilbao’s Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, is now considered to be one of the most influential buildings in the world. It’s made up of thousands of titanium-clad arches and vaults – and while it’s impressive in pictures, nothing prepares you for seeing it with your own eyes.

  ‘One of our aims was for the museum to be art in its own right,’ says the museum’s Director General, Juan Ignacio Vidarte (pictured below). ‘Our visitors spend as much time contemplating the building as they do the work within.’ The diverse pieces of work by leading international artists have made the museum a success from the very start – it had more than a million visitors during its first year, three times more than expected, boosting the local economy immediately.

  ‘The project was finished on time and within budget, costing €133m,’ says Ibon Areso, former Mayor of Bilbao. ‘Within five years the city council had recouped its initial investment. Such return on investment is unheard of in a public project.’

  Bilbao now has a booming tourism industry and a global reputation for fine cuisine – the region has more than 40 Michelin-starred restaurants. One of them is Mina, a contemporary eaterie set in Bilbao’s old town, run by chef Alvaro Garrido. ‘For me the most important type of art isn’t hanging in a gallery but is what’s put on a plate,’ he says. ‘However, I’m still glad that the Guggenheim is just around the corner – it gives guests something to do while waiting for dinner.’

Written by John Silcox; Photographs by Alexander Rhind.


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