The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collections, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Located on an old port, on the banks of the river Nervion is the titanium-clad, cathedral like Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Designed by Frank Gehry and built in 1997, the museum resembles a fantasy ship, with soaring elevated arcs and soft sandstone and has become synonymous with cultural regeneration. The once degenerated city has been transformed into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Europe, and is now bustling with Michelin star restaurants, luxury hotels, satellite museums and “starchitecture”. Earlier this month, The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collections opened at the Bilbao museum, curated to celebrate the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s part in the rebirth of the city.

In the early 1990s, Bilbao’s regional government and city council were desperately looking for a way to regenerate the once-prosperous Northern Basque city. Previously a wealthy shipping port, by the mid-80s, the city was under threat from Basque separatist group ETA’s terrorism, most of its shipyards and steel mills had closed, one in five workers was unemployed, and it had become one of the most polluted cities in the world. There were also competing priorities: worker-retaining programmes, tax breaks, hospitals and schools. The question was how to go about it best. “The city’s government was looking for something to renovate and transform the city,” explained Ana Lopez de Munain, the Guggenheim Bilbao’s Coordinator of Communications. “They wanted a cultural institution, and at the same time the Guggenheim Foundation was also looking for an outpost in Europe, so it was a coincidence of events.” The museum cost €84m, which was controversial and caused protests among the city’s population.

Despite opposition, the project went ahead, and the city underwent a complete transformation. Other “starchitects” worked in the city, including Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava. Tourism rose from 100,000 visitors per year to over 1 million in 2012, stimulating museums, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels and bars. In the first three years after the museum opened, visitors’ spending raised over €100m in taxes for the regional government, enough to easily cover the construction costs. In 2013, the museum brought €213 million to the region, €26 million in tax revenue and over 4,000 jobs to the local economy. The museum has turned the poor port town into a must see city.

The journey has not always been plain sailing for all of Bilbao’s population, however. Not all industrial workers were able to gain new employment within the cultural sector, and some criticised the museum as “gentrification and cultural imperialism”. “It was very controversial at the beginning of the museum,” explains Ana. “There were a number of years when there were a high number of unemployed people. However, things got better in 2000 – 2004. Of course, not everyone was able to get a new cultural job related to the museum, in restaurants, bars or hotels, but it was ok eventually.”

The museum works hard to involve the local community through educational programmes. Petra Joos, Director of Artistic Activities at the museum said: “Education is a very important and strategic objective for us because it’s a necessity to view the works and participate in the activities.” Also, its architecture was designed with the city in mind. “Gehry didn’t want to break totally with the architecture of the city”, explained Ana. “Of course, he wanted to build a new building, with new ideas, but at the same time maintain and keep the sense of the city.” He used the same stone as that in the University for continuity, and crafted the building to look like a ship in homage to the city’s old industries.

To celebrate the marriage of art and urban renewal typified by Bilbao and the Guggenheim’s role within it is The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Foundation. Featuring work from the 20th century to the present, the exhibition has been curated to highlight the synergies between the collections of the Guggenheim constellation, underscoring how they’ve grown and flourished.

The exhibition opens with the origins of the Solomon R. Guggenheim collection that was begun in 1937 and focused on Non-Objective art including stunning examples of cubism, abstract expressionism and surrealism. There are a number of Kandinskys, including Improvisation 28 (1912) showing a horse-and-rider motif, symbolising his crusade against conventional aesthetic values. Marc Chagall’s Paris Through the Window (1913) – made just a year after he moved to Paris – blends pioneering Cubism with magical symbolism. A highlight is the beautiful Amedeo Modigliani Nude (Nu) (1917) of a reclining female nude in peach skin tones, her round belly emphasising fertility.

The second floor, Pop Art and the Late 20th Century is drawn primarily from the Bilbao holdings and focuses on post-World War II art. Gallery 209 is excellent. Within it, four expansive Anselm Kiefer paintings are juxtaposed with Joseph Beuys’s dramatic installation Lightening with Stag in its Glare (1958 – 85), finished only a year before his death. In close proximity, the cosmogonic, mythical and philosophical themes of both are underscored. Other artists of note are Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Alex Katz and Andy Warhol. The last section of the exhibition Towards the 21st Century is dedicated to contemporary art. Despite aiming to include more female artists, their presence is thin on the ground, and their inclusion in the contemporary floor offered some light relief. Palestinian Mona Hatoum’s, Home (1999) stood out. An installation of kitchen utensils that buzz like an electric fence, the work is personal and represents her personal experience as a foreigner living in London.

The work in the show that best typifies the transition Bilbao has undergone in the last 20 years is post-war Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s Embrace XI (1996). A totem pole shaped structure; it explodes into dramatic, interlacing curves at its top. Made from rough-hewn steel, the work exemplifies how in Bilbao, steel is no longer used to forge ships, but for sculptures, art and culture.

The Art of Our Time: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collections, until May 3 2015, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Abandoibarra Etorbidea, 2, 48009 Bilbao, Biscay, Spain.

Lowenna Waters

1. Joseph Beuys, Lightning with Stag in its glare (Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch) 1958–85. Lightning (Blitzschalg) Bronze, iron Stag (Hirsch) Aluminium Boothia Felix Bronze, iron Goat (Ziege) Bronze Primordial Animals (Urtiere) 35 Bronze casts, 39 parts. Overall dimensions variable ©Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa.