The Guggenheim foundation started off in 1929 when the wealthy American industrialist Solomon R. Guggenheim, together with his artistic advisor Hilla Rebay, obtained a large amount of important modern paintings by the likes of Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Marc Chagall.
This growing collection was first installed in his private apartment at the Plaza Hotel in New York, occasionally holding small exhibitions for the public. One of these loan exhibitions was titled Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings, which successfully toured Charleston (South Carolina), Philadelphia and Baltimore. Following from this landmark exhibition, the foundation was formed and founded in 1937 for the ‘promotion and encouragement and education in art and the enlightenment of the public’. Since then the Guggenheim Foundation has developed a comprehensive collection of 20th-century art and organized an extensive exhibition program. It currently oversees three major museums: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (restored and expanded in 1992 by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates); the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy (renovated and expanded in 1995 by Leila and Massimo Vignelli); and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
The construction of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum gave the city the chance to transform its image internationally. From a rusting industrial city into a cultural mecca, this construction helped grow a thriving tourist industry virtually from scratch. The original plans for the building date back to the late 1980s, when the Basque administration began formulating a redevelopment program for the city. The administration’s goal was to diversify the city’s economic base by building upon its traditional shipbuilding and heavy manufacturing industries. From the beginning, the architecture of the building was to be recognized as the main factor, continuing the traditional approach begun by the foundation when Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design the original museum on New York’s Fifth Avenue. The Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry was entrusted with the task of designing the museum, largely because his conceptions reflected the project’s enormous potential by integrating the building into the fabric of the city of Bilbao and into its ongoing urban regeneration plan.
Gehry’s huge sculpture-like building is fashioned from a surprising array of materials. The juxtaposition of fragmented volumes with regular forms finished in stone, curved forms covered with titanium and huge glass walls, and the atrium, a monumentally empty space crowned by a metal dome. Daylight floods in through the glass walls and the skylight set high up in the dome. Leading off from this central space, a system of curved walkways, glass lifts, and stairways connect 19 galleries that combine classical, rectangular spaces with others of unusual proportions and forms.
The permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao includes works by the most prominent artists of the last forty years of this century and is supplemented by works from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. These include significant examples of Pop Art, Minimalism, Arte Povera, Conceptual Art and Abstract Expressionism. Further, a number of rooms are devoted to in-depth installations and other to site-specific works specially commissioned for this museum. One fine example is Richard Serra’s monumental site-specific installation The Matter of Time (2005), the largest sculpture commission in history. Basque and Spanish contemporary art are also represented by a selection of works by the best artists in the field.
In the original proposal for the Vilnius Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Lithuania, organizers hoped to make a success similar to Bilbao, building next to the White Bridge in the Lithuanian capital. The project planned to develop a new city center situated in the main financial district of Vilnius, a crossroad of West and East with diverse cultural life. This seemed the perfect location, placing Lithuania as an international tourism center. However, the initial plan had drawn controversial reactions in Lithuania, and Vilnius prosecutors opened an investigation into large-scale embezzlement in August 2010. It was launched in response to conclusions of the State Audit Office, which said that the Vilnius municipality had unlawfully earmarked 810,000 litas (£200,670) for the Jonas Mekas Centre of Visual Arts, which the center later spent on the Guggenheim project. With this scandal, the project was never finalized.
The London-based architect Zaha Hadid won a competition to design the museum in Vilnius with ergonomic, compact, functional, and contextual building proposals. The museum would have focused on exhibitions of new media art, stored parts of the New York City anthology film archive, and house a permanent collection of Fluxus art, an art movement which flourished in New York in the 1960s, led by Lithuanian-born artist George Maciunas.
With some mystery still masking this termination, it could be questioned whether this failure was all down to political opposition and scandal. Following the end of the Vilnius Guggenheim initiative, Finland received the opportunity to develop the museum in Helsinki. This museum was the brainchild of Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén, director of The Helsinki Arts Museum, who has been known to be friendly with the Finnish left-leaning arts crowd. His involvement helped the opponents of the project label the Guggenheim franchise as an ‘ArtDonald’s’. They see these museums that spread Western ‘fast art’ as dangerous and overwhelming art spaces that would overshadow the country’s local artists. Despite this opposition, the success of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum spawned an entirely new phrase in culture-fuelled regeneration, described as ‘the Guggenheim effect’.
A new addition to the network is currently being built on an artificial island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, also designed by Frank Gehry. The foundation is also looking at building new museums in Salzburg, Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Taiwan, Tokyo, Osaka, Mexico, St Petersburg, as well as the second one in New York.