20th Anniversary of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: Utopia and Reality

Although, as I sat down to write this column, it was the events occurring in our sisterland Catalonia which tugged at my heart-strings, it seemed nevertheless, only right to dedicate this article to the Guggenheim Bilbao Project, in honour of its 20th anniversary; a birthday which was celebrated with the "Reflections" spectacle, an audio-visual feast projected onto the titanium-clad façade of this architectural masterpiece which adorns and embellishes our city.

Firstly, I want to offer my utmost congratulations to those who, through an exercise in responsibility, imagination, risk-taking, commitment and bravery, set the wheels in motion for the development of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. In fact, it came precisely at a time when it was difficult to imagine the realisation of such a dream and its subsequent international success. Furthermore, we must applaud our Basque institutions for their ability to dream and believe in such an innovative and high-risk project, which would significantly change the face and shape of Bilbao and put the city, and Euskadi, firmly and clearly on the map. So, though Salzburg's vain bid to attract the Museum paved the way for Bilbao initially, it was the ambitious vision in the Basque approach which turned the opportunity into reality.

As one of the most influential writers in the world of Management, Gary Hamel says, entrepreneurial and social projects are always fruit of a dream in which a future unimaginable to the majority, is perceived. The Guggenheim is of such importance that Hamel's book, "Leading the Revolution: How to Thrive in Turbulent Times by Making Innovation a Way of Life" offers the image of the Museum as its main icon representing the need for achievable utopias whereby a revolutionary cause has the power to transform competitive spaces.

For those of us old enough to have been around at the time, (for the rest of you there are the newspaper and periodicals libraries!), we recall the bitter opposition the Museum project faced from a wide spectrum of society; amongst the opposition were Trade Unions, The Media, key business leaders, a large section of the Basque artistic community as well as the society as a whole. I find it amusing to see how so many of the organisations who were extremely critical of the project at the time, are now actually on the Board, and in fact, use the Museum as part of their institutional and commercial strategy.

It would be unfair to say that the dream became reality thanks to luck or chance. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. The Basque Institutions assert that from its inception, the project contained all the elements necessary to strengthen the ongoing process of transformation of Bilbao from industrial decline to a modern, 21st Century city. And thus, as part of that process, The Guggenheim would be a catalyst for the recuperation of pride and hope. It would also help achieve a new international projection for the country and importantly, it would break the dynamic of frustration; a frustration due to a bleak political and economic panorama, where unacceptable levels of political violence and high unemployment (1 in 4 Basques) marred the region.

What most Basques are unaware of is the fact that the specific opportunity presented was subjected to rigorous analysis and exhaustive discussions between the Basque Institutions and Guggenheim New York. The Viability Plan and The Operational Plan were drafted with the participation of numerous business professionals from the fields of art and architecture etc., so that long term viability would be ensured in the design. I invite anyone interested in analysing the process, to take a retrospective look, and note that most of the elements of the model were clearly defined in the initial planning stage. It is precisely the coherence of the project, over the course of its 20 years' existence, which has made the institution the great success story it is today.

From my perspective, the business world can take many lessons from the example of the Guggenheim Project. As I identify these pearls of wisdom, I try not to focus on the huge importance that the project has as an instrument in publicly promoting our country.

The immutable alliance of strategic planning and implementation has been noteworthy. The initial dream, its raison d’être so to speak, took shape and materialised within an operational framework developed with strategic congruence. It is not only the Museum itself which generated wealth (although it had a significant impact), but rather the correct planning and realisation of each and every one of its activities.

The partnership between Basque institutions and the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, (a relationship not without its challenges and rocky moments), is an example of how institutions can be mutually beneficial. The business world, who continually laments the difficulty of inter-company collaboration, (according to numerous studies), should nonetheless, be able to glean some lessons from this success story.

It seems to me that there are few examples of quality museum management, and how the Museum works hand-in-glove with governmental organisations. The stability, commitment and pride of human resources and workers collectively, the continued renewal and updating of exhibitions, the attention to the public, the co-operation with various voluntary and non-voluntary bodies affiliated to the Museum, and finally, the unchallengeable commitment to social cohesion, all combine to make the management model of this Museum what it is, over the course of its 20 year history.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, "I sell my dreams." I’m grateful that those who offered to dream such a unifying and regenerating project in the midst of a sad society where a sense of identity and pride were dwindling. However, at the same time, I am happy that they remembered Pablo Picasso's words of wisdom: "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working." Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is the harmony of dreams, connection, sweat and results.

Read the original article in El Economista (Spanish).

Sabin Azua

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