If San Sebastián was all about the food, Bilbao was supposed to be all about the museum, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, specifically. A modern art museum opened in 1997 and designed by “starchitect” Frank Gehry, the building is widely considered one of the greatest architectural achievements of the last 50 years. It put Bilbao on the map and made it a “must see” destination (if you have the time).And so we went to Bilbao, about 63 miles pretty much due west from San Sebastián where the Nervión River flows into the Bay of Biscay. It’s the biggest city in Basque Country and, like all of the region, had fared well economically in the 19th and early 20th century as Spain industrialized. More recently, though, the region suffered as industries moved to lower-cost parts of the world. In 1981, then, the city suggested to the Guggenheim Foundation that they would finance construction and maintenance of a museum in the then-decrepit port area as part of a major urban revitalization process. The Foundation agreed and, $100 million later, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened to rave reviews.
Since then, Mark and I have noticed that every couple years or so you’ll read about another city negotiating with Guggenheim, hoping to strike gold as Bilbao seems to have done. An agreement is signed and a major architect is selected; most recently we read about an agreement to build a Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki, a city that already has a nice modern art museum that we visited early on in this adventure we’re on. We were wondering if Guggenheim is essentially a franchise operation, sort of the McDonald’s of art museums. I mean, how many of these are there out there? So we asked our friend Lars, who knows a thing or two about museums.As he explained to us, yes we read about the agreements and all that, but none of them have ever come to fruition since that first success in Bilbao. They call it the “Bilbao effect,” how a museum can transform a city. The problem is, it doesn’t work that well. It’s all part of an MBA’s dream about how museums can be financed and how cities can capitalize on those museums, but may not have much actual relationship to what museums are needed or are likely to succeed. The Wall Street Journal suggested it should be known as the Bilbao anomaly, since it’s success seems to be elusive. So for now, at least, this one has worked but the model has not proven exportable.
The building itself is spectacular, all but indescribable. Major architects and critics use words like “fantastic,” “astonishing,” and “brilliant.” Philip Johnson, another of the great architects of the modern era, said that it was simply “the greatest building of our time.” With people like him weighing in, there’s not much to add.
As for the museum itself, meh. There was a great exhibit of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a provocative New York City artist who died in 1988 of a massive heroin overdose, and I enjoyed a huge steel exhibit – The Matter of Time, part of the permanent collection, I think – by Richard Serra, that let’s you get all but lost in huge steel mazes. Otherwise it appeared as though they were more busy either setting up new exhibits or taking down old ones. But, to their credit, they apparently realized that right then there wasn’t a lot to see, as they were letting everyone in for free. Not a bad price, all else equal.We went there, then, to see the museum. The building more than lived up to the hype, but the other star of Bilbo was, again, the food. We were obviously still in Basque Country and we found dozens of little pintxos bars with spectacular displays of food sitting out for your selection. We just can’t get over how much we enjoyed the food in Basque. As I write this from Madrid, I find myself wondering if it was a dream, a fantasy, if food could ever be that good. Fortunately the pictures are solid evidence that yes, it was real and really as beautiful as I remember. I honestly think this may be the best food we’ve ever had anywhere in the world. And, as in San Sebastián, unbelievably inexpensive.
We have to come back to the area some day, preferably after I’ve done some serious dieting. For now, though, it’s down to Madrid as we wind our way south through Spain and across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco.