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Bilbao’s Economy Purrs from Effect of Guggenheim Museum

Bilbao museum

Locals in Bilbao say an art museum helped save the Spanish city from decline. Now they are glad to know their savior, the Guggenheim, will be staying for some time, AFP said.

With the initial lease set to expire, the U.S.-based Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation announced on Dec. 9 it would sign an agreement to run its museum in the northern port city for another 20 years, the report said.

That was double the period previously envisaged for the new contract, and for those involved it was another sign that the museum is a winning formula.

The northern Basque port was a run-down mess in the early 1990s before the contemporary art museum ensconced itself there in its titanium building, local leaders said, according to the report.

“It is a real miracle that the Guggenheim is in Bilbao. This was a junkyard before, ” said the city’s mayor Ibon Areso.

The banks of Bilbao’s Nervion River were dirty and dotted with abandoned factories before the launching of the project that led to the Guggenheim opening in 1997, AFP said.

“We were in a terrible state. There was high unemployment, industries had shut down, there were lots of drugs and the city hadn’t been cleaned up for many years, ” said Inaki Esteban, author of the book “The Guggenheim Effect.”

The $170-million museum was part of a plan to transform the city and diversify its economy, but it was controversial at the time. “People didn’t see how a museum could be an economic motor, ” Esteban said.

Now the area is brightly lit with parks and bicycle lanes woven around the ship-shaped metallic museum building designed by Canadian-born U.S. architect Frank Gehry.

Seventeen million visitors have come through its doors, and hotel stays in Bilbao have soared as foreigners have flocked to the city, the report said.

The Guggenheim directly or indirectly employs 5, 000 people, and has brought in 3.5 billion euros ($4.3 billion) in revenue to the region, officials said, according to the report.

Within a year of the museum opening, it had generated 144 million euros for the Basque region, and the city’s unemployment rate has decreased to one of the lowest in Spain.

Other cities have since imitated the “Bilbao effect” though not all have succeeded, mayor Areso said.

“There is much more to it than just putting a museum there. Bilbao’s transformation would have been possible even without the Guggenheim. But we wouldn’t have become so well-known internationally.”

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