Can Dundee's V&A Museum replicate the Guggenheim Effect?

By Andrew Anderson
BBC Scotland News

Media caption,
Can the V&A Dundee be the new Guggenheim?

Dundee's V&A Museum of Design opens next week, the centrepiece of the city's £1bn waterfront regeneration.

More than 20 years ago, another European city with a run-down dockland revitalised itself with a multi-million-dollar museum at its heart.

I first visited Bilbao in 1979 - my memory of the city back then was the smell.

The River Nervion, which divides the city in two, was thick with brown sludge, a legacy of Bilbao's shipyards.

Visiting the city this month, I wondered if my memory was exaggerated.

No, people assured me, Bilbao was a stinky city back then - one of the most polluted in Europe.

And that wasn't its only problem. Bilbao's traditional industries, the boatyards and its ironworks were disappearing.

Image source, FMGB Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Image caption,
The museum was built on the site of the city's previously run-down port area

By the 1990s they had gone - and Bilbao desperately needed a big idea.

It so happened the Guggenheim Foundation was looking for a place to site a new art gallery and the Guggenheim Bilbao was born.

Regarded by many as Canadian-born architect Frank Gehry's finest work, it was his decision to place the building alongside the river in the city's decaying port area.

His creation looks like a boat under sail, the titanium-clad tiles shimmering in the sunlight of the Basque country like the scales of a fish.

This building is credited with transforming Bilbao from a city many had not even heard of to a major tourist destination.

But, at first, many in Bilbao were opposed to it.

Image caption,
Asier Abuanza said "almost all the people" were initially opposed to the museum

I met councillor Asier Abuanza, who is in charge of urban planning, outside Bilbao's impressive city hall.

"Almost all the people were against the project," he said.

"Most of the cultural organisations of the Basque country were against this project. Now no-one wants to remember what they said."

Iñaki Esteban, a local journalist and author of the book The Guggenheim Effect, explains.

He said: "It was a worry about the cost of the building because we were in a deep economic crisis.

"And it is true there was also a worry about cultural colonialism because in a country like this with a nationalist majority it was not really well understood that a foreign institution would come here to show art."

Image caption,
Iñaki Esteban said the Guggenheim Bilbao was immediately successful

Once the Guggeheim opened in 1997, Mr Esteban said opinions changed.

He said: "First of all it was cheap, it was 100 million euros, it was a gift.

"It changed the Basque country image and the city image.

"We became an international city in a couple of months. The success was immediate."

Those tasked with making Bilbao's Guggenheim a success expected around 400,000 visitors a year.

Image caption,
The museum attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year

It was nearly three times that in the first full year after opening and has rarely been below a million any year since.

Before the Guggenheim, little more than 20,000 tourists a year went to Bilbao.

Now it is around 1.75 million. Hotels, bars and restaurants have sprung up eager to take the tourist euro.

Eleven hundred miles to the north, Dundee's V&A museum is just days away from welcoming its first visitors.

It's anticipating half a million in the first year and 300,000 each year after that.

As well as the Guggenheim, Bilbao built a new metro, tramline and airport terminal.

Image caption,
Prof Beatriz Plaza said high-speed transport connections between Dundee and Edinburgh are "a must"

Prof Beatriz Plaza, from the University of the Basque Country, said these are things Dundee should be thinking about too.

She said: "Direct connection, high-speed connection with Edinburgh and then perhaps with Glasgow.

"But the fast connectivity with Edinburgh is a must."

Walking around Bilbao now is a very different experience to my first visit 39 years ago.

Throughout the city centre, buildings have been cleaned up, pavements have been widened and traffic reduced.

Bilbao's main shopping street, the Gran Via, is said to rival the Champs Elysees.

The city is not resting on its laurels, there is ambition to achieve even greater success.

Dundee has faced many of the same economic problems as its counterpart in the Basque country.

It is hoping the £80.1m V&A museum will bring benefits like those Bilbao has enjoyed in the last two decades.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.