Panem et circenses, Part II

10 May 2012 | This 'n' that

The Guggenheim Foundation's global network of museums

Helsinki has said no thanks to a new Guggenheim art museum in the city – for the time being, at least.

On 2 May the City Council voted 8-7 against the mayor’s motion to build such a gallery in Helsinki. Politically, the move was supported by the National Coalition Party and the Swedish People’s Party, while the Greens and the left-wing parties opposed it.

What happens after the upcoming national elections – in autumn this year – is another matter. The director of the Guggenheim Foundation, Richard Armstrong, is persistent: he says he wants Helsinki.  Well, if the Foundation offers a better deal in the future, the proposal may be considered again.

Three months ago we wondered – see Panem et circenses – whether ‘the people of Helsinki wish to begin to pay additional taxes for the revival, yet again, of the age-old dream of guaranteeing Finland “a place on the world map”, in a situation where economic difficulties are a matter of everyday life for increasing numbers of them? (We believe, incidentally, that Finland already has an appropriate place on the world map.) Will their opinion be asked, or heard?’

Since then, it has been announced that Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin will close its doors at the end of 2012. The construction of the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi building (designed by Frank Gehry) is estimated to finish in 2015 instead of 2013. The other three museums are in New York, Venice and Bilbao.

The total cost of the Guggenheim Helsinki for the next 20 years would have been approximately 300 million euros (design and cost of a new building, maintenance – admission fees deducted – and a 20-year Guggenheim licence fee). The Finnish government has not promised to finance the museum –  by the way, the Ministry of Education has had to cut grants to state-aided museums by three million euros this year. No art-minded private sponsors of a future Guggenheim announced themselves in the public either.

The public debate made it clear that the deep ranks of Helsinki taxpayers don’t want a costly new monument that would be expected mainly to attract possible tourists – and for which the brand, the Guggenheim Foundation, would not be taking any financial risks whatsoever. People worried about the fate of the existing art museums (there is a good supply of them in Helsinki and neighbouring Espoo) – as well as about the grim-looking future prospects and cuts in public spending.

The deep ranks were pretty vociferous, and a number of the city council members  clearly reconsidered.

The wide and heated public debate resulted, however, in interesting, spontaneous plans for the future: a new form of co-operation, entitled Checkpoint Helsinki, consisting of more than 150 artists and arts professionals, aims to found a new organisation to encourage the production of new, internationally interesting works of art. The base for this would be the existing collections of the Helsinki Art Museum; as a new building is necessary (as the existing one in Meilahti has to be replaced due to structural problems), this would be an opportunity to join forces in developing the art scene in the city as well as securing an international audience for it.

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