Thursday, April 4, 2013

On Museums and the Value of Culture (Bilbao)

Economics has ruined me.

I got to thinking about the economics of expensive architectural/cultural works when we arrived in Bilbao, home of the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, the city's main cultural monument. We had decided to spend the last night of our road trip through northern Spain here and spent the evening taking pictures of this beautiful structure by the riverfront.

Afterwards on the way to dinner, a Spanish friend we met up with told me that the museum had cost $100 million to build. As museums go, I guess that's not ridiculous, and in fact the Guggenheim has more than paid for itself with its positive effect on Bilbao's tourism industry and the renovation of the dilapidated riverfront area bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs each year. The project was so successful that the term "The Bilbao Effect" was coined to describe this type of urban renewal.

The problem is that you can't buy one hundred Guggenheims and get one hundred Bilbao Effects in one hundred cities. The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia is a great example. Built during the same boom time in Spain, the complex cost the region $1.5 billion to build and millions more to upkeep. Sure, the complex brings tourists (I actually went a few weeks ago and loved it) but the region is also deeply in debt and the economic benefits don't seem to be equaling those of Bilbao's.

The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia (it looks like the future!)

Spain is dotted with grand airport terminals in medium-sized cities built during the boom times that are now half-empty, with sports complexes that struggle to stay in the black.

What I wonder is, what exactly were the Spanish paying for? Was it for objects of beauty that add to the cultural patrimony of the nation? Does that mean Valencia's $1.5 billion worth of "culture" has more value than Bilbao's $100 million? Is the cultural value or beauty of a monument or museum enough to justify these gargantuan sums, or should cities mainly consider how much revenue an attraction might bring? If a public work is primarily built to convince rich Germans and Japanese to come, snap photos and stay in hotels, does that degrade its cultural value?

The next morning, my eyes tracing over the undulating curves of the Guggenheim, we drove out of the city and I thought about the value of culture.