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Art for whose sake? Modern art museums and their role in transforming societies: The case of the Guggenheim Bilbao.


ABSTRACT: In the past two decades the industrial decline of many western economies has forced them to turn towards the tertiary sector in order to diversify their infrastructure and find new sources of income. One of the characteristics of this process was the development of urban regeneration plans, which recognised the potential of the cultural sector for economic development. Central to this approach was the use of modern art museums as magnets for tourism and inward investment. This practice has produced a number of examples, the most famous being the Guggenheim Bilbao. The phenomenal success of this museum has caused it to become a model and this is why it ought to be examined critically. The creation of the museum is initially considered in the frame-work of particular historical and political circum-stances. It is then placed in the context of the local cultural policy, a combination of theory and local political aspirations. The involvement of the external factor the Guggenheim Foundation is considered next, followed by an assessment of the museum in both quantifiable and non-quantifiable terms. Lastly, the preference shown in modern art museums to play this role is discussed. It is concluded that the Gug-genheim Bilbao is the outcome of special political and socioeconomic circumstances, which renders it a unique case that should not be replicated uncritically.

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