Guggenheim director sees popularity of Bilbao Museum as argument for Helsinki project
“Are there people lining up in front of the Ateneum art museum on a weekday morning? And what about Kiasma?”
Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, eagerly shows the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He still wants to persuade the people of Helsinki to agree to set up the museum, even though the City Board rejected the project on Wednesday in an 8-7 vote.
Is this a fair comparison? The Guggenheim Foundation did not promise Helsinki that there would be over a million visitors each year as is the case in New York. The estimate was that the museum would attract half a million people a year.
Armstrong points out that the study on visitors was conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, and he asked them for a cautious estimate.
“I am more optimistic myself! Helsinki could ultimately attract as many visitors as Bilbao, which gets nearly a million visitors each year, because Helsinki is so amazingly great!”
So if Helsinki is so attractive, then why does the Guggenheim Foundation demand conditions that decision-makers would not agree to?
“The conditions were agreed together with Mayor Jussi Pajunen.”
Why did the taxpayers shoulder all of the risks, and why didn’t you agree to link your fees to ticket sales?
“We don’t work like that anywhere in the world. It is not the regular way for a non-profit foundation.”
So why did you want to charge nearly a million euros for the architectural competition, and demand a deposit of EUR 1.5 million in case Helsinki were to withdraw from the project after the architecture competition?
“When the Guggenheim Foundation organises an architecture competition, more and better architects participate than if we were not involved. You have to pay for quality.”
Armstrong was surprised when the Helsinki City Board commissioned a study, but did not want to see what kind of architecture might have been on offer.
“The logic of politicians is not always within the grasp of the rest of us.”
Does Armstrong think that architectural greats such as Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel might have been persuaded to join the competition? Surprisingly, Armstrong yawns when he hears the names.
“It would be more interesting if the winner were a fresher name who would do something completely new.”
Out of Finnish wood, perhaps?
“I think that it is an interesting idea”, he says, and again his eyes gleam with enthusiasm.
Richard Armstrong worked as a curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and as Director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where he had also served as Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Art, before moving to the Guggenheim Museum & Foundation in 2008 as the successor to the somewhat controversial and "showmanlike" Thomas Krens, who held the job for two decades.
Armstrong sees the restoration of the integrity of the Guggenheim Foundation to be his task. He wants to restore the idealism that made the foundation world-famous.
Why this obsession with Finland, considering that there are plenty of requests for a museum coming in from other cities?
“Helsinki is the best! I want the Abu Dhabi museum to be completed, and to get one museum into Finland. Then the museum network will be complete as far as I am concerned.”
This would mean large museums in New York, Bilbao, Abu Dhabi, and Helsinki. The Venice museum, which was financed through a bequest, is smaller, and the museum in Berlin, which is closing, is just a corner of a building owned by Deutsche Bank.
“Each museum has its own profile. My successor might possibly consider one museum in South America, but it is not a good idea to make the network any bigger.”
Armstrong still speaks in the present tense, even though the project was rejected. Does he really have anything new to offer that might affect the next City Council?
“I am ready to try. Our interest in Helsinki is not just a fleeting fancy.”
Previously in HS International Edition:
Guggenheim not giving up on Helsinki, despite rejection by City Board (3.5.2012)
Helsinki Greens take increasingly critical view of Guggenheim project (27.4.2012)Helsinki Greens take increasingly critical view of Guggenheim project (27.4.2012)
Majority of members of Helsinki City Council oppose Guggenheim (28.2.2012)
Guggenheim chooses Helsinki over Taipei, Rio, and Guadalajara (19.1.2011)
EDITORIAL: Helsinki rejects foreign art (3.5.2012)