When you say the name “Guggenheim”, several things can come to mind. If you’re a New Yorker, you’re probably thinking of the Guggenheim Museum on 5th Avenue and East 89th. If you’re an Italian, maybe you’re thinking of the Guggenheim Museum on Venice’s Grand Canal. If you’re a Spaniard, surely you’re thinking of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. And if you hail from Abu Dhabi or Helsinki, plans for your very own Guggenheim are at the forefront of your mind – along with the hefty price tag attached to such new ventures. So when did the name “Guggenheim” stop being just a name and start growing into one of the most globally renowned art museums it is today?
The original Guggenheim Museum is located in New York and informally known as simply “The Guggenheim”. Founded in 1939 by Solomon R. Guggenheim as part of his Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the collection and preservation of art, it was originally called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting and located at 24 East 54th Street. A growing collection called for a permanent building, and the architectural, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building was completed in 1959, after the deaths of both Guggenheim and Wright himself. It was then renamed to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in his honor. After his death, his Foundation continued to grow, moving on to establish two more museums: The Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice, Italy, founded by his niece, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in Bilbao, Spain. Two more museums are planned in Abu Dhabi and Helsinki.
The Guggenheims are known just as much for their architecture as their artwork. Frank Lloyd Wright’s polarizing and unique work, based on ziggurats, has become a landmark in its own right. Frank Gehry, who has designed two of the museums, Bilbao and the upcoming Abu Dhabi, took a more creative approach to both while still complementing the surrounding landscape and creating a structure that is as admired as it is functional. For the Finnish museum, new architecture duo Moreau Kusunoki won an international competition to design the Helsinki structure, which will feature dark paneling, a lighted tower and a rooftop patio to connect the structures. The growing Guggenheim family certainly knows how to make an entrance.
Where does the funding come from to continue expanding the Guggenheim museum empire? New York was internally funded by Guggenheim himself and cost a mere $3 million to construct in the 1950s. Bilbao and the upcoming Helsinki foot their bill to the city. The Basque government in Bilbao famously covered the museum’s $100 million construction budget and the building was seen as an investment that would bring in tourist money. Helsinki is being funded by the Finnish state and the city itself; presumably, so is Abu Dhabi.
A funny thing about the Guggenheims are their penchant to be subversive long before they are even actually built. The original Guggenheim in New York, which is now hailed as an architectural masterpiece and work of art in its own right, was originally railed against and controversial, with its odd, circular interior shape, difficult for actually displaying art, being a particular bone of contention among curators and historians alike. So the Guggenheim Helsinki, which has already alienated residents who are balking at both the €130 million price tag and the museum’s design (which some think is too dark and starkly different from its surroundings), is merely following in its originators footsteps. In Abu Dhabi, the construction has experienced a flurry of funding-based setbacks and delays, as well as controversy based around the ethical treatment of workers. Once expected for completion in 2015, it has now been pushed back to 2017. A start or completion date for Helsinki have not yet been announced.
Despite the ever-present criticisms, the museums continue to flourish internationally, with attendance rates remaining high worldwide. “Guggenheim” has now come to stand for some of the most famed museums in the world, both in architecture and in collection. Whatever controversy the Guggenheims bring, their legacy is lasting. The only question is: where will the next one be?