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The Eye of the conservator - Petra Maria Joos: The Guggenheim Effect

Guggenheim Bilbao

Chief conservator of the Guggenheim Bilbao, she talks to us about the spirit and the history of the museum that has just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Petra Maria Joos is the chief conservator and curator of the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao since 2000. Previously, she was first in charge of the exhibitions at the National Museum-Centre of Art Reine Sofia of Madrid during 1990 and 1991, then the director of the Fondation Bancaja of Valence from 1992 to 1999.

Renaud Siegmann: Hailed by the whole world as a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Frank Gehry opened up to the public in October, 1997; what were the origins of this ambitious project which has become the cultural and artistic icon of the Basque country?

Petra Joos: It is a story of a lucky encounter. At that time, the Foundation Solomon R. Guggenheim was not hiding its wish to expand into Europe, due to the increasing demand of displaying its collection in full scope, and most importantly, near to new audiences. On the part of Bilbao, the city was undergoing a serious industrial crisis. Aware of the necessary change that it should bring about, the city entered upon a project of economical and urban rejuvenation. It was at this point that the ungrudging approach, if not to say visionary, of the Basque government and the provincial authorities of Biscaye allowed the Guggenheim project to initiate. Our contribution in terms of museographical establishment has obviously helped the architectural and cultural development of Bilbao. This is what people have termed as 'the Guggenheim Effect'!

This was a daring bet, considering the expenditures that people needed to make it…
That's right, the Basque country has taken much risk: some €150m for the museum, the collection and the authorisation to use the name 'Guggenheim' for a period of 25 years. Obviously, this has raised a general outcry, a very strong opposition followed by lasting polemics against this project which the criticisers regarded as extravagant and inappropriate. Meanwhile. Bilbao has always maintained relationships with the outside world. Thanks to its industrial heritage, its naval construction, its maritime history, there is a tradition of openness here. In the end, strategic calculations made its stakes on the Guggenheim, in estimating that it could attract 500,000 people per year. In the first year, the museum almost tripled this objective, it received 1,300,000 visitors!

Petra Joos

Renaud Siegmann: How have these numbers developed throughout this period?
Petra Joos: In ten years, the Guggenheim Bilbao has welcomed almost 10 million visitors, of which 5.5 million are from abroad. This is around 1 million entries per year, knowing that 9 out of 10 visitors do not come from Euskadi.

Renaud Siegmann: And what about the impact of the museum's activities on the economy of the Basque country?
Petra Joos: It is estimated that the revenue created since the opening of the museum for the independent community is €1,5md in PIB, and the supplementary incomings of the treasury are touching the sum of €260m, without mentioning the maintenance of around 4,500 job posts each year.

Renaud Siegmann: What is the overall budget of the Guggenheim and how is it financed?
Petra Joos: Our annual budget for its operation rises to around €20m, of which 30% come from public funds; the remaining 70% are from our own activities, including the support of the adherents of the museum membership which comprise around 16,000 members, and the support of our 150 patron companies. Today, this mode of management allows us to stand on equal footing with the best cultural institutions of Europe in terms of independent finances.

Renaud Siegmann: On the museological level, what is the policy of the Guggenheim at Bilbao?
Petra Joos: In the overall framework of its adherence to the network of the Guggenheim museums in the world, our permanent collection derives naturally from the resources shared by our Foundation. Parallel to this, the creation of the Guggenheim Bilbao has meant the constitution of a distinct collection, which would serve as a complementary component, but commencing from a personal identity, whilst emphasising the relationships between European and American art…This collection which begins chronologically from the second half of the 20th century has been enriched along four major lines: 'masterpieces and extraordinary works'; 'Basque and Spanish art'; 'site-specific works', and 'visions in profundity'.

Renaud Siegmann: What art works do these four categories correspond to, for example?
Petra Joos: In 'masterpieces and extraordinary works' are the works that one could regard as seminal in the history of art. One can find Joseph Beuys's Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958-85), Louise Bourgeois's Maman (1999), Rothko's Untitled (1951-52) or de Kooning's Villa Borghese (1960). In 'Basque and Spanish art', there are remarkable representative works such as those by Saura, Barcelo, Tapiès, Chillida. In 'site-specific works', conceived for the specific spaces in the museum, we can cite as examples the Installation for Bilbao (1997) by Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons's Puppy (1992), Richard Serra's The Matter of Time (2004) or Daniel Buren's Red Arcs (2007), which were created especially for the bridge of the Salve which adjoins the museum. Finally in 'visions in profundity', which undertakes to collect the works of the major contemporary artists, one can find notably Kiefer, Oteiza or even Cy Twombly, whose Nine discourses on Commodus that were completed in Rome in 1963, have featured the most recent acquisitions of the museum.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Renaud Siegmann: What about the annual budget for acquisitions?
Petra Joos: Circa €6-7m.

Renaud Siegmann: How is your programme of exhibitions formulated?
Petra Joos: During ten years, our programming has concentrated on almost a hundred expositions of which one half are complementary to the permanent collection; as for the other half, they are for temporary shows (according to the number of visitors): diverse retrospectives dedicated to the great contemporary artists, Nam June Paik (417,545), Rothko (451,275), Rosenquist (487,582), Chillida (501,321), Kiefer (576,214), Calder (582,799); and also specific trends of artistic creation like the prestigious collective shows such as The Art of the Motocycle (870,776), From Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections (556,166), and finally, the most ancient anthological courses such as The Aztec Empire (607,699) or Russia! (621,188)…

Renaud Siegmann: And your annual budget for expositions?
Petra Joos: About €6-7m.

Renaud Siegmann: Do you have contacts with other institutions?
Petra Joos: It is impossible to achieve exhibitions of such scope completely independently without sharing the expenses. This is why we work regularly with different institutions of renown other than the Guggenheim museums of New York, Venice, Berlin and Las Vegas, and our partners are the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, or The State Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg, not forgetting to mention the Royal Academy of London, Dallas Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Schirn Kunsthalle of Frankfurt, the Foundation Beyeler of Basel, and the National Museum-Centre of Art Reina Sofia of Madrid.

Renaud Siegmann: Are there no French institutions?
Petra Joos: No, not yet, but we would be glad if there is such an opportunity…
After ten years of activity, has the experience of the Guggenheim Bilbao changed the view of the Basque people on contemporary art?
Generally speaking, it is thought that roughly one generation is necessary to change public opinions. But contemporary art is not a matter of nationality, it is not something that should have been invented by Americans or Europeans. Nor is it a question of assuming that there is only a single and undifferentiating language for artistic, cultural or creative acts that one can call contemporary art. In this sense, we wish to open up our themes of exhibitions more to other fields which are equally diverse, such as fashion, design, architecture, photography, video art, and performances…Which is to say, a multi-disciplinary approach to the whole ensemble of forms, which is the current language of contemporaneity.

Renaud Siegmann: What is your primary challenge at the moment? The education of the public?
Petra Joos: Of course! On the occasion of this tenth anniversary, we have also proposed an exercise of reflection under the title of the Guggenheim Generation, concerning what the museum has meant to the city of Bilbao, including the studios of theatre and dance that are meant for all those who are born and who have grown up side by side with the museum; for example, the 10-year-old children nowadays who have witnessed the museum's growth. That's exactly what we want to bring to the public, through all the practical and pedagogical means, in the hope that we could establish a purely natural relationship with art. Yes, I find this challenge really essential.

Interview noted down by Renaud Siegmann

Current expositions: Art in the USA-300 years of innovation, until April 27, 2008; Surrealist Things, until September 7, 2008.

Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao: architect: Frank O. Gehry; inaugurated on October 19, 1997; coating with titanium leaves. Dimensions: more than 50 meters in height, 30,000m² in ground surface, with 24,000m² of operational surface, and 20 naturally-lighted halls offering 11,000m² of exhibition space.

Petra Maria Joos was designated in 2000 as the conservator in chief and curator of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
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