After months of negotiations and public relations campaigns' pros and
cons Lithuanian government gave green light for the establishment of
Guggenheim museum in the capital Vilnius. This will be a joint project
between Lithuania, the Guggenheim and the State Hermitage Museum in
Russia. The most prominent supporter and the locomotive of the project
the former mayor of the capital Arturas Zuokas hopes that the project
will put Lithuania on the cultural map of Europe and draw a different
kind of tourist crowd (which at the moment mainly consists of
stag-partying Brits and Irish, along with hordes of Poles paying
pilgrimage to Adam Mickiewicz).
While the project adds up to a total of 80 million euro, it is
believed that over 400,000 people would visit the museum and in the
next 7 years state and private coffers would start experiencing the
benefits of this gargantuan once-in-a-lifetime project.
Even before the government's blessing some steps have already been
done, although until last week it wasn't clear whether the government
would back up the project and chip in – at least partially. The main
threat for Guggenheim came from the institution that was previously
run by the projects keenest flagman and fomer mayor Zuokas. During his
term he introduced many initiatives in the Lithuanian capital and was
awarded The Outstanding Young Person of the World 2002 title by the
Junior Chamber International.
Yet despite the facelift the capital experienced during his term, he
couldn't avoid harsh critique for some of his ideas, an example of one
being the free public bike system borrowed from Copenhagen. Naïve
folly! The bikes disappeared from the cobbled streets of the Old Town
in less than a week.
The opponents of Guggenheim blame former mayor that the museum will
turn out to be another way of laundering money – an accusation Zuokas
has been facing from his first day in the office. Moreover, current
vice mayor of Vilnius has publicly accused Guggenheim with financial
intrigues and blamed it for colonizing third world countries. Along
came critique from a group of Lithuanian artists and architects
complaining that the government should give priority to the national
art and artists.
Guggenheim as an institution faces various critiques. A prominent
French art critic has dubbed it "a Coca Cola factory with branches
everywhere around the world", other museums point out that it has
metamorphosed into a franchise, while some of the exhibitions were
criticized for the subject matter, i.e. Georgio Armani dresses and BMW
motorcycles. Yet nothing of such a scale has ever happened in
Lithuania yet. It was the first time a number of renowned architects
were competing for the right to erect Guggenheim structure in Vilnius
– among them Daniel Libeskind and Massimiliano Fuksas. Eventually it
was awarded to Zaha Hadid's futuristic design.
It might have earned the name of a franchise for a reason, yet to
stubbornly oppose Guggenheim with wooden crosses, post communist
paraphernalia and local art celebrities would mean to deny the idea of
art as a way of bringing cultures together. Moreover, it would condemn
the country for decades or possibly centuries of terra incognita
status in the eyes of the world. In a recent survey in the UK
Lithuania was voted as the least known European destination.
When in the late 1990s Guggenheim was built in a poverty stricken
Bilbao in the Basque region of Northern Spain, some were suggesting to
use the money to build factories. Today many of the opponents have
become museum's keen supporters with more than a million visitors a
year. Moreover, the museum has contributed more than 1.75 billion euro
to Spain's GDP and helped to maintain 4,500 jobs a year.
Guggenheim might not be the only way to draw more people to Lithuania.
Pubs with smoked sausages, cheap beer and girls will obviously draw
more crowds than avant garde art or Litvak centre that should be
included in the new Guggenheim. I say should. Because after dozens of
disappointing decisions my country has made, I finally have hope in it
again. I don't think we'll be as prosperous as Ireland as soon as our
politicians hope to become, but if Dublin draws tourists for Guinness,
Vilnius could find its own way. And I keep my fingers crossed.
Written for "Metro Eireann"