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Helsinki Guggenheim museum debates

Submitted by on April 20, 2012 – 6:39 pm |  
Helsinki may soon become home to a new member of the Guggenheim museum family. The proposed Guggenheim Helsinki would focus on Finnish art, a stronger emphasis on architecture and design than other Guggenheim affiliates. The proposed site for the museum is the area of Katajanokka near Helsinki’s South Harbor waterfront, on the site of the old Kanavaterminaali (“Channel Terminal”), which is now being demolished (see image). The total area of the museum would be approximately 12,000 square meters, with 3,920 square meters devoted to exhibition galleries, making it similar in size to Helsinki’s Kiasma contemporary art museum. The museum is expected to draw about half a million visitors a year.

However, debates surrounding the proposed new museum, especially the funding issues and the juxtaposition with the already existing contemporary art museum, may yet sink the proposal. The estimated costs are 140 million euros, to be funded through a combination of public, private, and corporate sources. However, very little money has been raised to date. Culture Minister Paavo Arhinmäki has repeatedly stated that his ministry cannot bankroll the project. He also said that “the Helsinki brand is stronger than that of Guggenheim and the museum would profit more from the partnership than the city”. While Mr. Arhinmäki stated in January that “not a single ministry has marked themselves as Guggenheim’s sponsor”, more recently the Ministry of Employment and the Economy announced that it is prepared to sponsor the architectural competition for a potential Guggenheim museum, provided that the building will be constructed from wood, as it would promote Finnish timber construction. Yet, the financing they offer is a mere 800,000 euros. Helsinki City Council members, which were originally scheduled to make a decision regarding the new museum in late January, still require more time to come to an agreement, as partisan divisions may prove irreconcilable. To resolve these issues, Helsinki Mayor Jussi Pajunen proposed to take an incremental approach: an architectural competition would be launched this year and a foundation set up to arrange financing for the museum, but the final decision about the museum constructions is being delayed until 2013, after a new City Council will be elected.

But many in Finland’s art world are suggesting that canceling the Guggenheim project would free funds for other, more important cultural undertakings. For example, a group of more than 100 prominent artists suggested this week that the money could be put to better use for the renewal of Helsinki City Art Museum. This renovation project would cost some 5 million euros, approximately the same amount that the municipality has earmarked for the Guggenheim project.

The Guggenheim Foundation, which currently runs museums in New York, Venice, Bilbao (Spain), Berlin, and Abu Dhabi (UAE), is reported to be in “no hurry for Helsinki decision-makers to come to a conclusion regarding the proposed new art museum in Finland”, as it is now focused on closing its museum in Berlin. Several other Guggenheim museum projects, including Guggenheim Guadalajara (Mexico) and Vilnius Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, have been conceived but eventually cancelled, due to environmental issues and especially funding problems. Some art journalists have suggested that the existing Guggenheim museums in New York, Bilbao, and Abu Dhabi are better-known for their buildings than for what is inside them.

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