Helsinki Rejects New Guggenheim Museum

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Finland's capital, Helsinki, has a pretty happening cultural life. The city was named a world design capital this year; it boasts 80 museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, a building with a striking design that opened in 1998. It's not surprising that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation wanted to join the scene. It proposed a building a new Guggenheim museum of Helsinki's waterfront, but city officials have now turned down the project saying it would cost too much. Mark Bosworth reports for the BBC in Helsinki. He says the Guggenheim thought its project was a good fit for the Finish capital.

Mark Bosworth: The Guggenheim said it chose Helsinki as a location for one of its museums because of a strong local interest and a big tradition in art and design, as well as Helsinki's plans to further develop its harbor area. Now if approved this would've been the sixth Guggenheim museum in the world, the other museums being in New York, Venice, Berlin, Abu Dhabi and of course, this iconic building on the waterfront in Bilbao in Northern Spain, which was designed by Frank Gehry. But a notice on the Helsinki city council website stated quite simply that the city board rejects the project, this under the equally mundane Decision Bulletin No. 17, all very mundane endings for a highly controversial subject, which has really gripped the people of Helsinki.

Werman: Right well maybe there's something to be seen in what the culture minister of Finland had warned at one point – this museum would cost nearly $200 million and the culture minister said it would cost the Finish taxpayers too much.

Bosworth: That's right, well a study commissioned by the city of Helsinki in January of this year showed that the museum also expected to cost around 140 million euros. Now that's about $184 million US dollars. The plus side they said was that this would help boost cultural tourism to the country, but the Finish culture minister, Paavo Arhinmaki, he's been extremely skeptical towards these plans, and now he's assumed that the Finish taxpayers would actually end up paying close to 100 million euros of those constructions costs.

Werman: Right, that's about $130 million. And I understand Finland's artist community was also worried about their financial resources if this museum was built.

Bosworth: That's right, and the opponents to these plans argued that the costs were too much, considering the current economic climate, Finland being a member of the Eurozone and the real fear amongst those artists was that with so much money going towards this new Guggenheim project, that money would be diverted away from funding which is much needed for the local artist community here.

Werman: Mark, it seems to me that five years ago or so no major capital on earth would've turned down a Guggenheim museum, I mean its prestige, it draws tourists as we see in Bilbao, Spain with the Guggenheim museum there. Is this story more about the current austerity that has gripped Europe, do you think?

Bosworth: I think it could well be. As you mentioned Bilbao, that building designed by Frank Ghery, we all know what that building looks like. It's so iconic. Many of us would never have gone to Bilbao until that museum was built, and it did wonders for Bilbao. When the idea was first mentioned many people in Helsinki did want a Guggenheim museum, but of course the current economic climate proved to be a major factor.

Werman: Now, Mark, I understand the Guggenheim has not totally put this project in the trash, so it's assured by their foundation and museum director in New York. What are the scenarios by which the Guggenheim museum proposal for Helsinki might still happen?

Bosworth: Well, as things stand at the moment there will be no Guggenheim on the waterfront in Helsinki. And now the situation is this – the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, Richard Armstrong, said the museum would've benefited the city and in a statement released earlier he accepts that the commission has made this decision, but he's come out saying he doesn't want to go to Bergen, he doesn't want to go to Oslo or Copenhagen, he wants to go to Finland and the Helsinki region where he says they have so much to learn. He says he's disappointed, but he's ready to continue the struggle. So at the moment this story is certainly from over.

Werman: Mark Bosworth with the BBC in Helsinki, thank you very much for your time.

Bosworth: Thanks, Marco.