The Guggenheim Effect: How Art Saved a City

Andrew Park ’25 finds a spin on art in the real world, exploring its effects on society through the Guggenheim Effect.


When you type in Google: “how to improve a city’s livability,” you’ll probably find a laundry list of policy proposals that mention taxes, social welfare programs, and economic stimuli. But we all know that Google lacks creativity, so what happens when this sky-high pile of proposals is viewed from an “artistic standpoint?”

Before and after the construction of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.

Twenty years ago, the city of Bilbao in Spain was filled with unsanitary sewage, rotten stenches, and floods that severely hampered the overall economy. At the same time, Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry was at the apex of his career, having designed the fish statue for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. And so, the government of Bilbao “reeled in” Gehry as their architect for a potential engineering feat in the center of their city. After millions of dollars in public funding and truckloads of titanium getting fed into the gigantic beast, construction was finally finished on the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. The museum immediately won a number of prestigious awards, foreshadowing the potential good that would come from the project. Today, the museum attracts millions of visitors every year and is a center of Bilbao’s tourism—accounting for 6.5% of the city’s economy and making it one of the most successful art museums of all time. 

In the months following the museum’s opening, its iconic design raised interesting questions about the surrounding buildings. At the time, the sleek iron-filled museum stuck out like a sore thumb, because the rest of the city’s infrastructure was still mostly as before. But the museum quickly stirred a transformation began. The government poured nearly $1 billion dollars worth of investment into public infrastructure, and this cemented the urbanization that helped the overall appearance of the city of Bilbao with bright red arches, clean rivers, and beautiful walkways.

This slippery slope of a single museum changing the course of a single city is a miracle for Bilbao, which is also known as one of the most popular urbanization experiments of all time: The Guggenheim Effect.

Even if it is peculiar that the city of Bilbao should thank a titanium-plated art museum,the tremendous growth of their economy thanks to the Guggenheim Effect has been noteworthy. While many of us may not take much of an interest in art museums, it’s worth it to take another look at them with a sense of respect, because they can do much more than display art.