Guggenheim Helsinki: Landing-site for Franchised Culture

A proposal to establish a new Guggenheim museum in Helsinki has caused a vivid debate, and raised a question whether Helsinki could make a better cultural attraction on its own.

 

Op-ed / Sampo Ruoppila, Panu Lehtovuori

Introduction
In January 2012, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation proposed to expand its museum network by establishing a new Guggenheim museum in Helsinki. The conditions, guidelines and expected costs were presented in a 186-page report "Concept and Development Study for a Guggenheim Helsinki". The release of the report has caused a vivid debate on the advantages and concerns regarding the project. The future plans are not yet known: the political decision on whether Helsinki will proceed with it is due in late March 2012.

The case is particularly interesting because, in the European context, Guggenheim Helsinki can be regarded as a prototype of a major cultural development based on franchising. Until now, the key cultural institutions have tended to represent local and national cultural scenes and aspirations. Even Guggenheim Bilbao, a major reference for the Helsinki project, can be seen as an expression of Basque national spirit and the local development will of the City of Bilbao, not simply as an imported product.

Since Bilbao, the Guggenheim has studied a variety of cities in which to expand its network. The only presumed success story is Abu Dhabi, where the Guggenheim will be part of the Saadiyat museum island, together with a sister museum of the Louvre and several other museums and cultural centres. Saadiyat is under construction, but elsewhere the results are less impressive. A collaborative project with Deutsche Bank in Berlin will end in 2012, after 15 years of operation, and the previous initiative in the Baltic Sea region in Vilnius, Lithuania, was dropped in 2011, as the Helsinki study was announced. The temporary BMW-Guggenheim pavilion is at least touring the world successfully, arriving in Berlin in May. In Helsinki, the Guggenheim has a serious landing-site; the Mayor is strongly supporting the project and a prime location in Helsinki's city centre has been suggested as a building site.

The Proposal
The proposal has practically four selling points in favour of establishing Guggenheim Helsinki. Firstly, while Helsinki has numerous quality museums, it does not yet have any that hold collections of international modern and contemporary art as significant as those held by the Guggenheim network. Hence, Guggenheim Helsinki's programme would not be likely to overlap with the current offerings. Secondly, establishing a new Guggenheim would increase cultural tourism in Helsinki (considerably, the study argues), which would profit the city's tourism-related industries. The report also suggests that the local art and design scene could profit indirectly through such an influx of new potential customers. Thirdly, Guggenheim Helsinki intends to raise architecture and design topics in its self-produced exhibitions, which could contextualise the Finnish perspective on aesthetics on the world stage. However, this is not specified any further in the study. Fourthly, it argues strongly for establishing a particular social space in the city, "a community hub" and "a welcome centre for tourists".

In the franchising project, the Guggenheim's role would be to provide its brand value and content management, while the City of Helsinki would be responsible for all the costs. According to the study, the Guggenheim would be responsible for the museum's overall direction, operating policies and procedures, and oversight of the overall art and public programmes. The city (possibly with subsidies from the Finnish government, foundations, corporate donors, and private citizens) would be responsible for funding and overseeing the development and construction of the museum, estimated at €130-140 million. The city would also provide or secure the museum's operational funding – the funding gap between income and costs is estimated at €6.8 million annually. In addition, the City of Helsinki would pay a $30 million licensing fee for a period of 20 years.

The Response – with Critical Remarks
The role of Helsinki's political decision-making is to decide whether to proceed with the proposed deal or not. The political and public discussion about the issue has been most vivid. The release of the report caused a landslide of opinions, blog entries and discussions in printed and digital media.

The supporters argue that this is a unique opportunity and praise the ability of the Guggenheim's brand value to raise Helsinki's international profile, create a highly inviting place, draw plenty of new attention and visitors to Helsinki, and add to the artistic offerings, in accordance with the expenses. The critics, on the other hand, have pointed out several weaknesses and open questions in terms of democratic decision-making, economic calculations, content expectations, urban development aspects, and lack of alternatives in the discussion.

Democracy
The Helsinki Guggenheim case has represented an old-fashioned undemocratic decision-making process in which a proposal is hidden while being prepared and is presented only in its final form for a "take it or leave it" decision. The city-side preparation has been Mayor-led, involving only a few key people, leaving the usual civil service and political preparation, let alone civil society influences, apart. When the proposal was finally presented, an impression was given that there is neither anything left to negotiate nor the option to discuss the alternatives. The decision-making schedule was originally set very tight, aiming to get the city council decision in a few weeks, which is altogether against the democratic process concerning a major investment project. After heated discussion, however, the decision-making timetable was prolonged until late March.

After the first rounds of reactive comments, people have also started envisioning alternatives, such as a Helsinki-managed cultural space that would run its programme in co-operation with a number of world-class agents, not only one. Such proposals approach the core issue: to state clearly the presumed goals, and to consider carefully if the Guggenheim type of investment is a good tool to achieve them, how the plans should perhaps be adjusted, and if there could be even better alternatives. Plenty of ideas have been presented in one of the most active culture-related discussions ever – but no one has been prepared to collect them. The civil society is there, and it is active, but the decision-making process of Guggenheim Helsinki is far from ideas of collaborative planning or the value of citizen participation.

Economy
The report uncritically declares establishing Guggenheim Helsinki to be "a sound business case", which is doubtful. The study is a school-book example of presenting the costs and benefits in a tendentiously confusing way. The estimated state-level economic benefit of €0.7 million annually, based on indirect tax revenue from spending by new tourists in a "mid-range visitor scenario", is calculated on the basis of the museum's annual running costs only, estimated to be €6.8 million. Very important annual costs related to the construction and maintenance of the 12,000 square metres landmark building are not included in such calculations at all. In other words, the study is consistent in showing only the costs of using the Guggenheim brand and making it operational in Helsinki. If the costs of financing the €140 million loan are added, assuming that the loan is repaid over 20 years and the interest rate is 4 per cent, the investment costs are €9.8 million per annum. Furthermore, the annual cost of building maintenance can be estimated at €0.8 million, the real-estate tax at €0.5 million, and the Guggenheim's licensing fee at €1.2 million. Hence, the real annual costs for the City of Helsinki would be €19.1 million. The report, thus, plays around with only one third of the real costs for the city!

Even though the income estimates, based on an estimated annual number of visitors, are eventually not crucial for the real costs, taking the investment into account, as argued above, they are at the core of the fake "business case" of the study. A key issue is admission revenue per number of visitors. The "mid-range scenario" assumes between 500,000 and 550,000 visitors per annum, which is worth €4.5 million in admissions if a large majority of visitors pay. While the estimated visitor numbers may be realistic with reference to Stockholm's Moderna Museet (490,000 visitors in 2010), the net income estimate does not take into account the fact that nearly half of Moderna Museet's visitors entered for free.

The City of Helsinki would remain the owner of the building after the 20-year Guggenheim brand lease and could, of course, put it to profitable or societally beneficial use afterwards – depending on the architecture, which is a currently unknown factor. However, if the project is accepted and the new building is built in a sensitive site in the historic heart of Helsinki, the city will have gained immensely in the sense of opening real-estate development opportunities around the harbour – all owned by the city itself. The scenario of a heavy new construction phase in the historic South Harbour may actually be an important reason for the city's drive for Guggenheim Helsinki.

Guggenheim Helsinki would cause substantial new costs for the City of Helsinki – in times of shrinking public budgets. One question that is still unanswered is which department would pay the bill. Does the city consider Guggenheim Helsinki to be a cultural project or an investment in economic development? Adding even the operational costs to the cultural budget without serious cuts being made elsewhere is almost unimaginable, which has caused grounded anxiety among other cultural actors that depend on the city's financing.

Content
The study repeatedly claims that its focus is on the programme of the new museum, while architecture is not explicitly considered. However, reading the 186 pages does not give assurance about a novel or strong vision for the programme or content of Guggenheim Helsinki. The projected museum is defined as "non-collecting" and conceptualised as temporary exhibition halls and a local meeting point. Artistic content would be based on sharing the exhibitions of the Guggenheim network, with added Helsinki-produced exhibitions in close curatorial collaboration with New York. Design and architecture are mentioned as spearheads of Guggenheim Helsinki. However, the study has little to say about how exactly they would be conducive to the museum's programme and content. "Novel forms of presentation" of architecture and design are mentioned, with reference to new visual technologies and simulations. The idea of taking better advantage of the heritage of Finnish modernism also appears more than once, with a corollary of showing architecture and design in an art context. The role of artistic production in the Baltic Sea Region and Russia is left open.

Location and urban development aspects
The suggested location of Guggenheim Helsinki is a very prominent location in the South Harbour, the Kanava Terminal site, which forms the visual end of the Esplanade and Market Square, one of Helsinki's main historic public spaces. The site is extremely contested. Besides the historic plaza, it is defined by Alvar Aalto's masterly Enso Gutzeit building (1959-62), the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral (1862-68) and the Presidential Palace (1843). While the immediate surroundings are central and symbolic, the site itself is still today characterised by mundane harbour functions, underlining its potential to host new urban uses.

The reprogramming process has been difficult, however. In 2001, there was an initiative to build a Finnish design and architecture centre, ARMI, on the site. The public architectural competition was won by JKMM, a successful Finnish office. The project was cancelled, however, due to insufficient funds. After that the City invited Arthur Buchardt, a Norwegian billionaire, to develop a luxury design hotel on the site. Buchardt commissioned Herzog & de Meuron, who in 2008 presented a cruciform hotel design in glass. After a stormy debate, focusing on heritage and symbolic values, the City Council voted the project down.

Both in the ARMI centre case and the luxury hotel case, public and professional opinion stressed the importance of a subtle and careful approach in the historic and sensitive milieu, leading to traditional spatial concepts, low built volumes, non-striking materials and reduced lighting. Herzog & de Meuron's bold proposal could not fulfil these demands. How well they serve Guggenheim – or how much Guggenheim could change the game – remains to be seen.

The Kanava Terminal site is, in many ways, the key to a larger refashioning of the whole South Harbour. In 2011, the city organised an urban design competition about the broader harbour area. The results of the "Kirjava Satama" competition are not yet published, but the Guggenheim project was indirectly part of the brief, which required a location and volumetric idea for a larger cultural institution.

While there are development opportunities in the South Harbour, and the proximity of the city centre and tourist flows is a clear asset, several other areas of Helsinki would offer radically more open canvases for a fresh cultural institution. In the former harbours of Jätkäsaari and Kalasatama, to be converted to new uses in the near future, Guggenheim Helsinki (or another major cultural institution) could become a real driver of urban regeneration. Its architectural design could be much more experimental, while the project would create added value for the city and other stakeholders in terms of land values to a much greater extent than in the already largely built-up city centre. This would also contribute to the project's economic sustainability. If the Guggenheim was considered as a regional issue, the locations could be considered even more broadly.

Alternatives
The debate has evoked a question what else Helsinki could achieve with a similar investment in another culture-led economic development process. While most of the discussion has been reactive to the strengths and weaknesses of the Guggenheim proposal, some discussants have already proposed alternative non-franchising-solutions – usually other imposing cultural spaces that embed several actors and international co-operation options, not only a single dominating one.

The core issue remains the presumed goals that Helsinki Guggenheim is intended to achieve. Apparently the goals are to raise the international profile of Helsinki and attract international attention, pull in increasing numbers of visitors, tourists, investments, and inhabitants to support Helsinki's economic base, and to show more international art and facilitate exchange of ideas in the cultural sphere. With an investment of €130-140 million plus annual operation costs of €6.9 million – or €19.1 million per annum altogether – there is a good reason to critically examine whether the Guggenheim is the best answer or whether other types of activity could achieve the goals even better.

If Helsinki is known for something, it is innovations based on doing things in a novel way, in the absence of binding traditions. This involves bottom-up processes, individual aspirations and open-minded experimentation and problem-solving. For example, the Cultural Act of the Year 2011 was Restaurant Day, a grassroots urban event. In contrast with this tradition, the heavy investment in the franchised Guggenheim content and brand is an odd solution. One cannot help asking whether Helsinki could in fact make a better cultural attraction on its own.

Dr (Soc.Sc.) Sampo Ruoppila is research director of urban studies at the University of Turku. Dr (arch.) Panu Lehtovuori is Professor of urban studies at the Estonian Academy of Arts.