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Guggenheim Explores Expansion into Finland

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First it was Bilbao. Then it was Abu Dhabi. Now, the Guggenheim Foundation has set its sights on bringing its collections to a new city: Helsinki.

On Tuesday, Helsinki Mayor Jussi Pajunen announced that the city had commissioned the Guggenheim to conduct a study on the feasibility of bringing a new modern art museum administered by the Guggenheim to town.

The study will analyze the current cultural landscape of the Finnish capital and determine the financial practicalities of building a Guggenheim museum in Helsinki. It will also put forth a vision for the proposed museum. "This is really an opportunity to think about the future of museums and about what a museum in the 21st century could be," says Ari Wiseman, deputy director of the Guggenheim Foundation.

Since 1997, the Guggenheim has set its sites abroad to expand its mix of modern art and visionary architecture into new territories. Currently, the foundation owns or manages museums and galleries in New York, Northern Spain, Berlin and Venice. This year, the Guggenheim also plans to open a fifth 250,000 square-foot mega museum in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, which will be focused on international postwar art.

The museum's international strategy has received both praise and criticism in the art world. Supporters of the Guggenheim's global turn point to the success of the Bilbao location (pictured below), a major tourist attraction in the Basque Country designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 1997. According to a study released by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Foundation, the museum has generated $2.5 billion in direct visitor expenditures for the region, far exceeding Spain's initial investment in the project.

Many other cities have made moves to get their own Guggenheim, but few have gotten their projects off the ground. Those museums include Mexico's Guggenheim Guadalajara, which was cancelled in 2008 after the project ran out of funds; the Vilnius Guggenheim Hermitage in Lithuania, which has also been stalled; and a proposed museum in Rio de Janeiro to be designed by French architect Jean Nouvel.

"A little healthy skepticism is probably in order," says art critic Tyler Green, who edits the blog Modern Art Notes at Green adds that the museum's expansion plans are moving the Guggenheim away from its mission as a cultural institution. "It seems that the Foundation is more interested in covering the world with museums that are called 'The Guggenheim' than it is in producing scholarship or building its collection," Green says. "I'm not sure of their priorities."

Lee Rosembaum, who blogs on the arts as CultureGrrl at, adds that the blame for the failed Guggenheim start-ups lies with ill-conceived motivations from the cities which commission them. "Many of these projects are conceived as an economic driver to bring tourists to the city rather than stemming from a need for cultural institutions," Rosenbaum says. "They always flounder on public opposition to bringing in what is seen as a foreign intruder."

However, the Guggenheim's Ari Wiseman argues that Helsinki could be a successful site for a new Guggenheim, especially given Finland's highly educated, tech-savvy population that has a history of supporting culture. Wiseman adds that the foundation has taken a new approach in dealing with the Helsinki project. "The study is putting focus on the program and the mission of the institution," Wiseman says. "And so from the very beginning we're not thinking about architecture and a building. And I think that's the difference from past studies."