A Guggenheim for Wales?

4 Jun
Photo by Jon Pountney

Adam Price at the Pierhead. (Photo by Jon Pountney)

Last Sunday marked the launch of the Sunday School, a series of free talks given at Cardiff Bay’s beautiful Pierhead Building. There are six talks planned in all, on a variety of subjects, but the inaugural talk was the proposal by Adam Price (former MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) that Wales should join the likes of Bilbao, Venice and Abu Dhabi in having its very own Guggenheim.

Now, it should be pointed out that this isn’t, at present, an official proposal; the application form isn’t in the post, the Guggenheim’s men and women with clipboards aren’t this second wandering in small groups around the waste grounds and abandoned power stations of Swansea, Cardiff or Newport. It’s just an idea.

It’s important to say this because, though the Guggenheim’s international office in Bilbao knew about the talk, their colleagues in New York felt it necessary to tweet this:

Consider our chips pissed on.

Consider our chips pissed on.

So there isn’t going to be a Guggenheim in Wales any time soon, but does that mean there shouldn’t be one? And does Wales even need a Guggenheim – or something like it – in the first place?

Wales has many of the cultural blocks that go towards nation building. We have national teams in rugby and football, a national opera company, a national theatre, a national museum. We have our own national anthem, and – of course – our own language. It seems a national gallery for contemporary art is one of the few things we’re missing.

Along with one of our dinosaurs.

Along with one of our dinosaurs.

Whenever debates like this surface, there are invariably a small, dedicated band of rabble rousers in the press who will bend over backwards to give their readership a simple choice.

“Do you want an art gallery or do you want a children’s hospital?”

"Sorry, darling. You can't have your heart transplant. The Tate needs that money for a new acquisition."

“Sorry, darling. You can’t have your heart transplant. The Tate needs that money for a new acquisition.”

This is essentially what happened when plans were drawn up, back in the 1990s, for an opera house in Cardiff Bay. It was called Cardiff Bay Opera House and much like Sydney’s would have been the jewel in the waterfront’s crown. Zaha Hadid’s winning design beat competition from the likes of Norman Foster and Itsuko Hasegawa, and everything seemed on the verge of being green-lit when the Millennium Commission withdrew its support.

The media campaign against the project was tinged with inverted snobbery (“Opera? Who wants to go and see opera?”) as well as a vague subtext of xenophobia; Hadid being an Iraqi-born architect designing a major British project 4 years after the first Gulf War.

In the pages of the local and national press the debate was invariably framed in terms of, “Which would you rather? A rugby stadium or an opera house?” As if the people of Cardiff, or indeed Wales, deserved one but not the other. As if you, yes you were allowed only to like rugby or opera. You bloody peasants.

In the event, of course, Cardiff got both a stadium (the Millennium Stadium) and an opera house (the Wales Millennium Centre), but as long as we don’t call it an opera house that’s fine, and everyone can go and watch Les Mis or the Britain’s Got Talent auditions and not feel in the slightest bit elitist.

Of course, if we’re going to have a bloody great big gallery money will be an issue, and right now more than ever. Even when this country was on its uppers, in the late 1990s, you would hear folk complain about how National Lottery money was being spent on the arts when – in their view – it should have been spent “on hospitals”. Never mind that the whole point of the National Lottery was that it would take the burden off the taxpayer and fund the nice things in life, the jam to make our daily bread that little bit more interesting. No… Some people would rather live in a world where all culture is dictated solely by market forces and ends up being an endless marathon of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.


We could discuss the importance, the necessity and the relevance of art until the heat death of the universe. And, of course, if life really was a case of binary choices (“Dialysis machine… or ballet?”) we’d have to choose the life-saving option, but it isn’t, and so we don’t.

“Ah,” says the straw man in this argument. “But why should we, the tax payer, have to pay for the arts?”

This, of course, brings us back to the reason we have a lottery, but even without the lottery there would be good a solid case for state funding of the arts. You could, for example, argue that benevolent (i.e. non-interfering) state sponsorship encourages far greater innovation and experimentation than art propped up by commercial interests; the flourishing of American music, theatre and the arts during and immediately after America’s “New Deal” years being a fine testament to this.

But even if we’re talking in terms of cold, hard business, public funding of the arts still makes sense. For every pound spent on arts and culture the taxpayer gets, on average, four back. In the case of Bilbao, in particular, we see a region whose authorities made the brave choice to stump up what is known technically as a “f**kload” of public money to win itself a Guggenheim; and that decision reaped dividends. Prior to the building of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao received around 25,000 visitors annually. In 2009 the city was visited by over 600,000. Even now unemployment in Bilbao, a former docks town comparable to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne) is over 4% lower than Spain’s national average. (Newcastle, with – at the time of writing – 7.8% unemployment matches the UK average exactly.)

Photo courtesy of dalbera, via Flickr.

Photo courtesy of dalbera, via Flickr.

Leaving aside the question of funding, what does a museum like a Guggenheim (or a Tate, or a Hermitage) give a place? I would argue that it can be one of the vital ingredients in a region’s civic pride, contributing to people’s idea of their corner of the world as a place worth living in. Ask anyone grimly hanging on to a city as overcrowded and overpriced as London, Paris or New York why they stay there, and chances are they’ll cite something cultural. When those of us who don’t live in London feel envious of those who do, isn’t it the Southbank/West End/Brixton Academy/Wembley Stadium [delete according to taste] we wish we had right next door?

These places matter, and they make the people who live near them think that they matter too. And as for the contents, I genuinely believe that looking at art is good for us. I don’t care what inverted snobs will say. Art, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, makes you feel something, think something, and if it’s great it will carry on making you think and feel something long after you stop looking at it.

I grew up in a very working class household, in a very working class part of the country during the 1980s when, according to some cynics, I should have been glued to the telly box stuffing my face with BSE-infected beef or lost in a world of increasingly violent video games. And yet a day trip to see Cardiff Museum’s modest-but-impressive art collection was never anything less than awe-inspiring. I can still remember looking up, wide-eyed, at Graham Crowley’s The Poetics of Space (named after the book by Gaston Bachelard) and, as soon as we got home, sitting down and writing a story about a spooky, wall-less house in a creepy, near-deserted town. Growing up in a home where there wasn’t the money for foreign holidays or day trips to theme parks, museums and galleries meant a great deal to me. Seeing paintings was sightseeing.

Now, I may be a bit of a snob, but I’m not enough of a snob to think all 10-year-olds are like the 10-year-old me, or that all kids should be, but some are, even now, even when they all have Angry Birds, “miao miao” and disturbingly easy access to pornography. To deny those kids access to art because we think it’s “elitist” or it’s “not their kind of thing”, is the very worst kind of snobbery. A museum of contemporary art in Wales could serve not only as a showcase for the best in modern Welsh art but as a window on the world of contemporary art for countless thousands of young people.

In discussing the Guggenheim satellites that never were (including Rio, Taicheung and Helsinki) Adam Price was sure to point out that many of these projects – particularly Helsinki – failed because they came to the general public not as ideas but as finished proposals.

“Hey everyone!  We’re applying for a Guggenheim!”

They also began, almost without exception, discussions that led to other, more successful projects. If some of us want a museum of contemporary art (whether it’s a Guggenheim, a Tate or a Hermitage) in Wales, rather than lobby the national and global titans who hold the purse strings until they send around people with clipboards, we should begin a discussion at the grassroots level, and I think that discussion may have begun at the Pierhead Building last Sunday.

The next Sunday School talk, ‘Drama: Conversation, Charisma and Chance‘ takes place on Sunday June 16th.


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