Artistic Wisdom to Limit Bilbao Disaster

29 Aug 2013

Panama is doing great progress in remodeling and expanding the city based on the knowledge and the wealth brought by a 100 year old canal. A possible reduction in importance of our great canal through competition by a natural sea passage up north cutting thousands of miles in maritime transportation, and the new risk of trapped tourist hot-spots make more modern business ideas necessary.These can be inspired by art activities which attract more tourists by spreading locations of interest throughout the city.

The Bilbao Effect

The Financial Times describes it as "the power of a well-known brand and spectacular architecture to give a moribund city such as Bilbao a new lease of life". This article points out the problem that architectural statements like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Spain often do not integrate well with the respective surroundings and that art can be used to prevent that negative development.

First what`s good

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao welcomes about 1 million visitors every year. A good amount of new businesses in the peripheral areas was also created of which a lot are in close relation to the tourist industry. That industry in total gains about E500m every year. From that amount, E100m in taxes are derived what means that the building costs of E85m for the museum paid off after the first year. Lots of international architects like Zaha Hadid, Sir Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava and Ricardo Legorreta are attracted by the famous, hailed installation and contributed their vision to the urban environment of Bilbao.

So yes, the construction of a spectacular landmark can place a city on the world map. Cities that nobody ever heard of before become famous overnight. It serves as a tourist magnet that brings a lot of visitors spending their money, creates a descent amount of related businesses close to the initial spot and attracts more professionals and investments due to a boost in popularity.

What`s bad

By pushing poorer people to the edges of the city these areas are cut off from any benefits that are created through active urban centers. When a landmark like this is seen in isolation, the Bilbao Effect will generate only limited economic growth because it completely disregards the local character and needs of the people. These buildings often stand isolated from their environment and do not serve as a public area that brings people in and through. To cut it short: it creates social exclusion.

If you take a second look, you will see  economic stratification and that despite simple jobs which remain in the periphery of the museum, the growth created by the museum disregards the local economy. It is a place made by foreigners for visitors. At the attempt outsmarting the closer surroundings for allowing visitors a more glamorous impression of the location, the city lost its original charm and turned into a cultural void. The New York Times: “Bilbao, a formerly muscular town of steelworkers and engineers, is slowly becoming a more effete city of hotel clerks and art collectors”. The same could be spotted more often in modern design-cities around the world the last couple of years.

Investing has to be kept up because this tourist attractions do not develop or adjust themselves over time. When the initial hype on artificially created sights is over new investments have to be made to keep the place new and unique. Ongoing investments in the artificial creation of touristic sites through national authorities, like in the example of Bilbao, are of course expensive and require ongoing attention.

Through the creation of mono-cultural tourist attractions that chain all public focus and interest on one single building or spot, cities ignore their own cultural evolution. After losing its audience when the initial hype is gone, it leaves an unconscious city behind. And even though these kind of projects give a better self-esteem to the citizens doesn’t mean it gives them business opportunities or more personality.

Art prevents that Development

Art contributes to the economy in multiple ways. Art is an industry that provides services and requires resources. It is an industry that creates tax revenues through economic activities and increases household incomes by creating a lot of solid jobs.

The American culture industry supports 5.7 million full-time jobs and generates 30 billion in annual tax revenue. It creates massive economic activities (in America over 166 billion per year) and through that also a lot of tax revenues. American governments get an annual 7:1 return on their investments from that industry in taxes. The many solid jobs that it creates cannot be shipped overseas because art and cultural institutions usually are strongly rooted in their communities. Institutions from the art industry also often host events which generate additional monetary spending on existing touristic infrastructures and related local businesses.

In addition to the fact that culture is the cornerstone of tourism, cultural tourists are the better tourists. Art is a tourist attraction that makes travelers stay longer and spend more. Compared to regular tourists, they generally travel longer (5.2 nights vs. 3.4 nights) and spend more money ($623 vs. $457).

Art is a catalyst for a better life quality and helps cities to find their personality. Of course it attracts tourists, but also investments and next-generation professionals. Arts provide the so much needed social escape for many in our cities.

Art is a source of inspiration. By igniting the mind, the arts can spark a new way of thinking, communicating and doing business. Given that tourism is the world’s biggest and fastest growing industry, but also highly sensitive to trends, tourist spots are dependent from their uniqueness. Sustainable tourism needs something that is worth being visited more than once. It has to be something that’s uniqueness evolves over time and consistently reflects the respective social conditions and developments.

Only if life is being bridged to these impressive places they can develop their culture-creating potential. This is necessary since these trapped buildings lose their initial glamour after a short time they have to be connected to their respective environmental counterparts so they can influence their surrounding positively by stretching the capacity of urban dwellers and improve their lives.  Soft capital like people, atmosphere and events contribute a big part to attracting visitors. A culture of street theater or a bar music scene are the best insurances for tourist businesses. It automatically renews itself and thereby stays fresh and unique.

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