Exterior views of bracing that was added to the University of Calif. Berkeley Art museum building in 2001 (Photo: Peter DaSilva for The New York Times)

Within months of its opening in 1997, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao had given the language a new term and the world a new way of looking at culture. The “Bilbao effect,” many came to believe, was the answer to what ailed cities everywhere — it was a way to lure tourists and economic development — and a potential boon to cultural institutions.

Municipal governments and arts groups were soon pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into larger, flashier exhibition spaces and performance halls.

Now the economic downturn has reined in a lot of these big dreams and has also led to questions about whether ambitious building projects from Buffalo to Berkeley ever made sense to begin with. Some are arguing that arts administrators and their patrons succumbed to an irrational exuberance that rivaled the stock market’s in the boom years.

Organizations were “blinded by the excitement of what it would be like to have this great new facility,” said D. Carroll Joynes, a senior fellow at the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center.


Robin Pogrebin
New York Times