18 October 1997: Guggeinheim Museum Bilbao opens

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao sits on the Nervion river.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao sits on the Nervion river. / SUR
  • Titanium used for the building pays tribute to the city's industrial past while the idea came about in an attempt to reinvigorate the area

On 18 October 1997 the iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was officially opened by King Juan Carlos I. On the night before the official inauguration, 5,000 people were invited to a party at the museum which included fireworks and concerts.

The idea for the museum first came about in 1990 when director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim foundation, Thomas Krens, started negotiations with the Basque authorities to build a museum on the site of the former Bilbao dockyard on the city's Nervion river.

Great secrecy shrouded the initial meetings until, in December 1991, an announcement was made that an agreement had been signed to establish the museum in the city.

The internationally renowned architect Frank O Gehry's design, incorporating 5,000 tonnes of titanium, was chosen and building work started in October 1994.

The choice of titanium for the building pays tribute to Bilbao's industrial past, and the idea was to provide an economic boost to a city that had suffered the loss of much of that industry. The aim was also to refresh the image of an area of Spain that had erstwhile been known mainly for its links to Basque separatists and terrorist groups such as ETA.

The creation of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was seen as mutually beneficial; not only to Bilbao, but also to the foundation, which was at the time trying to recover money spent on a major refurbishment of the Guggenheim in New York.

The Basque authorities paid the foundation 20 million dollars and in return the city got status and a share in the foundation's vast art collection, which would now be accessible in Europe.

The opening exhibition was entitled, The Guggenheim Museum and the Art of this Century and included works from artists such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. One of its most memorable pieces is Jeff Koons' Puppy, a giant floral dog which watches over the museum.

Supporters had hoped that the Guggenheim would be the new home for Picasso's Guernica, which represents the massacre of the Basque village of the same name during Spain's bloody Civil War. However, Madrid's Centro de Arte Reina Sofía said that the painting was in too bad a condition to be moved. The Bilbao building has been hailed as "the greatest building of our time," by architect Philip Johnson.