Reveling in Bilbao’s Art Scene

Here’s a little article I wrote for GAPBRAVE. I wanted to post it here because I have way more to say than their word limit, and a lot more pictures to include (some taken illegally in the Guggenheim!). Warning: This will bore you if you don’t get excited over art criticism. Enjoy!

BILBAO, SPAIN. Classic, ornate and modern are the first impressions I perceived of Bilbao’s architecture. The city steps away from the style of most major cities in Northern Spain because of its modern structures. Bilbao is developing into an interesting, artistic capital that welcomes the public into its exhibits, galleries and typical city life. In addition to major museums throughout the city, a visitor will come across art by simply walking down the street.

Unfortunately there are several parts of Bilbao that are far from pleasing to the eye. Bilbao is an industrial city; therefore many structures are dedicated to factories and machinery. Their focus is more on utilization than aesthetic appeal. These areas seemed to be amplified by the dull, grey sky caused by the rainy weather characteristic of Basque Country.

Architecture in Bilbao

Many of the city’s more modern areas are being developed as a result of deindustrialization and are certainly having an effect on its appearance. Within the previous photo you can see the Torre Iberdrola, the highest building in Bilbao. It stands distinguished from the other, more synonymous architecture. The tower was designed by an Argentinean architect César Pelli. I would hope this movement will continue and the city will only become more appealing.

Bilbao’s city center is a fusion of ornate and modern. A perfect example is a contrast between the Parque de Doña Casilda Iturrizar and Bilbao’s Health Department Headquarters. These two areas are within a ten minute walk from each other, yet couldn’t be more different. Walking from the direction of the bus station, Termibus, you will come upon the park fairly quickly. The main entrance is a cyclical tunnel of archways framed by classical columns. The structures are made of traditional red brick and ornate, mosaic tile. The path surrounds several picturesque fountains and rotundas.


Only a short walk away stands the Health Department. The building protrudes from the street corner with an appearance of crumpled paper, when it is actually made of glass. The gleaming, sharp angles of the building make you wonder what its purpose could be. This interesting, modern architecture really collides with the more traditional apartment buildings and shops on this street.


Along with the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum—which I wasn’t able to visit—there are seasonal art exhibits inside the Alhóndiga. They were currently showing work by the Guerrilla Girls. The Guerrilla Girls are an artistic group formed in 1985 whose work criticizes the lack of women and minorities represented in major art museums. Going by the name “the conscience of the art world,” their sarcastic, surprising, and sometimes vulgar works demand reformation.

Many are poster-style announcements of statistics regarding the representation of female artists and artists of color. For example, Guerrilla Girls 1986 Report Card compares the number of women artists represented in major galleries in the years 1985 and 1986. Bus Companies Are More Enlightened Than NYC Art Galleries compares the percentage of women in certain jobs to the percentage of women artists represented in NYC galleries. The Guerrilla Girls are on a mission to ensure that the truth isn’t hidden, although they hide their own identities with gorilla masks for the purpose of presenting the facts without bias. Within a video interview of several of the members included in the exhibit they state, “…Our identities shouldn’t matter.”

photo 3 photo 4

I feel the Guerrilla Girls’ exhibit within the Alhóndiga is an appropriate reflection of Bilbao’s art scene. It is contemporary, eye opening, and challenging. When many people picture “Spain,” winding, cobblestone allies and terracotta rooftops may come to mind. Yet Bilbao is taking an initiative to lead in a new direction, and residents and visitors to the city can enjoy the changes from the front-row. An added benefit to the Alhóndiga is free admission to visitors, whether Basque or tourists.

Finally, contrasting the centuries old architecture of the Old Town, stands the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao along the Nervión River. This contemporary art museum is highly celebrated and attracts tourists from all over the world. According to the museum website, the Guggenheim Bilbao attracted over 1.36 million visitors the first year it was opened in October of 1997. When I visited, they were showing an overview of Pop art with works from artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Sigmar Polke.


Some of the infamous installed pieces within and surrounding the museum include Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time (1994-2005) which is made of huge, steel structures compiled in such a way to reflect the passage of time. Outside, you can see the notorious Puppy (1992) piece by Jeff Koons, as well as Tulips (1995-2004). Situated in the water pool surrounding the museum is Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture #08025 (1998). The Guggenheim Bilbao hosts public programs each season which are available to visitors with the price of admission. For me, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of standing in front of something you’ve only studied, seen, and read about in books. A visit to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was a dream come true, and the mixed, interesting architecture throughout the city only made the trip more worthwhile.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Jeff Koons' Tulips Richard Serra Entrance