Sat, Oct 04, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Taichung the new Bilbao?

Buiding a branch of the Guggenheim Museum in Taichung will help the city gain an international reputation, proponents of the scheme argue



Will Taichung become the next Bilbao, a Spanish town transformed from a terrorist hideout to a cultural center? Will the Taichung branch of the Guggenheim Museum, if built, be as popular as its Bilbao branch, or fold up in its second year, like the museum's Las Vegas branch, wasting the NT$6.2 billion necessary for its construction? Is the huge investment even worth making at all? These are the questions that will exercise the minds of lawmakers and local artists alike when the bill for the Guggenheim construction is to be discussed at Taichung City Council next week.

"We want to copy the Bilbao experience. The construction of the Guggenheim revived its economy and changed [the city's] image," said Chu Chung-fen (朱瓊芬), speaking for the Guggenheim Museum project section of the Taichung City Cultural Bureau.

Taichung mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) lobbied enthusiastically among local artists for the construction and appealed for its budget, first to the Council for Cultural Affairs (文建會), then to President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), and then to Premier Yu Shyi-kun, for nearly two years before the Executive Yuan agreed to subsidize the project with NT$5 billion and include it in the NT$500 billion five-year national public construction plan, along with other large-scale projects for Taipei and Kaohsiung opera houses, and a southern branch of the National Palace Museum.

In the process, much doubt has been leveled at the cost and the ability of Taichung to support the expensive museum in the future. The debate on whether the central government should break its rule of funding only half the budget of a local government project is complicated by the different political affiliations of the DPP administration and the KMT Taichung mayor.

Despite Taichung City Government's ambition to emulate the Bilbao branch, which is faring best among all of Guggenheim's branches, officials admitted that it will not be easy.

"The main difference between Taiwan and Bilbao is that the Bilbao branch's operation went quickly on the right track because there's a milieu which values culture. Art is not a popular activity here, but the museum will encourage the public's appreciation of art," Chu said.

The biggest sticking point of the Guggenheim project has been its cost, which is nearly double the construction cost of the Bilbao branch. According to Chinese-language newspapers, Vice Chairman of the Council for Economic Planning and Development(經建會) Chang Ching-sen (張景森) has raised doubts about whether the cost is reasonable and whether Taichung can manage to finance its operation after his trip to study the Spanish branch last month. Chang was not available for further comment on the issue and the council suggested the Cultural Affairs Council would comment.

Wu Mi-cha (吳密察), vice chairman of the Cultural Affairs Council, stressed that the central government is supportive of the project. "Since the Taichung mayor is so committed to the project, the central government is supportive and we're willing to pay the money to build it. However, to build a museum is easy, but to operate it is not. A museum works only when its operation works," Wu said.

When asked whether he thinks it will operate well, Wu replied that the Guggenheim Foundation's feasibility study (the final version is due to be released in two months) will provide the answer.

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