Reveling in Bilbao’s art scene

By Courtney Cleveland.

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.

Torre Iberdrola, tower, architecture, Bilbao, Spain

View of Torre Iberdrola in Bilbao, Spain

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.

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 Guerilla Girls, an artistic group formed in 1985 whose work criticizes the lack of women and minorities represented in major art museums. 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. Admission includes an audio guide to give background on the pieces and artists. 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.

Jeff Koons, Tulips, sculpture, art, Bilbao, contemporary art, Guggenheim Museum

Tulips by Jeff Koons outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Another temporary exhibit features artist Alex Katz and his series Smiles (1993-1994). The series consists of eleven large-scale portraits of women, all whom Katz knows personally. The women are depicted in their normal clothes against a plain, black background. Their features are over-simplified; therefore even if you can tell that the woman is beautiful, Katz’s technique causes the face to look unusual and alien. It is interesting to notice which of the women must be related because of their apparent similarities. Unfortunately, photos aren’t allowed in the Guggenheim.

Some of the infamous installed pieces within and surrounding the museum include The Matter of Time (1994-2005) which is made of huge, steel structures compiled in such a way to reflect the passage of time. After wondering how this installation was possibly transported because of its size and weight, I discovered that it was constructed as the Guggenheim is being built, and is a permanent exhibit. The artist, Richard Serra, has contributed to a very detailed explanation and walk-through of his inspirations behind The Matter of Time and how it was created. This was my favorite part of the museum, and I love that you can interact with the exhibit by walking through the spirals.

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), which looks incredible against the metallic exterior of the museum. 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 Bilbao is located at Avenida Abandoibarra, 2. The regular hours are Tuesday – Sunday: 10:00 – 8:00. In July and August it is open every day. Admission prices are as follows: Adults: 11€, Seniors: 6.50€, Groups: 10€, Youth under the age of 26: 6.50€, and children as well as museum members can visit for free. According to the website, prices vary by date, so check your dates here.


The Office of Tourism in Bilbao is located in the heart of the center at Plaza Circular, 1. Edificio Terminus. Open from Monday – Sunday: 9:00 – 21:00. Here you can find any extra information you may be looking for, as well as a particular, free brochure titled “Bilbao Art District Otoño 2013.” This gives a detailed guide to and about the museums and galleries throughout Bilbao, most of which I was not able to visit, including: el Centro de Fotografía Contemporá, el Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, and la Sala Rekalde Aretoa.

Guggenheim, museum, Bilbao, art, contemporary art

Guggenheim Museum and Fog Sculpture by Fujiko Nakaya

Courtney Cleveland graduated from Centenary College of Louisiana with a degree in both Art/Visual Culture and Psychology. Her fields of interest include: travel, language, art criticism, and education. She currently resides in Spain. You can find her writings about life in Spain on her blog.

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