The art of art tourism

Art, done well, can be a major tourism attraction and a catalyst for economic growth.

Here are five contemporary examples.

The first is the most famous: the Guggenheim in Bilbao on the north coast of Spain. Frank Gehry’s design for the art gallery there has a fluidity that no architect – except perhaps Antoni Gaudi – had ever conceived.

The building, combined with the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation’s art, has turned Bilbao from a run-down port into one of the world’s hippest tourist hotspots. More than 1.3 million people went there last year.  That’s about four visitors to the art gallery for every resident in Bilbao.

It created what has become known as “the Bilbao effect” – the economic transformation of a town or city as a result of the presence of a drawcard art attraction.

The second is Chihuly Gardens and Glass, Dale Chihuly’s glass art attraction next to the Space Needle in Seattle.  It opened in May 2012 and is rated by Trip Advisor as the No 1 “top attraction” in Seattle. 

Alice Walton – one of the Walmart heirs – has created a stunning success in Arkansas with her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in November 2011 in Bentonville, Arkansas. Bentonville is small and remote but, despite its isolation, Crystal Bridges attracted 650,000 visitors in its first year. With a population of about 50,000, that’s 13 visitors for every resident of Bentonville. By September 2015 it had received two million visitors and, by its fifth anniversary, it was up to 2.7 million visitors.

Much closer to home is David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, which opened in January 2011.  By October 2012 Lonely Planet listed Hobart as one of the top-10 cities in the world to visit – largely off the back of MONA – a unique art attraction.

By February 2016 more than 1.5 million people had been to see it.  Hobart has experienced “the Bilbao effect” with MONA and it has driven an economic revival in Tasmania. By mid-2015 it was estimated that MONA-goers were putting $719m into the Tasmanian economy. Hobart has a population of about 220,000. MONA’s annual visitation has steadily increased since it opened and as of last year, it had had 350,000 visitors.

During the past five years, most of the out-of-state people who visited MONA stayed in Tasmania for nine to 10 days and the proportion of them who visited MONA has ranged between 25-29%. The tourist visitation to Tasmania has increased significantly during these years from 841,000 to 1,280,000.

What do these four venues have in common?

The first and most obvious thing is that, typically, they aren’t the product of institutional curators. They tend to be the product of one person: Dale Chihuly, Alice Walton and David Walsh. No committees. No curatorial constraints. Just one person and unrestrained originality.

Second: private wealth. As best I can determine, Mr Walsh spends at least $A10m of his annual earnings (from gambling) subsidising MONA.  Ms Walton is a billionaire; and Mr Chihuly can get commissions off the back of his attraction to help defray the costs. The Guggenheim has an enormous foundation.

But these unique venues don’t have to be funded by the wealthy few.  Because their success is so valuable to the local community it can be in the interests of the local community to take over the running of the venue.  In Chandigarh in India, Nek Chand, a self-taught artist, created the Rock Garden of Chandigarh. This remarkable place is widely reported to be the second-most popular tourist attraction in the whole of India – it’s second only to the Taj Mahal.  It is commonly reported to get about 5000 people a day – or about 1.8m people a year. Chandigarh itself has a population of about 1.1m people.

The Rock Garden was taken over by the local authority, which has profited hugely from it ever since. It, too, is unique in concept and design.  

There is a common belief that the visual arts “don’t pay” and “never will.” Expressed in simple terms this belief translates to: “The visual arts will only survive on subsidies from people who have no interest in the arts.” How unreasonable is that.

The illustrations I have given show that, viewed in a wider context, cultural attractions done differently and can pay big rewards. Hoteliers and restaurant owners in Bilbao, Bentonville, Seattle, Hobart and Chandigarh will confirm it and the civic leaders in those five cities will confirm it. Their cities have more money for civic good precisely because of the art that like a magnet attracts a huge number of people to them.

Disclaimer: Anthony Grant is a barrister and is the owner of the art attraction Sculptureum in Auckland. 

This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.