Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on January 29th, 2008

Vilnius already has distinct features.

Almost a year ago I wrote that “nothing sets off an identity crisis like a millennial jubilee.” Back then, the subject was figuring out a role for the national and state flags of Lithuania. Now, however, come recommendations from a commission set up by the Lithuanian government on how to rebrand the nation of Lithuania.

In my first post on this rebranding, this “extreme makeover,” I looked at the basis of the rebranding: forming a new identity for Lithuania based on the principle of boldness. In the second post, I looked at the possibility of renaming Lithuania to something more approachable in English.Now it is time to look at the few concrete examples that have already made it into the press. I have absurdly varying levels of commitment to each of the proposals, but I can already guarantee that the large bulk of this final post will be about the trying to get a Guggenheim Museum to come to Lithuania.

Before moving into the specific proposals, it is worth looking at the Delfi article again to see what the purpose of the proposals is:

Koncepcija turėtų skatinti eksportą ir turizmą, būti palanki investicijoms.

In other words, the rebranding effort is, as all rebranding efforts are when grand juries are not (yet) involved, simply an effort to make more money—to find ways in which tourists, foreign importers, and foreign investors can be separated from their capital.

The rebranding, then, is a means of creating an association with a character type (bold, innovative) with the nation. Yet it is not entirely clear how much the specific proposals help yield these desires, especially when we consider that Lithuania already has a domestic economy with its own needs and requirements. and Other Portals to the World

The first few tasks of the commission are to create a trademark and website for Lithuania—ones that would trade on the character type of boldness. The Lithuanian website has been unused for a long, long time, and the first efforts at developing a trademark seem to have failed. But once these pieces are in place, the commission hopes to evangelize the Lithuanian brand through films made about the heroism and boldness of Lithuanians in their history. I imagine that there might not be much of a market for the tale of Vytautas the Great, but one of the suggestions not made is a movie about Darius and Girėnas. It could be something a bit like Gallipoli, with two guys overcoming hardship to follow their dreams of doing something no one has ever done before, and then dying at the end.

In fact, somehow I keep thinking of Australian movies when imagining this Lithuanian branding. Australia has certainly managed to develop a sort of global brand via its best known movies. They are lucky, however, since they already speak English—guaranteeing wide viewership in the US, which is where, presumably, a lot of the capital the government wants to attract sits. The Delfi article, in fact, points to the necessity of any valuable filmic propaganda’s coming out of the Hollywood system.

Disseminating the Thrill of Gentrification to the Masses

The other two suggestions involve constructing giant edifices as symbols of the new Lithuanian boldness. One is building an adventurous new building, which would attract attention from its extravagance (decadence?) and technological advancement, I figure, would become iconic, like the Sydney Opera House. If building a new edifice for building’s sake is not an option, then the alternative is to join the myriad cities bidding for a Guggenheim Museum.

It is one thing to build a website or a logo. Even to build/finance a piece of Hollywood propaganda is one thing. But to build a Guggenheim Museum is certainly not, I believe, at all the way to go, though in looking into why that is not the case, we can see how this rebranding plan itself turns and bites back at the very goals of the effort (if there are any non-capital accumulating goals, that is).


Bilbao. from flickr user cincinnato via cc.

My opinion on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is a very negative one, though, to be fair, I do not particularly care for the contemporary museum apparatus as a whole. To me it seems far too invested in advancing multinational corporate interests, and the Guggenheim Foundation, only too eager to cut deals with giant financial institutions like Deutsche Bank, is sort of the ur example.

The Foundation, with the Museum in Bilbao as the focus, was gutted in an article by Andrew Friedman in The Baffler (1.15). Friedman’s article, “Build It and They Will Pay,” plays off of the demiurge’s mutterings in Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe , but he importantly changes the second verb to “pay”—a gauche move Kinsella admits is the salvation of the construction in his novel, but one that he avoids discussing in the novel. But both the ballfield in Iowa and Guggenheim Museums depend on people paying. And it is having a public come and make the Guggenheim Foundation richer that is at the center of these allegedly philanthropic efforts to bring museums to remoter, crumbling parts of the first and second world.

Friedman is limited in explaining the full force of what the Frank Gehry–designed museum has done to Bilbao, because of confidentiality agreements throughout the entire process, but he says that the estimate made in Crónica de una seducción: El Museo Guggenheim de Bilbao is that the Basques of Bilbao—a city with a depressed economy and manufacturing base that is desaparecido, sort of the Detroit/Flint/Cleveland of Spain—by 2000 “were in for $250 million—that’s $700 for each Bilbao resident. On top of that, the local government is committed to a perpetual public subsidy of $7 to $14 million a year.” This money going to fund the Guggenheim comes from local Basque art programs, including “libraries, cinema, theater, art, literature, popular crafts, and publications.”

What’s more, the Guggenheim—and this should be of extreme importance to Lithuanian cultural nationalists—has no obligation to local art. Though there is a Bilbao specific acquisition budget (from my understanding), Friedman notes that there is no “local art director” or permanent collection. What Bilbao gets, then, are handmedowns from New York. No Spanish exhibits (much less Basque exhibits!), no Spanish galleries. Just whatever is already passé on 5th Avenue is what makes it to Bilbao, and this includes corporate-sponsor loving shows that exhibit consumer goods like Armani clothing.

The silver lining, such as there is one, is in the shimmering silver of Gehry’s building itself. What is inside is useless, repackaged, traveling art. But the building is unique, or at least close to it. And as the building sits on the shore of the polluted Nervión River, it turns itself and its surroundings into the art. This, coupled with the new model of curating set up what Friedman beautifully writes about Guggenheim New York Director Thomas Krens:

By expanding the curatorial style outside the museum walls, [Krens] realized that the scenography of broken cities could be the art, stage sets for disseminating the thrill of gentrification to the masses. You could stretch the museum’s current collection to keep the branches filled, make up the difference with high-concept traveling displays of borrowed are and consumer gadgets, keep operating costs low by running the show from New York, and win cover charges from tourists on the global circuit two, three, and four times. True, only so many world cities care to have their highbrow aspirations hijacked by a cash-hungry American interloper. But there were plenty of smaller cities ravaged by capital flight eager to play along.

This is what Lithuania wants? To be a corporate welfare state, a haven for multinationals to generate profit while masquerading as philanthropists? At least Gehry would probably not design the Vilnius museum, meaning that builders and contractors, famously shut out of Gehry’s anti-worker/Howard Roarkish use of CATIA, will still be able to earn some money from any public construction.

Friedman digs up a fawning review of Gehry by former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, in which he hails Gehry for, like Enron, always searching for “the moment of truth, the moment when the functional approach to a problem becomes infused with the artistry that produces a truly innovative solution.” What Gehry does for architecture, Enron promises to do for the “New Economy,” Skilling continues.  But Friedman turns the relationship back toward Krens, quoting his whining to ARTNews that as public subsidies dry up, privatization becomes the way to go. Friedman asks the reader,

Sound familiar? This appeal to sensible economics, hard choices, market austerity, and balanced budgets is remarkably similar to arguments made by Enron and all manner of other corporate hijackers to redistribute massive public subsidies, asset ownership, and control of whole swaths of the economy into more profitable private hands.

Yet this argument always rings hollow, since it is these very corporate hijackers that depend on the public subsidies to gain their power in the first place. Because even in the tourism bust after the actions of September 11, 2001, with an aging exhibit hanging on 5th Avenue, Krens managed to head down to Rio de Janeiro to announce the new Guggenheim to be built there. What made it possible?

The people of Rio had kindly offered to pay $2 million for a “viability” study and already generously set aside $120 million to build the museum, to be designed by French auteur Jean Nouvel in the city’s rundown port district. The Guggenheim had inked the deal with Rio officials… at about the time Krens was axing his employees and murmuring somberly to the press about the grim realities of austerity.

That is, as Fruit says, how Krens do:

secure public financing for capital-generating museums in a decentralized network of deindustrialized cities, dump assets when necessary, and punish workforces in the isolated cultural fiefdoms as needed.

Lithuania can certainly do better than to become another cog in the corporate welfare machine. And getting in line behind Rio, Abu Dhabi, and Bucarest is definitely not a bold move at all.

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