Thomas Krens, the influential former Guggenheim Museum director who oversaw the museum's dynamic, yet controversial expansion to Bilbao, Spain, now has energy-rich Baku, Azerbaijan, in his sights.
At first glance, Krens' vision for Baku -- conceived by his New York City-based consulting group, Global Cultural Asset Management (GCAM), along with the American firm Asymptote Architecture -- might be taken for another one of Dubai's seaside fantasy palaces. The project features a circular walkway projecting out into the Caspian Sea that is dotted with works by celebrity artists Jeff Koons, Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor. It also envisions a high-rise tower by Guggenheim Bilbao architect Frank Gehry. The walkway, a projected 90-minute stroll, would be anchored to the Baku shoreline by a Bilbao-style modern art museum, as depicted in a YouTube video posted by Asymptote Architecture.
A revamped version of Baku's Soviet-era yacht club, an office-conference center, a $20-million, government-financed National Flag Park, and a strip of white-sand beach also are among the planned attractions.
The project presents Baku as a sleek, cutting-edge world capital, an image that President Ilham Aliyev's government is ordinarily eager to promote. In 2009, the city of over 2 million was selected as an Islamic Culture Capital by the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
So far, however, the dream depicted by Krens is far from becoming a reality. The Azerbaijani government has not yet approved the project, GCAM Vice President Donald Millinger told EurasiaNet. Meanwhile, representatives of Azerbaijan's Ministry of Culture and Tourism had no information about the proposed waterfront make-over.
GCAM's enthusiasm, though, shows no sign of diminishing. The partnership between GCAM and the Azerbaijani government took off in 2008 with the start of construction on Baku's Azerbaijan Modern Art Museum, which opened last March. After discussions with President Aliyev, Millinger recounted, Krens provided the overarching vision for the museum, designed by celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel.
"Mr. Krens was initially reluctant to consider a museum project for Baku, although it was clear that the city's stakeholders were motivated by the incontrovertible success of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao," Millinger recounted. "Naturally, Baku was eager to replicate this success story."
In an interview last March in Snob Magazine, a Beirut-based monthly, Krens hailed Aliyev as "a very smart man" who "has a vision for his country that is worthy of being supported."
Cleaning up the oil-polluted waters off Baku for the proposed "eco-cultural zone" pathway would seem to pose the most daunting challenge to Krens' vision. In 2008, Forbes Magazine ranked the sprawling metropolis as the world's dirtiest city, characterized by "[f]etid water, oil ponds and life-threatening levels of air pollution from oil drilling and shipping." [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Millinger said "existing technologies" should enable the group, along with its partner, EDAW, a landscape architecture firm now part of the US company AECOM, to turn the vision of an eco- and art-friendly walkway on the Baku shoreline into reality. He did not elaborate.
The project's total estimated cost remains a big unknown. A project presentation, however, was made last summer to First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who heads the deep-pocketed Heydar Aliyev Foundation, which recently financed projects at France's Versailles Palace, the Louvre Museum and the Cathdrale de Notre Dame de Strasbourg. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.] http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav082709a.shtml
GCAM's plans for the Baku waterfront have so far garnered scant publicity among Azerbaijani citizens, yet some prominent figures in the country's art community have lauded the project, saying it would give the capital a long-overdue chance to establish itself as a cultural destination.
The Nouvel-designed Azerbaijan Modern Art Museum, which houses over 800 works by Azerbaijani artists, is just the start, they say, for local contemporary artists to show what makes their works distinct. "Our artists do not have the temptation of cheapness, which is typical [of modern artists] since the appearance of Andy Warhol and his imitators," sniffed art critic Togrul Juvarly, a professor at Baku's Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Art.
"[S]culptures from toilet bowls, installations made out of umbrellas and things like that are a perception of art alien to Azerbaijani artists," Juvarly continued. "Probably it is because we did not have a large dissident movement and, therefore, there is no need for such forms of self-expression. ... There is no drive for an easy way to fame among our artists."
A report in the New York Times last November noted that the rise in Azerbaijan's energy wealth over the past decade has coincided with the appearance of Azerbaijani art pavilions at such prominent international venues as the Venice Biennale, along with exhibitions in Germany and Switzerland.
Liana Vezirova, director of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism's Museum Center, which houses display space for Azerbaijani carpets, musical instruments and a permanent exhibit on the country's independence struggle, noted that such Azerbaijani artists as painters Emin Askerov and Niyaz Nadjafov have established reputations and followings in Europe. She added that one downtown Baku gallery regularly stages Azerbaijani art exhibits in Germany and Switzerland.
Juvarly emphasized that a lack of proper art management, combined with the existence of ferocious international competition, continued to hamper efforts by Azerbaijani artists to break through in international art markets, in particular London.
While the Krens project would improve Baku's architecture, Juvarly added, the realization of a grand redesign of the city's waterfront would probably not provide a huge boost in the reputations of aspiring Azerbaijani artists.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan. Baku-based journalist Samira Nadjaf also contributed reporting for this story.