On 5 October the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum celebrates its 110th anniversary. Between the time of its foundation in 1908 and the present day the museum has assembled a collection of recognised merit which principally spans the 13th to the 20th centuries, totalling more than 14,000 works of art (1,621 paintings, 489 sculptures, 884 examples of the decorative arts, 11,152 works on paper and almost 3,000 works on deposit).
The museum was founded through the initiative of a group of local citizens with the admirable aim of accompanying the city's new economic prosperity with a cultural renaissance. At that moment of its foundation the philanthropic spirit of those who donated or deposited works of art was essential and they were joined in this endeavour by the City Council and the Provincial Council, which deposited and acquired works for the new museum (these founding institutions were joined in 1991 by the Basque Government).
The project also secured the loyalty of the local community of artists who were one of the most active in Spanish art at the time and also had contacts with the European avant-garde. From Durrio to Zuloaga, Regoyos and Arteta, this support for the museum on the part of artists was essential and from the outset determined the emphasis on contemporary art that has persisted over the course of its history.
After being located in various different buildings, the Old Building of the museum opened in 1945 on the city's new Ensanche. It was built to a design by the architects Fernando Urrutia and Gonzalo Cárdenas inspired by a Neo-classical idiom that followed the model of the Museo del Prado designed by Juan de Villanueva in 1785.
The Old Building has an L-shaped ground-plan of two storeys with galleries for the display of works and a basement with space for the museum's internal use. The entrance lobby, known as the Mogrobejo Hall, is one of the most striking spaces. With a bi-colour marble floor, it has a grand
staircase of three flights and an unusual balustrade. It is lit from an overhead skylight and by a large window on the landing.
On the south side a flat arched gallery supported by columns emphasises the classicising symbolism of a public building with the mission of presenting a collection through a discourse based on the history of art.
Over the past few months the interior of the Old Building, which opened in 1945 and was declared a Historic-Artistic Monument in 1962, has been the subject of an extensive remodelling project directed by the architect Luis María Uriarte, who designed the most recent extension in 2001 and is thus extremely familiar with the building.
The aim of the latest project arises from a reflection on one of the museum's key obligations: that of "exhibiting the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum's collection of old, modern and contemporary art", as set out in its founding mission statement. In addition, the nature of the original building has imposed certain conceptual and functional limitations which have oriented this intervention at all times.
Starting from these premises, the aim has been to increase the visual and spatial breadth in the galleries while respecting the original lighting, which is overhead from central skylights in the galleries' ceilings in the north wing and on the first floor, and lateral in the rooms giving onto the façade. With this aim in mind the building has been opened up to natural light, reinstating the original arrangement of the lighting by eliminating the panels that closed up the windows on the first floor.
The present intervention has also reopened the view onto the surrounding garden and its urban setting. The windows into the galleried terrace, those on the side of the building and on the terrace looking onto the pool had deteriorated over time and have been replaced. Finally, the skylights on the first floor have been raised to gain height and display space.
The addition of an oak floor installed over the original one also reflects this aim of visual clarification, eliminating the notorious presence of reflections caused by the polished black Marquina marble which is characterised by its shine and irregular white veining. The bi-colour marble floor has been left visible in connecting zones such as the vestibules that link the building's two wings. The colour of the wood fittings has also been toned down, unifying it with the walls to obtain a more neutral ambience.
This remodelling of the building's interior thus maintains the original architectural character of the museum: a place specially designed for its visitors and one that prioritises the display of the works of art housed in it.
• Remodelled surface area: galleries 1.846 square metres (Rooms 1-15: 893 square metres, Rooms 16-20: 316 square metres, Rooms 21-31: 637 square metres). The Mogrobejo Stuccoed Hall: 370 square metres.
• Budget: 996,565 Euros, financed by the Museum's Founding Trustees: the City Council of Bilbao, the Provincial Council of Vizcaya and the Basque Government, and by BBK, an Honorary Patron and Trustee of the museum.