$106 Million Art Center Rises in Spain

Applaudable private arts patronage or appalling vanity project?

Emilio Botín in Santander Photo via: Fundación Botín

A $106 million art center is being built in Santander on the northern coast of Spain. Called the Centro Botín and scheduled to open in 2015, the institution is the long-held dream of the banker Emilio Botín III. As the New York Times reported, his Fundación Botín has paid for the entire project, making it the largest private cultural investment in the country, currently. Cash is not a problem for Botín, the third-generation president of Banco Santander, Spain’s leading bank. With austerity measures choking off public funding for museums and art institutions, private foundations are becoming key players in Spain’s cultural landscape, and Botín’s is set to become the strongest of them all.

At age 79, Emilio Botín is an unusual cultural benefactor. Unlike other high-flying patrons and foundation owners, like Bernard Arnault or Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, he is neither an art collector nor a glitz lover. His penchant for art comes from his grandmother and great-grandfather, who made it into the annals of art history by discovering in 1879 the famous prehistoric rock paintings in the local Altamira cave.

Vanity Project?

The building, designed by the Centre Pompidou architect Renzo Piano, is currently being erected from pillars embedded on the public waterfront. The move has provoked legal complaints and even scorn from some critics who have deem it a “vanity project” to glorify a banker in his company town.

A collective of ecology activists, unhappy about the city’s public quay and seaside views being exploited for private use, lost a lawsuit recently aimed at halting the construction. But the project is also raising many positive expectations about the economical impact that a top-notch art center could have in the area, much like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim transformed the neighboring city of Bilbao, only 60 miles east.

“This building is a gift to the city of Santander,” Botín III recently told the New York Times. “The Botín family is not building it for ourselves. We are creating a building that will be a home for art and education and will help local people and become a global attraction. People in Santander are very conservative, and we hope it will open minds like the Guggenheim Bilbao did.” he continued.

The Fundación Botín was created in 1964 by Botín III’s father Marcelino and has no doubt already been a valuable asset in the Spanish art landscape. The foundation has built a strong collection acquiring pieces from workshops sponsored for well-known artists including Tacita Dean, Gabriel Orozco, Jannis Kounellis, and Miroslaw Balka. It is also behind a generous program of grants supporting emerging Spanish artists and curators.

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