If You Build It, Will They Come?: Roanoke Tries for the Bilbao Effect

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When we hear “Roanoke” we think of two things: that whole spooky “Lost Colony” business (that was North Carolina though, not Virginia) and infomercials (it seems like every one of them would us send our $19.95 plus shipping and handling to a company headquartered there). But a new $66 million art museum designed by Gehry protegee Randall Stout aims to change our perceptions of the mid-size Virginia city (population: 92,500), with the help of the so-called Bilbao Effect.

A Gehry-esque assemblage of zinc, glass, and steel spires, the Art Museum of Western Virginia is slated to open in November. City officials hope that the new 81,000-square-foot facility will draw 500 visitors a day, each of them paying admission fees of $7 to $9. A recent New York Times article called the museum “one of the most expensive and controversial projects in the city’s history,” and described its detractors as likening its design “to the ‘wreck of the Flying Nun’ or the crash of a flying saucer, a mishmash of jutting angles.”

While the Times does a good job of outlining the controversy (including the efforts of museum leadership to dispel the perception of the museum as an elitist pet project of wealthy patrons), we never learn what, exactly, the place owns or hopes to show in the new space, beyond mention of “a special exhibit of Rembrandt paintings and etchings.” Here it would be helpful to remind the planners of Roanoke, as visions of Bilbao dance in their heads, that the museum that so inspires them is more than a Gehry-branded swirl of titanium. It’s also a Guggenheim.