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It worked in Bilbao. Will it succeed in Rio?

Rio de Janeiro signed a contract last week to build a Guggenheim museum. But urban revival plan is assailed.

It seems like one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

The Guggenheim, the renowned New York museum whose expansion into Spain turned the city of Bilbao into an international tourist destination and a paradigm for innovative new architecture, wants to build a new outpost in Rio.

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The only problem is, Rio is not sure it wants it. "Rio will lose," was the blunt assessment of Mario Del Rei, a city councilor and leading opponent of the project.

The Guggenheim, along with Rio Mayor Cesar Maia, wants to build a spectacular new museum on a derelict area by Rio's once bustling, and now run-down, port area. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the Guggenheim Rio would include galleries, restaurants, shops, and even a tropical garden. Much of the museum would be built under water.

Mr. Maia is betting that the presence of a name as famous as Guggenheim will lay the foundations for a new city center. He has already started work on turning a row of old warehouses nearby into a City of Samba and says the arrival of the Guggenheim will act as a further incentive to those wishing to invest in the area's revitalization.

"Other projects depend on the Guggenheim," Maia says. "If I don't sign that contract, then the port area won't be revitalized because there it won't be an attractive proposition."

Maia has made the project his personal baby and budgeted almost $200 million for it. The money, he says, comes from profits the city made by investing in international money markets. The construction of the museum itself would cost $125 million. The Guggenheim would not contribute any cash to the project and would receive $28.5 million in licensing fees. In exchange, Rio would get special access to the Guggenheim's New York collection and that of its partner museums, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

The center-right mayor predicts the resulting Guggenheim Rio will welcome as many as 1 million visitors a year and says only an unforeseen disaster can prevent it from recouping its investment within four years of its scheduled opening in 2006.

"I have this money ready and I just need to decide what I am going to do to help Rio de Janeiro recuperate the international prestige and importance that it had," he says. It is precisely that kind of grandiose thinking - and its cost - that has prompted opposition. Councilor Del Rei says building a Guggenheim would be "a disaster" for Rio because the city simply cannot afford to spend that much money on a museum when 1 in 4 residents has no running water.

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The center-left councillor led a formal investigation into the project and has asked a judge to abrogate the contract. He also launched criminal proceedings against Maia and four of his senior aides, accusing them of misusing public funds and improper contract licensing.

That formal opposition has been accompanied by more irreverent criticism from artists, activists, and anti-Maia politicians who believe the Guggenheim wants the deal only because it needs money to ease its financial problems. One group paraded during February's carnival dancing to a samba ridiculing the mayor.

Critics insist they are not opposed to the Guggenheim per se but rather against expenditure and the damage its arrival would do to the city's existing network of museums and cultural institutions. Paying for the museum's high cost could require cutting funds for dozens of museums, many of who rely on government money to survive, says Romaric Sulger Buel, who recently helped attract a major exhibition on surrealism.

"Rio has more than 100 museums and cultural institutions," says Mr. Sulger Buel. "Where will the others find the money they need for their exhibitions? It will be impossible for them to survive."

The often authoritarian Maia signed the contract with the Guggenheim in New York last Thursday but the deal will not mark an end to the protests from opponents such as Del Rei. "The Guggenheim should be about adding value to Rio," Del Rel says. The way it is being done it is adding value to the Guggenheim."


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