Artist's utopian dream dies amid Spain's economic crisis

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A cultural jewel near San Sebastian, the museum of sculptor Eduardo Chillida, will be forced to close at the end of this year, victim of Spain's troubled economy.

The open-air museum on a wooded hillside in the town of Hernani is studded with more than 40 monumental abstract sculptures by the late Basque sculptor, one of Spain's most important 20th century artists.

Since it opened 10 years ago, the Chillida-Leku Museum's garden of seemingly-weightless iron and steel has attracted 810,000 visitors, most of them foreign tourists. It was conceived as a "utopian dream" by the artist when he refurbished a decrepit 16th-century farmhouse to store his oxidising works, inspired by his rural-yet-industrial Basque roots. After his death in 2002, the museum was run entirely by his family – without government support.

But save a last-minute bailout from the government, it seems the artist's dream has come to an end. This week, the Chillida family announced that the museum will close on 1 January because of the "recurring deficit due to the general economic crisis, which has risen to a level unsustainable for the private institution".

Unfortunately, the general public has shown less interest than the black market for art. Days before the museum closure was announced, three hooded men stole a truckload of artwork in Madrid worth about €5m (£4.2m), including many pieces by the Basque artist, in one of Spain's biggest art heists in years.

At the museum, the number of visitors willing to pay the €8.50 admission fee has dropped by 25 percent, as British and German tourists stay closer to home and even locals are too harried to make time for the 10km journey from the resort town of San Sebastian. "The Chillida-Leka has not died because of negligence or lack of interest, or anybody's ill will, but because of the winds that blow" in tough economic times, read a wistful opinion piece in Thursday's El Pais newspaper.

But even before the financial crisis hit, the artist's family was apparently concerned about whether the low-key museum could survive. As early as 2005, the museum tried to negotiate financial support from the Culture ministry of the Basque region, but talks failed. The sticking point: artistic control of the museum, which could be compromised, the Chillida family feared, if the government helps pay the bills. In this week's announcement, the Chillida family said that the museum "remains open to an agreement" with the government that "respects" the sculptor's original vision of an intimate space inhabited by his creations.

Chillida's works in iron, steel and stone adorn public squares and prominent sites around the world, from the Wind Comb VI outside the Unesco building in Paris to a sculpture entitled Around the Void V outside the World Bank in Washington, DC. Germany is especially fond of his work, with 11 public Chillida sculptures, including a monument to German unification outside the German Chancellery in Berlin.

The artist's gravitating hulks and undulating forms are ubiquitous in Spain, where 25 massive sculptures pay tribute to water, peace, tolerance and steel. His most emblematic is El Peine del Viento, or Wind Comb, a series of three pronged curves that reach out, claw-like, from a cliff above the often rough seas of La Concha Bay.