Latvia hopes for Baltic 'Bilbao effect' with Rothko museum

The opening of a museum dedicated to US art superstar Mark Rothko in his Latvian birthplace is raising hopes the city of Daugavpils could attract thousands of new tourists and revitalise the economy.

Officials believe the Mark Rothko Art Centre will have a "Bilbao effect" -- a term used to describe the pivotal role the Guggenheim Museum played in reviving the depressed Basque metropolis.

"The museum will be both the pearl of our city and the brand of our city and the whole country," mayor Zanna Kulakova said at the opening last month.

Rothko, who died in 1970, became a giant of the modern art world through his characteristic style: a seemingly simple but arresting juxtaposition of blocks of vibrant colour.

Along with examples of his abstract expressionism, the Daugavpils collection contains figurative works from his earlier experiments with colour.

Art lovers willing to make the pilgrimage to the southern city -- known as Dvinsk in the Russian Empire when Rothko was born in 1903 -- will have to show endurance if they want to lay eyes on the centre's six masterpieces.

The 230-kilometre (140-mile) ride from the capital Riga takes three hours on a highway that for much of its route is a pot-holed carriageway.

The trundling trains take even longer, while Daugavpils airport -- a military remnant of the Soviet era -- lies unused.

Once there, visitors must then locate the museum within a labyrinthine Tsarist-era fortress complex surrounded by crumbling buildings and ramshackle flats.

Inna Steinbuka, the head of the European Commission in Latvia, said the museum "will give a new impetus to the city", drawing art lovers and spurring economic development in Daugavpils and the surrounding area.

"We can look at the examples of Bilbao and maybe Metz in France. In Metz the branch of the Pompidou centre made Metz visible. Daugavpils also needs this visibility and its own brand," she told AFP.

Turning the former arsenal into the gallery cost 5.7 million euros ($7.5 million), with 85 percent covered by the EU.

In a reversal of Riga's usual cultural dominance, the museum will be promoted as an attraction in 2014 when Riga becomes one of two European capitals of culture, said Armands Slokenbergs, head of the Latvian tourism development agency, along with the Swedish city of Umea.

"Hopefully this will give some impetus to other things such as investment into Daugavpils airport," added Ojars Sparitis, a professor at the Latvian Academy of Arts.

Price tags of up to $86.9 million for Rothko's work stand in stark contrast to the fortunes of the artist's native city, which lies in one of the EU's poorest regions.

The gross average monthly wage in the Latgale region is just 500 euros per month, according to official data, significantly below the national average of 732 euros.

Unemployment runs at 21 percent, according to March figures from the state employment agency.

The day of the opening, the surrounding district was under a state of emergency due to flooding after the river Daugava broke its banks, the waters lapping almost a stone's throw from the steps of the freshly-painted art centre.

Pushing her baby in a buggy close to the museum, young mother Liga, who declined to give her surname, said she would wait to see what effect the museum would have.

"The roads around the museum have been repaired, but the others are still bad," she said.

"What is there for people besides the museum? They will look at the pictures then go back to Riga."

Yet she admitted she plans to visit the museum, whose officials are banking on Rothko's cult following to draw 90,000 visitors a year in a city of just 100,000 people.

Within minutes of reading a report of the museum's opening, Swiss hotelier Jean-Paul Herzog decided to visit in June.

"I will visit Daugavpils specifically for the Rothko museum," Herzog told AFP.

A Rothko fan since the 1970s, Herzog said he was inspired by the "radiant calm" of the pictures - a quality that will come in handy after the long, bumpy ride to Daugavpils.

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