On a Shoestring
Institutions in Catalonia
The argument that every sector has to bear the pain in difficult economic times – which in Spain is manifested by unemployment levels of 27 percent – is, of course, one that echoes across Europe. Yet the recent cuts to cultural funding in Barcelona and Catalonia – which have resulted in reductions in staff and programming at the flagship Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), the closure of the exhibition venue Espai Zero1 in Olot and the residency centre Can Xalant in Mataró, to cite just a few examples – are reshaping the region’s entire cultural capacity. The often unscrupulous influence of politics that is also endured on a national level – witness the recent shenanigans at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León (MUSAC), where two directors have resigned in protest in the last year – is frequently effecting the devaluation of the autonomous artistic direction of publically funded institutions. The stillborn Centre d’Art Tarragona or the sabre-rattling at the visual arts programme of Barcelona’s Can Felipa civic centre are cases in point.
Rootlessness and discontinuity could once be excused by overlapping four-year political cycles of rival city and regional coalition administrations. Yet with elections in 2010 and 2011 deciding that both offices come under the control of the Catalan nationalist party Convergència i Unió (Convergence and Union), a cynic might say that the policy for contemporary art in the city now at least appears to be willful. The history of the Barcelona art institution commonly known as Santa Mònica is symptomatic. Housed in a former convent on Les Rambles, its founding in 1988 by the Generalitat – the Catalan government – pre-dates both MACBA and Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS). Originally functioning under the name Centre d’Art Santa Mònica (CASM), as a bona fide kunsthalle showcasing both Catalan and international contemporary art, its overhaul in 2009 as Arts Santa Mònica saw it juggling ‘contemporary artistic creation and science, thought and communication’. With culture tsar Ferran Mascarell deeming it time for another shake-up, the institution’s future from October 2013 lies in its rebranding as a ‘centre for creativity’: under the direction of the Generalitat’s arts coordinator Conxita Oliver, it will no longer host exhibitions but will adopt a suite of creative industries’ aspirations and operate as a Catalan ‘talent radar’. In May this year, when the Generalitat’s director of Cultural Industries, Jordi Sellas, suggested dj Sak Noel – best known in the UK for his 2011 hit, ‘Loca People’, a paean to viva la fiesta tourism – might form part of the new programme, it wasn’t quite clear whether, or on whose part, a Swiftian satire might be intended.
Such a development apes the message of the city council’s framing of ex-industrial arts spaces as the Fàbriques de Creació de Barcelona (officially ‘Barcelona Art Factories’). Both need not only be read in the context of a necessary post-crisis culture-sector process towards fostering sustainable private partnerships and healthy sponsorship, or as symptoms of a political drift to the right, which expects a Scottish-style independence vote for Catalonia in 2014. As president of the Catalan Art Critics Association Joan M. Minguet has noted, they are part of an art-historical process in which new criteria for measuring the worth of culture – applied verbatim from neoliberal urbanism and creative class theory – are reframing the artist as an entrepreneur.
Artists Efrén Álvarez, Victor Jaenada and collaborators have honed one particular response to being cultural producers in the city, to which seemingly no one in the Spanish art world or political elite is immune. Scabrous ridicule and frequently puerile caricature distinguishes fanzines including Poemas de interpelación (Plea Poems, 2012) and La Catalunya Triomfant (Triumphant Catalonia, 2012), which have been presented at the bygone Espai Cultural Caja Madrid as well as at the newly opened non-profit adn Platform. Dogged critical history has proved another strategy. In June, Tere Badia, Jorge Luis Marzo, Montse Romaní, Guillermo Trujillano and the late Octavi Comeron, released a feature-length documentary MACBA: La dreta, l’esquerra i els rics (MACBA: The Right, the Left and the Rich, 2013) tracing the motives that informed and continue to mould Barcelona’s contemporary art museum as it merges its collection with that of Spain’s third-largest bank, La Caixa. Shot on a shoestring budget, the film comprises a series of interviews which reveal political hubris is nothing new. In March 2014, the Fundació Joan Miró will open an exhibition surveying the 35-year history of Espai 13 – formerly Espai 10 – an indispensable space dedicated to the work of young artists. Meanwhile, artist-run spaces including Halfhouse and ethall in Barcelona, residency organizations bar and Homesession, as well as Dafo Projects in Lleida are all flourishing from the bottom up, to say nothing of the handful of commercial galleries weathering the recent influx to Madrid that have taken up the slack by supporting the work of emerging artists.
As Peter Osborne (Professor of Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, London) outlined in a lecture at MACBA in April 2012, ‘the contemporary’ as a fully fledged art-historical concept finds its feet as a term of permanent ‘disjunctive temporalities’. Much of what is at stake culturally in the city and region might therefore pivot on understanding not only what is invoked when desiring industrious creativity as opposed to art, but what is genuinely invoked with a desire to articulate the present.
First published in Issue 158