There is a greater need than ever for a public debate on the function that the museum should fulfil in Spanish society today.
Both left and right have acted cursorily with regard to museum and cultural institutions policy ever since the restoration of democracy in 1975.
As long as Spain remains a banana democracy, there is not much point in talking about museum policy.
Museums in Spain are springing up like mushrooms. Every city wants its Guggenheim Bilbao. But unfortunately a beautiful building is not enough. In the thoroughly politicised cultural climate of Spain, it is who you know that counts. According to Paco Barragán, the time is ripe to put a stop to this. Independent museum policy is incompatible with political interference.
During the recent Spanish elections, the Socialist party (PSOE) won with the slogan ‘Back to Europe’. After eight years of the right-wing Partido Popular (PP), with its ultra-liberal policy modelled after the Bush Administration, the Socialists would ensure that the country resumed its former position within Europe. More important still, the new premier, José Zapatero, promised a new style of government based on respect, dialogue and transparency. Spain would return to the fold of democratic old Europe. Nevertheless, one of the first measures taken by the newly appointed Minister of Culture in the Zapatero cabinet, Carmen Calvo, was the arbitrary appointment of a new director for the Reina Sofía, without any call for applications, job profile or policy proposals. Ana Martínez de Aguilar, who had been director of the insignificant Museo Esteban Vicente in Segovia until then, got the job on the recommendation of an art critic from the major national newspaper. In all honesty it should be added that the appointment was not made until others, including Vicente Todoli, director of the Tate Modern, and Manuel J. Borja Villel, director of the MACBA in Barcelona, had turned down the offer.
As can be seen from the minister’s acting on her own authority, forty years of dictatorship, during which modern art was neglected, cannot be undone just like that. For years, every national, regional and local election in Spain has been followed by a game of musical chairs played by the directors of museums and cultural institutions. So no one will be surprised that arts policy is primarily determined by a political agenda, and that there is no question of independent museums. Both left and right have acted cursorily with regard to museum and cultural institutions policy ever since the restoration of democracy in 1975. He who pays the piper calls the tune.
It is high time for a public debate on the function that the museum should fulfil in Spanish society today, but as long as Spain remains a banana democracy, there is not much point in talking about museum policy. Whether or not it is the task of a museum to inform the public about the latest developments, whether art should be presented in the museum or primarily outside it, whether it is the museum’s mission to engage in a more fruitful dialogue with the image at large in contemporary culture – these debates seem to be of little importance unless the organisational structure of the museums and cultural institutions is drastically changed.
Besides the political aspect mentioned above, there is another factor that affects the artistic climate of Spain: the relative isolation of the country, a consequence of the long period of dictatorial rule. This is expressed in the lack of international contacts, for instance with the directors of museums abroad. It is expressed in the inability to organise international exhibitions in cooperation with other parties (there is a preference for bringing foreign exhibitions to Spain), and in the incapacity to present the work of young, unknown artists in exhibitions or to give them a place in international collections. This isolation, exacerbated by the lack of English, has saddled Spain with an enormous inferiority complex, which means that everything that comes from abroad is considered better. Reason why Harald Szeemann was brought in to organise the retrospective of young Spanish art for PSI-Moma. Regrettably, the exhibition, entitled The Real Royal Trip, met with overwhelmingly negative press. The narrow-mindedness even goes so far that internationally orientated Spanish curators such as Vicente Todoli, Bartomeu Mari, Rosa Martínez, Octavio Zaya or Juan Vicente Aliaga systematically ignore Spanish artists. Take for instance the book Vitamin P in which some of these curators were involved. Among the more than one hundred showcased painters there was only one Spaniard, and he was chosen by a French curator!
Is there really nothing of interest to be found among the many Spanish artists? This is a question that has suddenly become topical again now that María Corral and Rosa Martínez have been appointed artistic directors of the Venice Biennale. It remains to be seen which Spanish artists they will come up with, that is, if they manage to find anyone at all this time.
The Guga effect
Whether you are talking about the public sector (at national, regional and municipal level), the private sector, or a combination of the two, it cannot be said of Spain that it has a poor museum structure. More than twenty museums and art centres have sprung up in the past three years alone, and the end of this avalanche of new spaces does not appear to be in sight yet. The periphery wants to put itself on the map too, and in the last few years various local politicians, their mouths watering at the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao, have been calling for their slice of the cake. In itself this kind of emphasis on culture is positive, but it is a pity that the fever has been brought on by the Guga effect and not by the prestige that the Reina Sofía in Madrid or the IVAM in Valencia have built up through their own efforts.
It should be clear that it is not easy to match the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao. Apart from the international collection that Bilbao has at its disposal, it should be noted that the museum has benefited from the presence of an already solid infrastructure comprising renowned institutions such as the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, the Sala Rekalde, and the Koldo Mitxelena. That cultural context is missing in many other places in Spain, and that the public is not very keen on a new museum or contemporary arts centre, add to that the lack of vision (of the future) and the often hasty approach, and the consequences are predictable: many of the art centres that were presented with great ostentation have collapsed like a house of cards.
I shall present some examples of the demise of the Spanish museums. The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS), that achieved a notable reputation in Spain and abroad in the early 1990s with María Corral as director, has not played an international role of any significance for years. The museum appears to be unable to organise exhibitions that interest museums outside Spain. The policy of Juan M. Bonet, the director who had to leave after the last change of government, was extremely uninspiring. There have been exhibitions devoted to Juan Gris, to the mediocre paintings of the poet Rafael Alberti, and to the creations of the couturier Pertegaz (who also designed the wedding dress of the future queen). These are hardly striking examples of modernism for a museum that aims to be the platform of the Spanish avant-garde.
In Valencia the Centro del Carmen, the space of the IVAM devoted to contemporary art, which had managed to achieve an international reputation with various exhibitions, closed its doors two years ago. The Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo de Castellón (EACC), directed at the time by José Miguel Cortés, closed last May. This was one of the most talked about centres of contemporary art, which had established a great reputation in barely three years with exhibitions like Zona F., on feminist discourse in modern art, and Hipertronix, an exhibition about youth cultures. The pretext presented for its closure was an exhibition about violence, but the real reason is connected with a struggle for power within the ranks of the PP, the ruling party in the autonomous region of Valencia. A little further south, in Alicante, the promising Museo Universitario de Alicante (MUAC), one of the few museums to pay any attention to art in combination with technology, has died a quiet death. It was one of the last museums in the region.
If we go even further south, we arrive in Murcia, where the Centro Párraga is due to open in February 2005. After drawing up a long-term plan for the museum and organising several exhibitions in cooperation with other centres, including No lo llames performance/Don’t call it Performance, and Postverité, the director Juan Antonio Álvarez Reyes was pushed aside before the opening of the building to make way for a relative of the premier of the region. In Andalucia there is the case of the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC), which went through a period without a director before appointing José Lebrero Stals, from the MACBA in Barcelona, in June 2003. Until March 2004, when the Socialists won the regional elections in Andalucia, Lebrero did not know whether he would be able to stay on or not, with all the ensuing uncertainty for the long-term policy of the museum. Thus the Seville Biennale is being held at the moment without the Centro’s having been able to take a decision on participating.
Given the political manipulation, the inferiority complex and the lack of commitment to Spanish modern art, I sincerely believe that discussions about the so-called transparency of the present era, the redefinition of a museum context, or the connection between the museum and the visual culture of which it is a part, are only relatively important. Unless we go back to Europe and put an end to the corrosive interference of politics in the policy of the art platforms, there is little point in deliberating whether the museum is necessary, and if so, what kind of a museum it should be and which message we would like to get across.