Buenos Aires is well known as a cultural centre in Latin America, with a long and rich history in the arts. The city has a broad selection of cultural offerings, ranging from major international festivals and the world-famous Teatro Colón opera house to scores of independent theatres and underground galleries.
Since 2007, the city government, headed by Mayor Mauricio Macri, has put the promotion of culture high on the agenda. But with the emphasis on large, high profile events and festivals, there is some concern that the impressive cultural programme is driven mainly for commercial gain and international prestige, while the capital’s thriving alternative cultural scene is being neglected, even stifled.
The Occupation of Sala Alberdi
The city’s cultural paradox can be found on the sixth floor of the San Martin Cultural Centre. Sala Alberdi is a co-operative theatre, run on donations and completely independent to the city government, which controls all the other floors of the building.
Sala Alberdi has been occupied since 17th August 2010 by an expanding group of squatters. Originally, the theatre was opened in 2006 by the Arts Education Department (DGEArt) of the city government as a space for vocational theatre studies. Squatter and actor, Ryan Farser Osorio, under a false name for security reasons, remembers “at one point we had 30 courses with 400 students, it was really good, and it was really cheap.”
However, just a few months after opening, Osorio claims that the government deliberately began to cut funding, fire teachers, and stop certain courses to tactically disable the space.
The case echoed actions taken by the city government in 2008. Funding for El Programa Cultural en Barrios, a neighbourhood culture programme that had been running since 1984, was cut by almost 55%, according to a report in local daily La Nación. Workshops that were free for adults and children around the city, offering access to numerous disciplines, were scaled down or discontinued altogether. Some 500 teachers lost their jobs.
Taking an extra step however, in March 2010, the government attempted to shut Sala Alberdi down completely on the grounds that not enough people were attending. But six months after its doors were officially closed, some passionate members returned, and took over.
They remain there today, now with the city government as an opponent. “There always has to be someone here in case the police or security guards come,” says Osorio. “It has been very difficult; there have been police sent here several times. One time the government sent two thugs here who beat up one of the boys…you can still see the brown where they burnt the doors to open them.”
Public Spaces for the Public
The squatters at the controversial Sala Alberdi theatre say they are trying to protect the space from becoming privatised. Osorio describes how “the government wanted to earn some money from the space, to change it illegally, and put money into changing the whole building [San Martin Cultural Centre] in accordance with the wishes of private contractors.”
The activist explains that although the building is legally public, the city government has already turned the other three theatre spaces in the building into cinemas for private contractors to rent for 100-year terms. The loop-hole: as long as the spaces aren’t sold outright, they are still technically public.
“This building is public, supposedly. It is not to be privatised or owned by anyone,” says squatter and theatre student Marco Alberdi, also under a false name. Matter-of-factly, he adds, “The law is made for the people, the people that have money.”
Juan Manuel Beati, minister of cultural spaces in the Buenos Aires government says the mentality of an artist is always different to that of lawyers and officials. “We are not a first world country. A lot of people talk about independent events, theatre, cinema, but this costs millions of dollars or euros…in reality, we do not have the economic capacity to be seriously independent. Our [government] conduct and imagination is to supply what the discourse lacks [money].”
However, Beati, also managing director of Proteatro, a government sector that aids independent theatre, is positive about the scene and stresses that access to the arts is not difficult in Buenos Aires. From his experience, he says, climbing the ranks in vocational, independent and commercial theatre is very possible.
When asked about the Sala Alberdi, he says “it is a government theatre, not an independent theatre and it has had problems for many years. In this subject I cannot help you. I recommend talking to DGEArt.”
DGEArt, however, did not respond to any questions.
A Mecca of Culture or Commerce?
The city’s ministry of culture’s jurisdiction aims to “project Buenos Aires into the international sphere of production and exportation of culture”, as “culture, technology and the production of knowledge create waves for social and economic development”.
References to economic development and profitability are highlighted throughout the document. And while the manifesto claims that supporting small and medium cultural enterprises (PyMEs) is a key aim, it appears this only applies when they are making money.
There have been several other unsettling cases in recent years concerning the commercialisation of public property. Criticising Macri for viewing the world-acclaimed Teatro Colón opera house as an “empty box”, employees of the theatre revolted against recent renovations, claiming that more attention was paid to the event rooms that were to be hired out to foreign companies than the stage flooring.
“It is really important to divide the commercial world from visual arts; cultural action is public,” says Andrés Duprat, Visual Arts Director in the National Ministry of Culture. “The city government is very much centralised around festivals. Focusing on permanent institutions for me is more important.”
Almost a third of the total budget for culture is been allocated for festivals held in the city, which showcase some of the city’s most prestigious cultural spaces and artistic talent. Well-organised, diverse, and often free, almost every month offers a different themed festival for Argentines and tourists alike to indulge in, which they do in great numbers. The events are heavily promoted by the city government and receive a great deal of media attention, both in Argentina and beyond.
Last week saw the latest spectacle, the Buenos Aires International Jazz Festival (BAJ). Now in its 9th year, the festival has been expanded in the last two years, and brought together an array of local and major international jazz artists, fusing together a programme that would “appeal to everyone”.
Jorge Freytag, radio presenter and on-stage presenter of BAJ at the Recoleta Cultural Centre, says the festival opens new doors. “It is interesting how international musicians play alongside Argentines, this is important, Argentines grow musically through this,” he adds, “and these musicians stay in the city, playing in different venues, influencing other Argentine artists.”
Yet, despite the apparent popularity of the city government’s grand cultural innovations, it seems many artists remain unsatisfied and feel excluded within their own city.
“Could we go to a festival and learn something from it? Yes,” a concerned Osorio states. “But they [the city government] are killing Argentine culture in order to give people the culture that the market decides, importing foreign ideals. We want people to think for themselves.”
Places like Sala Alberdi stage performances and hold workshops, but, on the whole, do not make much money, nor attract international headlines. Their value lies in providing grass-roots cultural development and encouraging artistic expression in local communities, and that is what Osorio and the other squatters are fighting to preserve.
“It’s illegal what we are doing, yes,” admits Osorio, “but it is more illegal what they are doing…What we have learned is the one that matters at the end of the day is not the legal aspect, but the political,” he adds.