Situation of the cultural sector and the performing arts in Spain

You can read this article in Spanish

Things started going really bad in Spain between 2008 and 2011, with the beginning of cuts dictated by the European Commission, the Central European Bank and the International Monetary Fund - the dreaded Troika. Before that, the cultural sector and the performing arts had gone through almost 30 years of cultural policy developments aiming to create structures and to support creation and production of artistic works. With varying success, such policies organised   and strengthened an unprecedented artistic fabric. Austerity policies provoked a setback that will take several years to be overcome, if at all. 

It was the impetus of autonomous communities (regional governments), municipalities and to a lesser extent the central government that managed to build an artistic fabric and the necessary infrastructure to make it accessible to citizens. Through a diverse but consistent process, it was possible to implement support to productions and touring, to create new spaces for exhibitions and to renovate old theatres in medium-sized cities. Festivals and performing arts fairs were created, while the sectors were assembled in regional associations and federations with a national scope. Ultimately, a large network of public municipal theatres with regular programming (mostly drama) and national theatres, independent (or alternative) spaces and private commercial theatres in Madrid and Barcelona consolidated the performing arts scene.  

However, old habits of the Spanish culture didn't take long to reappear. Public cultural policies became interesting for the political confrontation at the local level, and the object of political cronyism. In several cases the artistic criteria for programming were replaced by political profitability and most productions leaned towards docile entertainment. So many historical theatre companies evolved into commercial production enterprises. All this merged with the dominant cultural policy discourse supporting cultural and creative industries and entrepreneurship. No doubt, at the end of the 90s neoliberalism had reached the Spanish cultural world. One has to keep in mind that, in the performing arts sector, the cultural industry narrative clashed with very small structures for creation and production, and with scarce resources available to plan significant economic operations. 

In this scenario, dominated by public cultural policies aiming at culture as a business and the trivialization of contents, a strong and vibrant generation of artists and companies managed to survive, engaging in artistic creation, new aesthetics and contemporary discourses. In a certainly not favourable context, contemporary dance and theatre have had to fight hard to be included in programs and media. In most cases, given the lack of opportunities at home, going international has been the most recurring option, and after the 2008 crisis, a necessity to survive. Artists and companies, like Agrupación Señor Serrano, el Conde de Torrefiel, Angélica Liddell or Olga Mesa, just to mention a few, are examples of how hardly certain contemporary artistic and stage languages fit in the Spanish production and exhibition structures.


© Picture of "Guerrilla" performance of el Conde de Torrefiel 

Another thing to keep in mind, and that has determined the current status of the performing arts, is the so-called real estate bubble and its influence on the artistic sector. Before 2008, banks granted loans very easily. At that time, the real estate sector, with the financial support of banks, rushed to buy land and build houses. From its part, the cultural sector, this time led by public institutions, did not remain indifferent to such a trend. A huge number of cultural centres and performing venues were built (some of them inspired by megalomaniac politicians), often lacking an artistic project, with scarce resources to function, and ultimately oversized comparing to the needs of their target population. Significant examples include “Cidade da Cultura” in Galicia, “Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències” in Valencia or “Ciudad de la Luz” in Alicante. Many examples are to be found in small cities as well.

Such was the state of affairs when budget cuts arrived. The Troika's stop at this folly and the austerity policies hit directly social, educational, health policies and, most stupidly, the cultural sector.

The global expenditure on culture[1] by the whole of the public administration in Spain was €7,090 million in 2008. In 2012 it dropped at €4,772 million, with a 33% decrease in 4 years. Although data from 2013[2] are incomplete, all seems to indicate that that year the public investment in culture arrived at 47% less than in 2008. This means a cut in budgets of about 50% in 5 years. Knowing that the number of public administrations’ personnel was stable during that period, we can argue that the actual cut to cultural and artistic projects was over 50%.

That was not all, unfortunately. The rise to power of the right wing party with absolute majority in late 2011 paved the way for two key facts. First, the VAT for culture raised from 8% to 21%. Second, the government announced a law on cultural patronage that would have compensated for the public budgets cuts, by introducing consistent fiscal exemptions to donors. However, such a law was never introduced. If the first measure was a deadly blow to the circulation of artistic contents, the second consolidated the cuts to public budgets for culture without introducing any compensation. 

The result of the last years of crisis shows in the living conditions of performing arts professionals. A recent study by FUNDACIÓN AISGE (Artistas Intérpretes Sociedad de Gestión) highlights that only 8,17% of all Spanish artists earn more than €12,000 per year. It also shows that 57% of artists are unemployed. More than half of the working ones earns less than €3,000 per year. In addition, working women are 6% less than men, they earn less, and they work without a contract more often than men. In such a scenario, new management models had to be implemented. Performing arts companies and productions got smaller, with tiny structures and no artistic staff employed. Additionally, they engage more and more with the international mobility of artists and productions. 

If the crisis has certainly stoked a blow to performing arts in Spain, it has provoked a reaction in the cultural sector. While new political and social movements stemmed from 15M (the indignados movement, groups occupying squares, etc.), part of the cultural sector has actively redefined its role in the current social and political context. New narratives have developed about the role of culture and the arts in today's world, emphasizing democratization and transparency of the cultural sector, equal opportunities to access top positions in public structures, connection with the grassroots level community outreach, popular culture and contemporary culture, free culture and the commons, and the need for a social status of the artists. 

The series of elections taking place in the last year have started to sketch a new political map in Spain. The situation moved from the overwhelming majority of the right-wing party at all levels of public institutions to a more diverse situation. Big cities, in general, chose a political change and this also shows, although timidly, in culture and in the performing arts. Thus new, more transparent public tenders have opened for the direction of cultural venues in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. These are little spear heads of a change in trends that may reach other cities and regions. On the other hand, painful steps back can also take place; the change is not consolidated. The case of Barcelona is emblematic in that: following political deals, the cultural sector is back in the hands of those who have always had power on it, who do not seem to plan any change. So the tenders for the direction of "GREC" and "Mercat de les Flors" festivals were changed at the very last moments, when they were to be launched following the criteria of a participative consultation with the city's cultural sector.

In the end, nothing noticeable has changed, and changes can always go backwards, but one can breathe some fresher air. That is a new horizon at the end of the long tunnel in which the cultural and performing arts sector in Spain have been walking in the last ten years. 

Translated into English by Elena Di Federico, IETM

[1] Data in this paragraph comes from the "Yearbook of Cultural Statistics 2015" by the Ministry of Education Culture and Sports of the Government of Spain
[2] No data about municipalities have been published. The 47% decrease refers to the situation at regional and central government level. 

Toni Gonzalez
Toni Gonzalez (Industrial engineer and actor) is an international consultant for arts and culture, also operating under the name "International Scene Bcn". He has been for over 25 years designer and organiser of international cultural and artistic projects.

He has been an IETM member since 1999 and is currently part of the Board of Directors. 

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