Summer is just around the corner, and an equally hot post-electoral period also beckons. This would seem a convenient point for taking time out for reflection, to be self-critical with regard to the collective processes which have taken place over the last ten months. This of course began with the Meeting of Madrid Artists' Organizations and led to the creation of the Platform for the Fund for the Arts of Madrid. This now boasts a membership consisting of over 40 organizations, self-run centres, associations, plus over 150 individuals. The cultural scene in Madrid extends much further in reality, but up to now there has never been such a convergence of cultural agents in our City and Autonomous Region.
The proposal in question, the Fund for the Arts, is merely a system of support for the arts comparable to what already exists in neighboring European countries, in any big city (or administrative district comparable to our Autonomous Regions). A public system, regulated, set up on the basis of consensus with those at which it is directed. A system that supports creation in its myriad forms, that supports self -organization for creators, enabling them to develop their own means of production and distribution. A system that uses up-to-date and realistic assessment criteria and that inspires experimentation, and supports cultural models that do not see themselves as just another business. A system that allows artists and creators to develop their careers, get involved in relevant international circuits, and work in an atmosphere of freedom, something which has been frequently lacking in Madrid.
A peculiarity of the proposed Funding Programme is that it is ‘inter-administrational’; that is to say, it is a budget provided by the City Council and Regional Government, within a framework to co-ordinate their action and help prevent overlap of responsibilities. After all, both bodies direct their efforts at broadly the same social target, given that 50% of the population of the Madrid Region live in the city municipality. This is where practically all cultural activity takes place, notwithstanding those artists that live in the different municipalities. The participation of different administrations in the proposed fund also provides stability. We know that a municipal Funding Programme could conceivably disappear as fast as it appears, as in the case of the Grants from the Matadero Centre. However, the cancellation of the Funding Programme would have repercussions for whichever body was responsible, leaving the other in a favourable light by default, as it were.
Ideally the Funding Programme would include other administrations: municipalities in the Madrid Region where creative networks are weak or small, yet have potential to play a greater part in future cultural scenarios. Not forgetting of course central government. I think that the Madrid City Council could even issue calls for projects open to other municipalities of the region, at least initially. Again, in in ideal world the Fund could acquire public Foundation status, which would increase its independence and stability along with the possibility of attracting private funding, especially if there were a law for sponsorship programmes. But, unlike in such an ideal world, the reality is that Madrid is 30 years behind with its cultural policymaking, and its creators in whatever fields are at breaking point. As a result, the proposal for the Fund is currently on the tables of the City Council and Regional Government.
There are also many people, artists and cultural administrators included, who are against funding grants. I think it is worth pausing to consider this point. Most people believe that there is a grant whenever public money is transferred to civil society, to individuals. That is not quite right. The grant is a means of making this transfer, subject to legislation. Yet the public administrations also award contracts, for example, and they can do so arbitrarily up to a certain limit beyond which public tendering takes over. Grants are a legal framework to ensure that access to public funding is transparent and kept under control. In my experience over the years, those who reject grant funding usually do so because they prefer the cronyist approach. Look at the example of Esperanza Aguirre, president of the Madrid Region, who went on on on about ‘gravy trains’, yet whose party at that exact moment had a vast network of corruption trails based on a payroll using slush funds.
Many of those working in culture are used to accessing public funding through their personal contacts, and that is something which must come to an end. To preserve the dignity of cultural activity and those operating within it, the ‘back door’ must be sealed off once and for all. One thing is the freedom of cultural institutions to invite or take on artists, curators, speakers, and so on; quite another is for public access to policymaking to operate on an ‘it’s who you know’ basis. More importantly, when we speak of grant-funded culture as a culture bound to party political interests, who operate the tap controlling the flow of public money, it is precisely that situation we are referring to. The need to ‘get in’ with those who hold office and their assessors in order to gain access to resources leads necessarily to docility and absence of critical discourses.
I was surprised last may when Podemos, in their presentation of cultural policy for the Madrid region, expressly rejected grant funding for culture. Cultural policies, where funding is yet another tool, have as their aim to counteract the deviations caused by the market and address social inequality. This affects funding given to culture in the same way as that which goes to political parties, to give just one example. Nobody has ever called the latter into question, of course; we know that without them, those with vast sums of money would have an unfair advantage even if they had fewer votes. The term is ugly and the state funding law is a shambles, but it is not the grant funding itself which ties the work of intellectuals and artists to party political interests: it is the dysfunctional process in the form of arbitrary use of the taxpayers money which does so. If there is no legal framework then there is nothing to stop those in power looking after those who toe the line whilst marginalizing critical discourse. What we at the Platform request, as has been said, is is that legal framework for a programme of support for cultural undertakings, set up in collaboration with those at whom it is directed. One of the aims of the Fund is to improve the procedures involved, such as overcoming bureaucratic obstacles, thus facilitating access.
From this point of view, cultural policies ought to focus on promoting those undertakings that take risks, and which by their experimental nature are not based on financial return but on producing new knowledge. The 15-M movement taught us one great thing: the old ways of ruling are over, or at least should be. Society wants to and should participate actively in policymaking. We are no longer content just to visit the ballot box once every four years and hope for the best. I think that the same applies to culture, and participation is an inherent part of any work in that field.
A few days ago, I participated in the Second Congress of Cultural Press at the Santillana Foundation. The director Basilio Baltasar expressed this shift by means of an image which I have adopted for my talk: the pyramid versus the Calder mobile. In terms of cultural policy, the society we have been living in resembled a pyramid. At the top, those with political responsibility: ministers of culture, councillors, and so forth, who set out the direction to take and choose content. Beneath these come public institutions and civil servants, whose speciality is making these political decisions into concrete reality through various programs. Then come the creators, destined to move within the tight framework assigned to them by those with politicial responsibility, being careful all the time not to move outside the set limits of content and action. And at the base of the pyramid lies wider society, conceived as a passive entity, an audience who are there to receive the ‘benefits’ of culture handed down from on high.
However, the real world is not like that. The cultural ecosystem actually resembles a Calder mobile, made up of an infinite number of pieces of different shapes and sizes, highly mobile, and adaptable to a changing reality. In this scenario, the aim of cultural policy ought to be that of maintaining the connections between the pieces and ensuring they stay connected to the complex superstructure that is today’s society.
To get back to the Fund, the path we have travelled up to now has not been easy. The Madrid Regional Goverment rejected the idea in the first meeting, in January of this year, and shut the door to future negotiations. It has taken ten months to get the Madrid City Council to sit down with us, only to discover that during all that time it seems we were separately taking the same route before our paths converged. Whilst retaining a healthy suspicion of public institutions, and keeping in mind that we are in an election campaign period, I believe that the City council have taken on board the complex creative network existing in Madrid and also the need for developing cultural policies with those who constitute it. We, as a platform but also as a diverse collection of undertakings, want to contribute towards the formation of a great cultural project for Madrid along with many other groups. And at last it seems likely that the opportunity for meaningful dialogue to this end has arisen.
This new situation also allows us to focus on the area where the problem really lies: the Madrid Autonomous Region. This is because most people have no idea that it is this body that has responsibility for nurturing creation and implementing the system of support which we have been demanding. This has been the case since the legislation of 1985, which set out not only the responsibilty but also the economic means to do so. That the City Council wants to support the arts is wonderful, but it is scandalous that the regional Government does not.
The Regional Government has systematically evaded its legal responsibilities, continues to do so and shows no sign of stopping. Besides, it remains stuck in the pyramid model, where society at large is relegated to a bit player. Proof of this was made visible when, during the meeting in January, the representative of their Cultural Promotion Department explained that the procedure for accessing resources was ‘send Javier an email’. No further comment necessary.
The refusal of Cristina Cifuentes’ administration to engage in dialogue of any kind with cultural agents, who have painstakingly at personal cost produced cultural offerings, leaves only one path open: present the project to the Culture Commission at the Regional Parliament. It would be hoped that the representatives of Podemos, PSOE and Ciudadanos parties have accepted the idea that from now on, cultural policymaking is something to be done by all of us.
Follow-up in September.
Thanks for the translation to Ben Roberts