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‘Cultural Revolution’ en The New Statesman

Hoy salió mi artículo sobre los museos en Venezuela en la revista británica The New Statesman, ilustrado con fotografías de Francesco Spotorno. Para leerlo en su ubicación original, sigan este link si no, lo pueden leer aquí.

Cultural revolution

Lisa Blackmore

The Chávez government attracts attention for its social and political programmes, yet its effect on Venezuela’s art scene has been just as striking.

Venezuela’s Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) took a rare cameo role in the in terna tional spotlight recently as Hugo Chávez donned a sombrero and launched an exhibition on the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. As Zapata’s daughter, now 93, awarded the president with a medal for his services to social and political change, he said he felt “awash with honour”. In the days before the launch, staff had worked round the clock to give the museum, built in 1974, a much-needed makeover. “I think it’s great,” said a worker as he scrubbed one of the creaky lifts. “No other president ever bothered to visit the museums.”

Photo: Francesco Spotorno
Chávez’s appearances at Venezuela’s art museums may be few and far between, but they are definitely strategic manoeuvres. The Zapata exhibition received unprecedented media coverage as the state-run Venezolana de Televisión channel broadcast adverts every 15 minutes announcing: “The revolution has reached Mexico!” The exhibition was part of a week of official celebrations last month named La Semana del Bravo Pueblo (“week of the courageous people”), designed to commemorate Chávez’s return to power after he was briefly ousted in a coup in April 2002, and also to bolster morale in the run-up to November’s regional elections. Back in 2006, just weeks before the presidential elections, Chávez snipped the ribbon at an exhibition on the Venezuelan independence fighter Francisco de Miranda. Building work at the Galería de Arte Nacional (National Art Gallery), a project that has been in the pipeline for 20 years, was rushed though so that two of the three floors could be used for the show. When it ended a few months later, the gallery was boarded up and construction abandoned until it creaked back into action in mid-March this year.

While constant media attention is given to Chávez’s social programmes and his controversial nationalisations of the oil, communications, steel and cement industries, the Bolivarian Revolution’s effect on the cultural sector has been a little-reported phenomenon. Yet the changes are no less striking. The creation of a ministry of culture in 2003 introduced an entirely new bureaucratic framework to implement policies that aim to widen access to cultural activities. A national network of bookshops, cinemas and galleries is being set up, and Caracas is now home to a state-of-the-art printing press and a film-making complex that seeks to rival Hollywood. In oil-rich Venezuela, money is no object. Between 2006 and 2007, the cultural sector’s budget rose by 33 per cent. This year the culture ministry will spend nearly $18m (£9m) on a film by Danny Glover; the eight Caracas institutions that make up the Fundación de Museos Nacionales (National Museums Foundation) will have a budget of £12m and additional funds to set up three further museums, while regional cultural activity will be financed with some £18m. And this is just a selection of the projects.

Though few would complain about the influx of resources, bitter tensions have risen in the past as the museums have increasingly come under the tutelage of the state. In 2001 Chávez used his weekly TV show, Aló, Presidente, to fire – in public – Sofía Imber, co-founder and director of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Museum of Contemporary Art), and María Elena Ramos, director of the Museo de Bellas Artes, along with heads of other arts institutions. The move was justified as a necessary purge of the “elite” who were controlling the arts in Venezuela, which would pave the way to making everyone feel the museums were part of their national heritage, and not just that of a minority group.

From her office inside the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in Parque Central, a residential complex in downtown Caracas that houses several thousand people, Zuleiva Vivas, president of the Fundación de Museos Nacionales, defends the move. “Our museums were being run like commercial galleries by individuals who just put on exhibitions of their friends’ work. In the meantime, there are people who live next door to the museum who don’t even know it exists!”

But the purge sent shock waves across the museums and brought political animosities into the cultural sphere, leading some curators to abandon the public sector. Some now work abroad; others manage private collections or run commercial galleries. With the curators, the audience also left. “The only people who came to the museums were the elite,” Vivas says. “And now they are part of the opposition. We keep inviting them to exhibitions but it’s simply a waste of time. They’ve made up their minds not to come.”

Vivas is quite clear that the museums have an image problem. “Attendance figures are my greatest worry – they are seriously low. We’ve got to work for our new audiences now, but you go downtown and ask someone where the Museum of Fine Arts is and they haven’t got a clue. We’ve got a hell of a job on our hands to change that.” Her mandate? Education, education, education. “The museums have to put on exhibitions that teach you something. Our ministerial guidelines cover issues such as heritage, memory and identity, territory, human rights and citizenship.”

Directors have been subject to frequent games of musical chairs since the foundation was set up in 2005 but it seems finally that a clear policy is in place. The new heads of the three most high-profile art museums in Caracas (Museo de Bellas Artes, Galería de Arte Nacional and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo) have strong backgrounds in education and recent shows reflect this didactic ethos. Photography exhibitions document the lives of artisans and rural traditions; paintings that narrate independence battles have been shown; the travelling exhibition “Yo decido” (“I decide”) deals with teenage pregnancy and plans are afoot for an exhibition later this year on children’s rights. The museums now also have their own social programme, Misión Cultura, which last year gave courses to 350,000 people in such subjects as how to set up a community museum.

Opening the door to amateur art is another central, if controversial, strategy for transforming the conventional idea of museums. The Galería de Arte Nacional is at present showing entries to the nationwide Certamen Mayor de las Artes competition. Gaudy paintings of waterfalls and parrots, wooden sculptures of Simón Bolívar and amateur photos fill rooms that just months ago held the works of the Venezuelan master Armando Reverón after they returned from a stint at MoMA in New York. Vivas describes the Certamen as a “census” of Venezuela’s artistic panorama that identifies budding artists, who are then given scholarships to study at one of Caracas’s art schools. However, some critics have begun to show resistance to such changes, claiming it is the ultimate dumbing-down of the country’s museums.

Gerardo Zavarce, an independent curator and arts columnist with the Venezuelan broadsheet El Nacional, maintains that “the Certamen doesn’t show what is happening in Venezuelan art. It only shows the most innocuous examples of it. And that is precisely the line that the state has established for participation and cultural politics in the arts. Curators are forced to try to please a bigger public who they think can’t understand the esoteric codes of contemporary art, but all they do is underestimate their public. For a revolutionary government, this is a seriously conservative show.”

As the museums busily reinvent themselves, the commercial sector is doing the same thing. And with a reduction in solo exhibitions at the national museums, some artists are looking to them to fill the gap. The Caracas art circuit has a number of well-established but rather conservative galleries in the south-eastern Las Mercedes area, but in recent years more challenging spaces have emerged and are thriving. A fortnight ago Periférico Caracas, four independent gallery spaces that occupy a single site set up in 2005 by curators and artists, opened four separate shows on one morning. Four hundred eager art fans turned up for the event. On the other side of town just a handful gathered at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo for the launch of a photography exhibition.

“It’s kind of paradoxical that a market-oriented, privately owned space like Periférico can put on four simultaneous and, in some cases, subversive shows,” comments Zavarce. One show called “Me cambio el nombre” (“I’ll change my name”) takes an ironic swipe at Chávez’s 1998 boast that he would change his name if there were still children living on the streets a year into his government. The mixed-media show confronts the nation’s memory of events such as the 2002 coup and the hostage situation in Colombia, but the featured artist, Juan José Olavarría, denies that his aim is to denounce the Chávez government. “It’s not so much denouncing as showing people things they don’t want to see and that is painful. People forget things, and you can’t build a country on that basis. Without memory you can’t build a country.”

However controversial his show, it has been a commercial success, which for Olavarría marks a new trend in collecting. “I’m shocked people are buying my work, as it’s not the typical art you’d see in commercial galleries,” he says. “People are starting to understand that investing in locally produced art is important, and that’s fantastic.” To meet demand, the Periférico keeps up a swift pace, changing over exhibitions every six weeks and offering a variety of artists. Similarly, La Carnicería, a gallery started in 2006, has seven shows planned for its small space for this year and they include a mix of photography and painting.

Zavarce, who, unlike many, works in the public and private sectors alike, however remains cautious. “These spaces are a palliative. The state and the private sector are both guilty of the polarisation we’re going through, but at some point we’re going to have to pay for that. We have to move past this certainty that ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’.” Likewise for Vivas, it’s not a closed case. “The country and the museums are under construction,” she says. “If we all put our grain of sand in, then we’ll see how this turns out.”


6 comments for “‘Cultural Revolution’ en The New Statesman”

  1. Hola Lisa: gracias por el artículo. excelente…
    Te comento que Chávez no es el único presidente que ha visitado los museos del país. De hecho a visitado solo exposiciones muy puntuales. Entra y sale de ellas sin visitar por completo las instituciónes bajo un exagerado despliegue de Casa Militar y en privado…
    Caso curioso es el de Luis Herrara Campins (1978 – 1983)quien no solo visitaba los museos de la capital con frecuencia sino tambien las instituciones culturales del interior. Por ejemplo, el Salón Arturo Michelena de Valencia. Alli se dejaba ver el mismo día de la inauguración solo y sin escoltas… yo lo vi muchas veces.
    Un abrazo,

    Posted by Juan José Olavarría | May 8, 2008, 12:01 pm
  2. Hola Lisa…

    Soy estudiante y estoy haciendo un documental acerca de los espacios expositivos en Caracas. Este artículo ha resultado muy pertinente para mi investigación.

    Muy bueno tu blog!



    Posted by M. L. | July 26, 2008, 11:14 am
  3. Hola M,
    Qué bueno que te gustó.
    Cualquier cosa estoy a la orden.
    Si se proyecta tu documental, me encantaría verlo.

    Posted by Lisa | July 28, 2008, 12:25 pm
  4. Quisiera conseguir un traducción de este artículo, por favor. Tengo un progrma de radio en la emisora del Ateneo 100.7 Y tocamos todo lo que tiene que ver con artes plásticas y cultura urbana. Además deque me gustaría que hicéramos contacto para tenerte el programa.

    Posted by Paula | September 18, 2008, 12:01 pm
  5. me gustaria saber si vas a dar un curso practico de fotografia estaria interesado.
    yo soy cineasta venezolano y acabo de llegar al pais de berlin

    Posted by ramon lopez | January 24, 2009, 4:45 pm
  6. Hola Ramón,
    Esta noche comienza el curso Ojo Crítico en el taller de Roberto Mata. Son 4 clases que dan una introducción a la crítica de la fotografía y en la última clase hay un ejercicio de auto-crítica de las fotos de cada participante.
    No es, por lo tanto, un curso práctico, aunque tenga implicaciones para la práctica de cada quien en su fotografía. Puedes también revisar la página http://www.robertomata.com para más información sobre los cursos.

    Posted by lisa | January 26, 2009, 10:11 am

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