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Culture and crisis: A changing landscape

Por: | 08 de octubre de 2013

“People are spending on cheaper products, and on brands. We’re in the second group… a brand.” You may think that comment relates to clothes, perfume or any number of consumer goods, but Laszlo Baan is talking about museums. Baan is the director of Budapest’s Bellas Artes, and together with Gabriele Finaldi, the conservation and research director of Madrid’s Prado, a discussion is taking place at the Hay Festival in Segovia about the role of culture in a time of crisis. For the Festival, it’s one of a number of interesting diversions from its literary content. The venue can hardly be more appropriate for the old adapting to the new – Segovia’s San Nicolás Church, built in the 12th century, but with its interior now converted into a performance and conference space. Tom Chivers, of the UK’s The Telegraph, oversees the event.

Works by Goya or Velazquez at first seem a million miles from the vocabulary that abounds – ‘market position’, ‘public/private partnerships’ and ‘sectors’ – yet, as the speakers explain, these terms are becoming fundamental to preserve and develop the role of a museum in modern times. For Baan, the key is the provision of authenticity. “We are keepers of the past; the world is changing very fast,” he says. “How can we give values to the younger generation? Libraries will change totally; you won’t need to go to a library to read a book. But if you want to see the Mona Lisa, to experience authenticity, you have to go to the Louvre.”

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Gabriele Finaldi, Tom Chivers and Laszlo Baan.                                    Photo: Jeff Wiseman

Gabriele Finaldi, who previously worked for London’s National Gallery, joined the Prado in 2002. “We deal with how we interpret the past at the present time,” he adds. “In the old days we said that people visited twice – once with dad, and once with sons and daughters – but by creating rich exhibitions, we create the sensation that unless you visit often you’re missing out on important things.” Despite the recent financial upheavals, he believes that the museum’s founding ideals from the 1820s remain the same: preserving identity, engaging the public, education and the diffusion of knowledge.

A current challenge is marketing a museum’s valuable and important work, and presenting a case to politicians, public sponsors and companies for assistance with development and progress. The timescale of European politics, however, makes planning for the future a rocky path. “Politics is a short-term job,” says Baan. “Every four years politicians have to win an election, and it’s not easy if you can’t give them short-term benefits.”

Part of the hardship being faced, as Finaldi points out, is that museums and the service they provide are “difficult to quantify in financial terms.” It’s much easier for culture to become a priority in times of plenty, but to lose its priority when money is harder to come by. When he joined the Prado, the museum was two-thirds publicly funded, and one-third privately. Now, the situation is vice-versa. “It’s a significant shift,” he says. “We’re in a transitional phase.” In fact, the Prado’s annual accounts would be released a few days after the discussion, and would highlight problems.

As an example of the importance of art in a time of crisis, he draws on the story of London’s National Gallery in 1941, when the city was under the strategic bombing of the Blitz. “All the Gallery pictures were removed to a slate mine in Wales,” he explains, “but there was a public outcry. People were saying ‘we need our pictures’, and so Kenneth Clark, the Gallery director, accepts the cultural necessity and arranges that one picture is brought to London each month.” Every night the picture was taken to safe storage; but it satisfied the public demand and suggests that even in the worst of times cultural desires need to be nourished.

Potential can be found in the right strategy, particularly in mixed public/private partnerships, of which British museums have been at the vanguard. “As state funding has rolled back, private funding remains stable, with a small number of large benefactors rather than a large number of small ones. The model of a State-owned and State-funded museum is finished in this part of Europe,” says Finaldi. “In Spain, it’s going to be a mixed model. We’re in a period of cuts… but we have to argue that we are contributing to the net benefit from tourism and to the economy.” He also emphasizes the museum’s prestige, conservation work and research, the necessity to continue to offer times for free entry, as well as the art of diplomacy. “At the British Museum, they recently held a conference with Iranian specialists – two countries with political tension can come together to examine a millennial history that unites them both.”

Both speakers put their money on a bright future. “We have to be optimistic,” concludes Baan, and Finaldi agrees by verbally painting an enviable scene in the Prado. “We can exploit the virtual world, and we can also be exploited by it, but we can make the case for standing in front of Velazquez’ masterpiece ‘Las Meninas’ as the sun goes down, and say that it’s a unique place to visit.”

Hay 2 Comentarios

Many thanks for your comment Jana, and pleased to hear that you enjoyed your visit so much.

Interesting article. I was in the Prada a couple of years ago and was really impressed by its many buildings and sculptures.

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Authors (Bloggers)

Our regular bloggers develop their own themes related with life in Spain and the interaction of Spaniards with the wider world, while guest writers add spice.

Jessica Jones. Hailing from the north east of England, Stockton-on-Tees native Jessica has had a passion for all things Hispanic from an early age. She has lived in and written about France, Chile, Spain and Germany and has been contributing to the Trans-Iberian blog since 2012, when she moved to Madrid after graduating from Durham University.@jessicajones590

Joseph Walker. A graduate of Leeds University, Joseph is a sports journalist based in Madrid, and has written on and covered a wide range of events, from the Champions League to Gibraltar’s first ever UEFA match and Spain’s national rugby team. He writes columns for several websites and will pen his thoughts on the latest goings on in sports-obsessed Spain. You can find him on @joe_in_espana

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Jeff Wiseman is an experienced journalist and comedy writer. He was formerly editor of ‘InMadrid’, a monthly English-language newspaper in the Spanish capital, and has contributed scripts and sketches for radio and television in the UK. Published his first book, ‘Shawley Nott: Comic Tales from England’s Strangest Village’, in 2013.

Billy Ehrenberg is an Journalism MA student at City University in London. He lived in Spain for three years, in Granada, Madrid and A Coruña, translating and teaching English. He has written for The Times, The Western Morning News and The Plymouth Herald in the UK and has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2013. He enjoys telling stories with numbers and infographics, data visualisations and general statistical tomfoolery. He tweets from @billyehrenberg

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