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José Guirao has extensive experience in the field of culture, in its broadest sense. Very close to creators in different cultural sectors, he has held positions of responsibility in cultural management and public administration. Guirao was the Culture Minister (2018-2020) and, before that, director of the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid (1994-2001) and of La Casa Encendida (2002-2014). He is currently the CEO of the Montemadrid Foundation.
In his role as “sage,” as a person with great experience and, above all, with great analytical skills, we had a Zoom conversation with him about the need to implement the Artist Bill on cultural financing, the challenges of sustainable creation, as well as the responsibilities of government administration and civil society.
Montse Badia: A few years ago, when you were director of La Casa Encendida, you said that after the crisis of 2008 we were witnessing the end of a model. You mentioned there was a lack of a real plan and that resources were allocated only to large projects and institutions, making survival for small projects very tough. Has your perception changed? What is your analysis?
José Guirao: I believe that the insufficient financing of culture has not yet recovered from the crisis of 2008. Between 2012 and 2018, within the General Government Budget, the budget for culture was the least important in terms of quantity and proportion, and the one that was most reduced (54%). And we still haven’t recouped this loss. In my time as Culture Minister, I had two concerns. On the one hand, we needed to maintain a good dialogue and policies with the autonomous communities, so that culture was not an area of differences or confrontation but rather a space for cooperation. Regardless of the political orientation of the autonomous communities, I worked to bring them together, especially on a professional level. My other concern was to increase resources.
The financial problem remains exactly the same and have yet to recover. When the government decreases the resources it allocates to culture, the projects that lose opportunities are the new, most experimental ones. One of the structural problems we have in Spanish culture (although I think it has improved) is that we continue to support mostly projects that are already recognized by the press and by society, but we are still very timid in supporting new ones, regardless of whether they are large or small. We continue to prioritize the highway when the most interesting roads are the secondary ones, those on the side of the highway. In this sense, I think that La Casa Encendida was a catalyst that created room for trial and error. Culture needs spaces for trial-and-error and for those that confront the public.
We also have problems in financing large cultural spaces and this has to do with the administrative structure, which is quite inflexible. Let’s not forget that the large cultural institutions were not planned, from an energy and architectural point of view, to be self-sustaining. Just to open their doors they use 80% of their budget (for cleaning, air conditioning, security, etc.), so there is only a small percentage left for programming and activities.
Regarding private funding, it has not yet been possible to create a better Patronage Law, which, even if this is not a cure, would help because our processes are also emotional and mental. That is, if the State (Central Government, autonomous communities, City Councils, etc.) is willing to be generous and lessens the tax burden on culture, this would facilitate the search for private resources. There is a lack of patronage culture in Spanish society. We must invest in educating Spanish society in terms of patronage. Spanish society is very supportive in terms of social issues, but not cultural ones. We must ensure that contributions to culture are tax deductible in the same way as contributions to social issues.
MB: During your time as Culture Minister, one of the points you most insisted on was the Artist Bill (for artists and cultural workers) to adapt financial measures and Social Security obligations to the working reality of cultural work. In what stage is the Artist Bill?
JG: The Artist Bill was a document with 70 measures to be agreed upon by the entire cultural world, under the leadership of the Ministry of Culture in collaboration with the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. With myself as Culture Minister, we managed to pass a series of measures, the ones that were easier from a legal point of view, that is, by modifying an order or creating a ministerial order. A part of these remained unfinished, even though we had the support of the President and the Vice President, because a new Government took office. The list of what remains unfinished is well defined and I believe that the current Culture Minister, Miquel Iceta, has the capacity and the will to carry it out.
MB: The big issue is how to make cultural projects sustainable so that cultural workers can make a living from them. What is the formula: grants, patronage, crowdfunding? Do you think, for example, that universal basic income could be a solution?
JG: I think in terms of culture, the mindset of begging and need must be changed. Culture represents 3.5% of the Gross National Product. The resources allocated to it, however, are ridiculous. For example, before the pandemic, 14 million tourists of a total of 82 million were from cultural tourism. The Ministry of Tourism, however, does not invest in heritage issues or major festivals.
Universal basic income would put us in the category of the needy, which is wrong since we are one of the backbones of society. Let’s give cultural workers the same conditions as the rest of the workers. That is what the Artist Bill is about. Public administrations must set an example by giving culture a budget that culture deserves within society. Right now, culture represents 0.3% of the budget of all administrations. This is not feasible. We are going to create a plan so that in five years we can go from 0.3% to 1%, in all administrations.
I must say, though, that the cultural sector does not know how to unite or promote itself. We protest specific things instead of protesting how badly we are treated. It’s essential that the entire culture sector join in the protest.
MB: In addition to their creative work, artists have to be professionals, and the message is that being an entrepreneur is the appropriate form of empowerment. Do you agree?
JG: If being an entrepreneur, as we are being asked to be, is given the appropriate legal channels and responds to a positive response from the administrative structure, I’m in favor. The discourse of entrepreneurship does not seem bad to me, but it must be done with conditions that allow it to flow. Entrepreneurship, for culture and for other activities, as well, must be supported by a government infrastructure that provides ease and flexibility. I believe that the administration has advanced a lot in the digitization of the processes, but not in its simplification.
MB: Do you think that cultural production is the same as the culture industry?
JG: Industry means a sector that has an employment structure, diverse professions, an infrastructure, etc. The name, which comes from the film industry, the audiovisual industry, the publishing industry, isn’t important. Within its structure, there are different professionals with different needs. The important thing is to create a structure in which each type of professional has the ability to solve his or her needs and fit them into the whole easily. The problems of a printing company that is printing a book are not the same as those of the man or woman who writes the book, the man or woman who translates it, or the man or woman who designs it. We cannot unify all of the cultural world. There is something that unifies us but there is also a lot of diversity. I think we have to work towards solving the problems that each gear has on its own and in relation to the other gears. In the end, whether it is a video game or a book, it is a company or individual that produces, sells and distributes and which makes the next project possible.
MB: Culture helps transmit values and contributes to making societies more just. This has an important social impact. How do you understand this social impact in the Montemadrid Foundation?
JG: In a very basic way. We create culture for the people with whom we work, for whom we work for, and in the environments in which we work. We have to adapt to the environment to be able to communicate with the environment. We have to think, to improve. We are completely against that big process of cultural inbreeding that has occurred in recent years. I have never heard so much talk about publics and new publics and I have never seen so much cultural activity done behind the public’s back.
I believe that every project must respond to the society in which it exists in order to improve it. Even if I am part of a culturally poor society, as a cultural worker I have to create a rich project and present it so that society doesn’t avoid the projects but instead joins it. If La Casa Encendida, instead of being in the Lavapiés neighborhood in Madrid, had been in the Salamanca neighborhood, it would have been a different project. If instead of being in Madrid it was in Zaragoza, with a similar base, that would have been fine, though it would have been a different project. We have done many things in La Casa Encendida that are related to our neighborhood. It is a neighborhood of 40% immigrants. We saw that immigrant women did not come in and so we began to give Spanish classes for immigrants. I remember that John Berger came to reenact a performance he had done with Juan Muñoz in Germany and during the week of rehearsals at La Casa Encendida he was pleasantly impressed to see Sri Lankan ladies there at the same time who came to learn Spanish, to learn another language because they wanted a new life.
In the afternoons, we also held classes in the children’s library for immigrant children, and their mothers also came to drop them off and pick them up. I also remember an association of boys from Nigeria who wanted to do theater and they made an adaptation of Don Quixote. We did many things for and with the people of the neighborhood.
I don’t believe in the concepts of high and low culture. I believe in accessible or inaccessible culture, and I think that, in general, people are more sensitive and receptive than we think. Thus, you always have to take risks. If as a programmer you believe that there is something that the public will not understand, you have to try to create conditions so that they can understand it. You have to find out who the opinion leaders are and talk to them, to learn.
MB: Without a doubt, these are processes that require time. Speaking of which, you’ve recently published a book, together with Magadalena Cantero, called Aún hay tiempo. Paisajes para después de la pandemia (There is Still Time: Post-Pandemic Landscapes).
JG: This book was commissioned by the University of Almería, where I am from. The rector commissioned the book from us at the beginning of May 2020. At that time, Magdalena was the president of the Social Council of the University of Almería. We were interested in talking about a number of topics, such as the environment, the economy, college education, and culture. We tried to involve people from a local and national level (such as Nadia Calviño, Teresa Ribera, Méndez de Vigo, Jordi Costa and Josep Ramoneda, among others). We tried to combine a local and global point of view, asking ourselves what the pandemic could teach us. For example, we talk about research instead of health. We talk about digitization, because the pandemic has taught us that systems of work and forms of work relationships have changed and that a pandemic can paralyze the economy, making digitization essential from an economic point of view. We address environmental issues because health has to do with problems in nature management, such as the disappearance of ecosystems and barriers or buffers between nature and human activity.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)