Friday, November 9, 2012

Celebrating a Year of Culture Amid Hard Times in Portugal

The exhibition "Mãos Dadas" at  the Center for Art  and Architecture Affairs in a refurbished textile factory in Guimarães, Portugal. 

On a section of the medieval walls surrounding Guimarães stands a large sign that reads, “Portugal was born here.” It commemorates a battle in 1128 on the outskirts of this city that allowed Portugal to claim independence.  

A funeral procession recently passed in front of the sign, led by a group of people carrying a coffin in the shape of Portugal, decorated with the red carnations that became the symbol of another dramatic moment in Portuguese history, the 1974 revolution that overthrew the right-wing dictatorship.

A mock funeral of Portugal staged by the Portuguese artist Miguel Januário. 
The mock funeral of Portugal, courtesy of the Portuguese artist Miguel Januário, was one of the many events staged this year to celebrate the European Union’s declaration of Guimarães as a European Capital of Culture for 2012. It also served as a reminder that, while the arts scene has flourished in Guimarães thanks to the award and accompanying European subsidies, Portuguese culture has otherwise been reeling this year from a 30 percent cut in state financing for cultural activities, as well as the downgrading of the Culture Ministry to the rank of secretariat. 

With the government in Lisbon unveiling another austerity budget for next year, some of Portugal’s most celebrated personalities have been loudly voicing their concerns. Portugal’s first winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, Álvaro Siza Vieira, warned that he might close his Portuguese office because of the lack of contracts. During ModaLisboa, the Lisbon fashion week, the Portuguese designer Nuno Gama filled the catwalk with models who had their mouths taped over and wore T-shirts that read “I want to be happy.” 

These events are not stopping the citizens of Guimarães from enjoying their special moment of culture. A heart-shaped logo designed for the award is on display in almost every shop around the city, in every color, material and size. At the medieval café on scenic Oliveira square, one of the waitresses even had the logo tattooed on her arm. “It’s a year that I want to remember,” she said. 

Such enthusiasm took time to build up, said Carlos Martins, the executive director of the project surrounding Guimarães’s selection. The project met with some local opposition, as citizens questioned why millions of euros of public money were being spent on arts rather than employment programs and other more pressing social concerns. 

“People eventually got to understand that culture was not just entertainment but also about revitalizing this city and integrating it more into the new economy,” Mr. Martins said. 

Indeed, on the back of the European award, Guimarães has revamped several derelict factories and neighborhoods that were once at the heart of the city’s leather and textile industries. In the Couros area, home to abandoned tanneries, the old vats that had been used to dye the leather now form a cubist-style square in which acoustic guitar and other music concerts are staged. 

One of the most impressive cultural centers that opened in Guimarães this year is Fábrica Asa, housed in what used to be a textile factory with a workforce of 2,000 people. It was closed as part of a downsizing of Portugal’s textile production in the face of competition from China and other cheaper producers. 

Several foreign artists were invited to conceive projects for Asa this year, including the French artist Christian Boltanski, who used one of the rooms for “Dance of Death,” in which old coats that he collected from flea markets were hung and kept circulating on an overhead rail, like a crowd of dead people. 

Also in Asa, Sandra Gamarra, a Peruvian artist, recently set up her LiMac project, a virtual Lima museum of contemporary art that she designed to protest the “artistic vacuum in my own city,” she said, since the Peruvian capital actually does not have any such museum. Guimarães, she said, “is showing us this year how quickly a city can create a vibrant arts scene, which then need not disappear a few weeks later.” 

On the top floor of Asa, thousands of revelers have gathered this year for a series of concerts held by Paul Kalkbrenner and other leading European electronic musicians. Classical music has also been prominent in Guimarães, notably through a series of chamber music concerts held in the beautiful courtyard of the city’s castle. 

While Guimarães wanted to use its European funding to attract some well-known international artists, Mr. Martins also stressed that 80 percent of this year’s cultural projects have been designed and produced locally, with a view to prolonging several of them beyond 2012. Among such longer term initiatives is a fashion hub for local designers, who have made many of the costumes used for the theater and dance performances presented this year. From 2013, the fashion hub’s operating costs will be covered by the local university. 

Even with the overhaul that Guimarães has recently undergone, it retains the charm and traditions of an ancient European city, with elderly men sporting berets and reading their newspapers while having their shoes shined. Beyond the more stylish clothing boutiques of the historic center also lies a maze of rundown workshops, including one that specializes in replacing cathode ray tubes for old television sets. The building on the other side of the street, however, was shuttered, displaying on the wall some graffiti that read: “If God exists, let him help me.” 

Among other recently refurbished former textile factories is the Center for Art and Architecture Affairs, or CAAA, which can be used both for movie and theater productions as well as an exhibition space for photographers and other artists. Eduardo Brito, one of the promoters of CAAA, said that even without the European culture award, the CAAA project “would have gone ahead, but probably smaller, because nobody can pretend that Guimarães is the new Berlin.” 

Berlin was in fact among the first cities to be awarded the title of European capital of culture, an initiative promoted in the 1980s by two of Europe’s most forceful culture ministers at the time, the former actress Melina Mercouri of Greece and Jack Lang of France. 

More recently, however, the title has been shared between two recipients — Maribor, Slovenia, is the other culture capital in 2012 — and was also awarded to smaller cities. 

“It’s obvious that such an award can have a lot more impact on a place like Guimarães rather than a major European city that already has a huge arts scene,” Mr. Martins said. 

As the year draws to a close, the arts community in Guimarães is slowly facing up to the challenging task of generating alternative revenue to keep their cultural ambitions alive. At the CAAA, for instance, the goal is to sublet some of the space next year to movie production and to other companies in order to cover the costs.
“We’re perfectly aware that this is a year of exception for Guimarães,” said Mr. Brito of the CAAA. “We need to be ready for the hangover.”

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