Is Avilés ready for “the Niemeyer effect”?
Its backers range from Brad Pitt to Stephen Hawking, but can a new arts centre in northern Spain really replicate the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao?
By Cristina Carrillo De Albornoz. Features, Issue 218, November 2010
Published online: 06 December 2010
“Oscar Niemeyer has offered one of the best possible gifts to Avilés. He has put us on the map and enabled us to regenerate the area. I can safely say that there is a ‘Before Niemeyer’ and an ‘After Niemeyer’,” declared Pilar Varela, the mayor of this small, industrial town in the northern Spanish province of Asturias, before the “soft” opening of the new Centro Cultural Internacional Oscar Niemeyer this autumn. The town, which has around 85,000 inhabitants, has raised €45m to build a new multi-arts centre, designed by the legendary Brazilian architect. It is likely that the centre is the 102-year-old Niemeyer’s last major commission.
The project began in 2006, when the Fundación Príncipe de Asturias, an organisation headed by Felipe, Prince of Asturias (the heir to the Spanish throne), decided to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its award scheme, which every year honours leading figures in science, the arts or public service. The foundation invited the previous laureates, including Niemeyer who won in 1989, to the foundation’s base in Oviedo. “We asked him to do a masterclass or a lecture,” recalls Natalio Grueso, now director of the Niemeyer Centre but then head of international relations at the foundation. “But he said that he would prefer to present a design for a museum that would embody the spirit of the awards and the winners.” And so, on a blank piece of paper, Oscar Niemeyer began sketching curves. Those formed the foundations of what Niemeyer says is his “most important project in Europe”—a multi-purpose arts centre with gallery spaces, a concert hall, a cinema, theatre spaces, and conference facilities. The final building work is scheduled for completion in December, with the gala opening set for March 2011.
Controversy has followed the project almost from the start. Since the project was too expensive for the foundation, it was taken on by the government of Asturias. Its president, Vicente Álvarez, decided to locate the building at the mouth of the river Avilés, not in Oviedo, to the fury of Oviedo’s mayor and many in the town. Isabel Pérez Espinosa, a city councillor, remembers: “The project was snatched from us, despite the fact that Oviedo pays for the Principe Asturias awards.” Pilar Varela admits the council had a point, but argues that the centre will regenerate the whole region, and its three main towns of Avilés, Gijón and Oviedo, which has suffered industrial decline since the 1980s. It was also important to find a site that Niemeyer would approve, and he knew and liked the location at the mouth of the Avilés river—which is also close to the region’s airport at Santiago del Monte, which serves all three towns.
The complex stands on a 44,000 sq. m site, owned by Avilés city council and the Avilés Port Authority. It consists of four buildings linked by a large plaza looking on to the river and the city: a 4,000 sq. m exhibition space with a 20m-high dome; an auditorium shaped like a wave with a moving, reversible stage that can be turned to face the plaza; a tower with a top-class restaurant; and a multi-purpose building housing a cinema, rehearsal spaces, meeting rooms and conference halls. Although the official opening is still some months away, work has already started on a hectic programme of activities, some to generate publicity and others to set the foundations of future collaborations.
In December 2007, the centre hosted what it called the C8—a cultural G8—with the London School of Economics and the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC. The group included key figures from New York’s Lincoln Center, London’s Barbican, the Pompidou in Paris, the Sydney Opera House, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the Tokyo International Forum, the Alexandrian Library and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. According to Grueso, the centre is “looking at various exchanges with this group and with others”, and already has a “medium-term agreement” with New York’s Carnegie Hall. It has signed a coproduction agreement with the Old Vic Theatre in London, whose artistic director, Kevin Spacey, has already taken his theatre company to perform in the region. “I love the idea that Avilés, which is not exactly a large city, is going to have a centre for theatre, dance and film. Centres such as the Niemeyer move the arts and move money. It will eventually have a tremendous influence on the local economy,” Spacey says.
The centre has formed an illustrious advisory board, drawing on its connections to the Prince of Asturias Awards. Members include the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho and British scientist Stephen Hawking, as well as a network of high-profile “ambassadors” including Google’s vice-president Vinton (Vint) Cerf, Sir Norman Foster and Brad Pitt, who visited the centre in August 2009. Pitt, who came to Avilés—as he did New Orleans—with Graft Architects, the practice he supports, was apparently fascinated with Niemeyer’s work, and the region’s larger regeneration scheme, of which the centre is at the heart. Called the Island of Innovation, the plan is to construct a new waterway between Avilés and Oviedo, with a yachting marina and other major infrastructure developments. The tender for the masterplan has been won by British architects Foster + Partners.
“The publicity surrounding Brad Pitt’s visit in August 2009 was very widespread, we got calls from all over the place,” remembers Mercedes Álvarez, Asturian minister for culture, with pleasure. It was certainly great publicity, although consultant David Gordon, former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, warns: “It is naive to put too much trust in celebrities because they are not going to put in any money behind projects. Arts centre directors need good PR, but they need connections to banks even more.”
Meanwhile, plans are well under way for the centre’s inaugural exhibition, a major show of art on the theme of “light” curated by film director Carlos Saura with Stephen Hawking. The €1m cost of the exhibition is being financed by the Niemeyer Centre with sponsorship from the savings bank CajAstur, with much of the cost recouped by the fact that it has already been booked to tour through Mexico, Russia and China.
No one involved in the project professes to have any doubts of the capacity of the new centre to transform the area, or its positive effects on cultural and social life in Asturias—so much so that many are dubbing it the “Niemeyer effect”, a reference to the “Guggenheim effect” on Bilbao: the construction of the Guggenheim outpost in the Basque port in northern Spain was directly linked to financial growth, principally from tourism. But there are crucial differences been the Niemeyer Center and the Bilbao project of 1997, not least the fact that the Guggenheim anticipated a financial and museum-building boom—an era that some now consider emphatically over.
Adrian Ellis, founder and director of AEA consulting, is one of the experts who counsels caution. “There are two challenges associated with these sorts of projects,” he says. “The first is that the systemic optimism required to generate the financial and political support required to make them happen often sits uncomfortably with the dispassionate and objective understanding of the long-term operating budget that is required to plan responsibly. The sheer cost of keeping the building open and operating, even before one starts considering the artistic programme, is often low-balled.”
He also warns that producing a great building can easily overwhelm arts organisations: “When you are inventing an organisation and designing a building at the same time, it is difficult not to let the building, with its demanding economics and high-profile politics, determine the organisation, rather than vice versa.”
And there are other issues: not least that the Avilés funding package is much smaller than its Bilbao counterpart. The Guggenheim only shows fine art and was founded with a construction budget of $100m. According to Petra Joos, deputy director for museum activities at the Guggenheim, the museum’s current operational budget is around E20m, of which 30% is from public funds. The rest is raised by the museum, through fundraising, ticket sales, training, its 150 corporate sponsors and 16,000-strong membership scheme. Major multi-arts centres such as the (admittedly larger) Barbican Centre in London, have much bigger budgets—the Barbican’s annual operating budget in 2008-09 was £34m, of which nearly 60% came from public funds.
Nevertheless, Grueso talks convincingly of the Avilés Center becoming “self-sustainable”, with “costs covered by ticket sales, earnings from productions [touring exhibitions and coproductions of plays etc], and our commercial spaces”. A foundation has been set up to manage the centre, with the Asturian minister for the arts as president. It consists of representatives of the region, Avilés City Council and the Spanish ministry of culture, with private organisations such as CajAstur savings bank and the Fundación Masaveu. The centre currently exists on an annual budget of E1.5m, of which E500,000 comes from public funds. Grueso says he estimates that the budget, when fully operational, will be around E5m, meaning the centre will have to earn 90% of the money it needs itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the mayor confirms that the foundation is deep in negotiations with one of the companies that already sponsors the Guggenheim. ArcelorMittal—the giant steel conglomeration—has played a key role in the area’s industrial development and Mayor Varela says she is hopeful. “[The firm] is keen to cooperate and this will be decided shortly.”
With so much hanging on the willingness of corporate sponsors to contribute, Grueso says that it will be essential to keep costs down: “Part of the miracle of the centre will be an excellent programme on a tight budget. The secret is to reduce fixed costs to a minimum”. He says that there will be “very lightweight management” with a full-time staff team totalling only eight people. “When you have talent, money ceases to be your main worry,” he adds. “These great talents, the celebrities, the ‘ambassadors’ attract the best in world culture and at the same time encourage local culture.”
While the small number of staff makes some experts nervous (“you need at least six people just to have a proper fundraising department,” says David Gordon), others believe that the Avilés team are going in the right direction. Adam Austerfield, director of projects of the London School of Economics—who acted as a researcher for the centre on some audience-related issues—thinks the project will work. “There are many new art centres in the world but only a few will survive,” he says, “but I am impressed of how well they are doing in Avilés, and particularly the way they are drawing on the knowledge they have gained over the 30 years of the Principe Asturias Awards.” He says that three years ago it would be inconceivable that the likes of Pitt, Spacey or Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen would be visiting the town. “But they must not forget that this is a longterm game and the challenge is to keep being interesting, innovative and reinventing themselves. We have worked with many cultural industries and new centres and it is very sad when a brilliant building ends up empty.”
Pilar Varela says that they are learning from the success of Bilbao. “We look at ourselves a lot in the mirror of Bilbao,” she says. “We don’t mind being compared to it—although we are not on the same scale. For example, we have been bringing shopkeepers from the historic centre of Bilbao, who were initially opposed to the Guggenheim, to Avilés, so that they could can give advice on the type of better quality goods [that cultural visitors will buy], preparing menus in English, and so on.”
And even before the official opening, the city is changing. Where there were industrial units, on the right bank of the river, there are now shops and offices, and a former shirt factory is being converted into a cultural workshop. “We want the Niemeyer to attract all the talent in the world, and at the same time enable us to export all that Avilés can offer in the way of actors, musicians, artists, ceramicists, etc,” Varela says. “We want it to be a two-way affair.”
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