Friday, November 4, 2011


Honeymoon ends for “El Niemeyer”
Arts centre closes as its board and politicians fall out

By Cristina Carrillo De Albornoz. From Museums, Issue 229, November 2011
Published online: 02 November 2011

AVILÉS. Only nine months after its official opening, the prestigious, €45m Centro Cultural Internacional Oscar Niemeyer in Avilés, northern Spain, was forced to close last month, following a row between regional politicians and the arts centre’s board of trustees. Affectionately known as “El Niemeyer”, the centre was designed by the veteran Brazilian architect, after whom it is named, in his signature style (The Art Newspaper, November 2010, pp42-43). In an open letter, Niemeyer (aged 103) expressed his sadness at the political battle raging over the centre, and his solidarity with its director, Natalio Grueso.

Regime change

The regional government of Asturias provided the funds to build the centre and pledged 20% towards its annual budget. Following elections in May, the new president of the region, Alvarez Cascos, commissioned a report into the centre’s finances. Before the audit was completed, his colleague, the region’s new head of culture, Emilio Marcos Vallaure, reported that “serious financial irregularities” had been identified, alleging that invoices for various expenses, such as drinks and cigarettes, were missing.

Grueso rejected the allegations, saying that expenses were justified, criticised the announcement before the audit was made public, and called the accusations “irresponsible and nonsense”. José Luis Rebollo, the secretary and lawyer of the Fundación Niemeyer, which manages the centre, has said that the foundation will take legal action against the regional government.

While the stand-off continues, 4,000-strong crowds of demonstrators have expressed their support for the centre on every last Sunday of the month since late September.

Pilar Varela, the vice-president of the Niemeyer Centre, who is also mayor of Avilés, says: “All the [alleged] irregularities are totally incorrect. There is an explanation for each of the issues at hand.” She says that the uncertainty surrounding the centre has resulted in an €600,000 loss in income.

Varela, together with the president of the Niemeyer Centre, Manuel Díaz, are in talks with the regional government. Unless a breakthrough is achieved, the centre could remain dark until April 2012, with only limited public access to the complex.

The centre’s complicated governance structure has not helped the situation. The board brought in Díaz to head the foundation in June to make the body more independent and avoid political interference. Spanish-born Díaz brought his experience in the music industry and a host of high-level contacts, including Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim. The regional government is unhappy with Díaz’s appointment and wants to replace him with someone of its choice.

The Niemeyer Centre has a governance structure including representatives from the Fundación Niemeyer, national, regional and local politicians, and trustees drawn from business and art world personalities. The board has 16 members, three of whom represent the regional government, a number it wants to increase.

Another contentious issue is the lease of the building, which is owned by the regional government, to the Niemeyer Foundation. A lease was signed before the election for one year and is due to expire next month. However, the former government and the board were in negotiations to extend the lease for 50 years. In an about-face, Vallaure is refusing to undertake this commitment, calling it “unfeasible”. He maintains that the building belongs to the whole region and not just to the institution.

The institution’s programme is another source of disagreement. Vallaure, the former director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Oviedo, has called it a “non-culture” programme that relies on “spectacle”. He is unimpressed by exhibitions including Julian Schnabel’s photography, on the grounds that he is mainly a painter, and has called the actor Jessica Lange’s photography “amateur”. He has also criticised film director Carlos Saura’s exhibition on “Light”.

Díaz says that the centre can carry on without the economic contribution of the regional government, “and in some years [will] be self-sufficient”. Angeles González-Sinde, Spain’s minister of culture, has offered to act as an intermediary between the regional government and the foundation. But so far there has been no agreement after two tense meetings. Another is planned for December.

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