In Buenos Aires, a dynamic and complex South American city , the municipality has been building on its unique cultural assets through a people centred approach to help support its urban shifts, building its local cultural policy on the notion of Cultural Exchange.Two of its projects are explored in this piece – a cultural centre for youth and a creative neighbourhood (Barrio) initiative.
Buenos Aires as a global cultural city in the South
The autonomous district of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is one of the most important cities in Spanish speaking South America. Since colonial times, it was the key port of entry into the continent from the Atlantic Ocean, via the Rio Plata River. Consequently, it's always been at the centre of trends and fashions from elsewhere, and remains the most visited city in South America. As a result of intense in-migration, it is, today, a densely populated, multicultural city boasting around 3m people in the municipality and around 15,5m in the surrounding metropolitan area. The dominant ethnic groupings are of Spanish and Italian descent. They arrived in the late 1800s and heavily influenced the strongly European architecture and arts of the city. In recent years it has brought in migrants from the rest of the continent attracted to the city's economic and educational opportunities. Because of Argentina's free education policy which has existed for a number of decades, there is a high literacy rate of over 98% in the country, with many people in Buenos Aires active readers and theatre goers. The city boasts, as a result, the highest concentration of book shops and theatres in any city. The theatre ecosystem (and related music scene) is especially diverse - from commercial to public funded to alternative-political. The diversity of the city pervades its vibrant arts scene, with Tango- seen by UNESCO as a significant intangible heritage - it's most globally recognized hybridised art form, with European, African and indigenous elements .
But the city is not without its problems. While Argentina was recognised as one of the wealthiest countries globally for many decades, years of state mismanagement and political instability have led to many contemporary challenges and inequalities. At least 33.6% (13.6m people) live below the poverty line nationally. Buenos Aires itself has high numbers of poverty ridden areas (Villas miserias) with close on 700 000 people estimated to be living in 640 precarious/informal settlements . A growing of number of Bolivians, Paraguayans and Peruvians have added to the numbers. But recent economic crashes have meant that the population is also struggling with a devalued currency, increasing municipal costs and threats of further fiscal collapses.
Despite many of the challenges it faces, the municipality is still a key supporter of arts and heritage. It has a strong culture driven approach and is a member of several major international networks - including being a UNESCO Creative City, a UCLG Culture 21 Leading City and a member of the World Cultural Cities Forum- each providing useful data to help it grow its offering. It supports an enviable cultural infrastructure of museums, arts spaces and events which complements the large number of private, nonprofit and alternative spaces. The City's spaces include the world famous Teatro Colón (considered one of the 5 best concert venues in the world as a result of its acoustics), and also the more contemporary Usina Del Arte (part of a controversial declared arts district). There is a great deal of free activities provided as well as cultural centres in various neighborhoods. But as its population is changing, so are their tastes and expectations about cultural participation. While there has been a heavy diet of free content provided in the form of the classical performing and contemporary visual arts, the city has had to adapt what it provides in line with its residents changing needs. This has led to the launch of different kinds of cultural centres and programmes.
Centro Cultural Recoleta: Letting Youth Lead
The Centro Cultural Recoleta (CCR) is one of several city funded cultural centres (as opposed to theatres or museums) and is based on the eastern edge of the Recoleta, considered one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the city, with great historical and architectural significance. The CCR occupies one of the earliest buildings in the area, starting life as a convent and church, next to the famous Recoleta cemetery, In the 80s, after it had been closed for years, it had extensive architectural work done, turning it into a cultural centre. However over the years it became a more conventional (and staid) arts space, appealing to a small group of people interested in more ‘elite’ art practices – and its numbers were relatively low. Then, in 2016, its programming was totally redesigned, with only limited changes to the space itself. The key change was its re-orientation to youth, who were intricately involved with the staff in the decision making around programming. The staff stress that since youth have a key say in decisions driving content (through a formal committee), this has resulted in a space that feels like it belongs to people. Today the space buzzes - with youth and adults. It is open most days from 1.30pm to 10pm (a bit earlier on weekends and holidays) so that young people can come after school and adults after work. Parents generally feel comfortable to leave their kids there as it’s regarded as a safe space, especially for women and girls. One of its innovations is to have a long term residency for a hip hop crew in the building - these bring in young audiences, but the crew is also critical to the centre’s educational work. The staff serve as critical ‘mediators’ between for example the hip hop crew and youth committees and the bureaucrats (local government systems in particular).
It has a dynamic looking facade, and a series of large spaces totalling over 6000 sq.m. There are a number of galleries (in March/April 2019 there was, amongst others, a large exhibition on street art on and people packed in, many taking ‘selfies’), a 100 seater movie house, a 150 seater theatre, two large spaces for hip hop (one a courtyard performance space, and another an open space for practise), a media space (where interactive art is displayed), an art making space (where kids and parents draw and display their works immediately), an arts residency space (where up to 8 artists can stay for a period of time to make work in the centre), an outdoor performance space for around 1200 people and numerous meeting rooms. There is also a great deal of space - including a variety of seating options for visitors to work, chill out, people watch or play games. Free unlimited municipal internet is provided throughout the building. The institution wants to be a permeable space which invites people in and wants them to stick around, enticing them as a result to come more often, and go to events they may not otherwise consider. The breaking down of the invisible barriers that often exist in ‘serious’ art spaces, may have made the old constituency unhappy, but it has paid off by significantly building audiences and real participation - making the space as a result a real cultural centre. In any event, there are numerous options elsewhere for those into more high-brow stuff.
Programming is changed every two months and everything speaks to the theme chosen collectively with its committee. The March/April 2019 "campaign" was, for example, called - "No Va Más" (meaning "No More") - which responded to Women's Day and gender issues including violence against women (which is very much prevalent in the city). Women led much of the programming. It has also forced the hip hop scene to address its own challenges of gender balance. The walls of much of the corridors were filed with a street poster project by a feminist collective and one of the large courtyards was filled with around 30 feminist collectives displaying original affordable art, comics and design products. But not all programming’s ‘heavy’ – the December/ January before was themed "Summer Fun". It’s not surprising then that the small programming department (out of a staff of around 120 full and part time staff) is known as Content, Mediation and Audiences- recognising its role is not just a traditional one, but involves a facilitative act - engaging young creatives and audiences alike, providing a free space for the city to express itself back to itself.
Barrio 31: Using Culture for Neighborhood Change
A relatively short distance from CCR, separated by a railway line is a villa miseriaswith 12 825 households spread over 71 hectares. It is also part of the city's ‘Barrios Creativos’ (Creative Neighborhoods initiative). Built partially under a highway, Barrio 31 is a dense informal settlement, unusual because it's a heart-beat away from the wealthy areas of Recoleta and Puerto Madero. Since 2015, the municipality has begun an extensive project to improve living conditions in the area. Mindful of the silo mentality which often prevents integrated action, the municipality set up the Secretaria de Integracion Social y Urbano which has four main areas of responsibility - human capital development, improving the habitat, furthering economic development opportunities, and urban integration. The latter holds the project’s central aim - "to integrate the area into the rest of the city". Thus there is a cynicism from some residents that this unique project is only happening because of its centrality in a city where property is still expensive and thus the city has ulterior motives. The area is certainly very well located, and many of its residents work in various service roles in the city, as well as education and health. Although the area was laid out and built informally, with dwellings often constructed three stories high and with unpaved streets, there are shops and other services at ground level and the area feels like it has an active street life. These are recognised in the study by Jan Gehl and team, which provided some useful learnings about the project - helping the municipality to identify what was good and what needed to be changed as the project was unfolding - moving beyond either focusing solely on its dysfunctionalities or on romanticising its organic local practices and forms.
With a strong people-centred approach - government is focusing on various social initiatives, such as education and health. It is expanding the area's only school fourfold, building a new library and improving its programmes. It is also adding three new schools. Public spaces, parks, play areas and sports facilities are being built throughout the area. Government services are moving into the area, including the headquarters of the Ministry of Education. Three new health care centres will open in different parts of the barrio - bringing health services closer to each resident. A centre to improve training and access to jobs has been created as part of a "Labour Integration Program", together with entrepreneurial training (with 250 entrepreneurs supported to date). Housing is being improved in situ, with internal and external changes to make them safer, including improving accessibility to informal high rises. New apartments are being constructed to house those living in informal housing under the highways. Roads are being paved and sidewalks installed together with other infrastructure improvements. An informal main street already exists (Latin Fair) and has been enhanced, complete with shops on one side and outdoor trading on the other for around 350 stands. This was improved through public space enhancement and beautification, including painting house exteriors, and formalized stands.
As Gehl noted, "it is necessary to elevate the values and strengths of the community so to retain them in the redeveloped neighborhood." Part of the program was therefore also an understanding that places do not shift without engaging with peoples sense of identity and belonging - its sense of itself, its culture. While many of the changes above can be spoken of as much needed urban improvements, the integrated nature of project and its strong people-centred approach speaks to working with culture. Recognising the diversity of the areas, which is made up of various people from other South American countries, a specific arts-led cultural project was designed together with a cultural centre to support it. While it’s a relatively humble space, the centre has seven staff, who are employed by local government's culture department. These staff work not just with the communities in the centre but also liaise with the broader integrated City team in an onsite shared office on its edge, so it can draw on the resources of the many field workers in the area. A series of music, dance and theatre groups have been formed - these intergenerational units are made up of diverse groupings of residents. One of the groups say they are involved because the programme helps them learn a new creative skill and by performing as a group helps them to collectively remember the traditional songs and practices of their original places, while also building social bonds and a sense of personal empowerment.
Buenos Aires, is an unusual city in the Global South, due to its extensive and long standing support for using culture in its city making. It’s not surprising that the Cultural Policy of the City which draws innovatively on the notion of "Cultural Exchange" has been identified as a good practice approach by UCLG Culture 21. Projects such as CCR and Barrio 31, demonstrate the ways the city has actualised this in practice.
But as an activist working with both CCR and in Barrio 31 suggests, there is still much to be done to connect these two projects which are often kept far apart in practice despite their geographical closeness. Others argue that the city's proudly neo-liberal bent is problematic, and this comes through various challenging projects - some of which have displaced already precarious working class communities. Others argue that it can be tone deaf to its residents’ main needs and should work more closely with and support its cultural ecosystem including providing much needed empty municipal property (which can go a big way in the city's expensive real estate market). There is therefore much for its municipality to explore and learn… and for those in other contexts to take note of.