One of the economic discoveries of the 1990's was that when industry goes cities can revive themselves through the arts ... provided the government will invest in new buildings. In Britain, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow, places hollowed out by de-industrialization revived themselves by building new arts centers - in iconic buildings by world class architects.
The pioneer in this process was Bilbao. The rundown port city in northern Spain put itself in the front rank of international tourist destinations with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum.
Those days are clearly at an end. Six months ago, Aviles, a Spanish city a 150 miles due west of Bilbao, opened up an arts center designed by world famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Cost: 44 million euros ($58 million). Yesterday it was announced that the center would close ... sort of. The building will remain open but the programs will be canceled.
That is a dramatic move. Aviles was no local arts space. Its scope was resolutely international. Last weekend Kevin Spacey performed Shakespeare's Richard the Third there. Woody Allen has played jazz there. Jessica Lange had an exhibition of her photos shown in Aviles last month.
There are local reasons for the move: "gross financial irregularities" have been alleged, according to a report in El Pais.
But it would not be a surprise if the financial problems were related to the fact that revenues could not keep pace with subsidy. Bringing a production like Richard the Third for a short visit is not cheap. Projects are booked a year ahead and further in most arts centers around the world. Often, all the money to bring a big foreign attraction for a visit is not in the bank, the day the contract is signed. The current climate of economic uncertainty makes it a reasonable guess, that commitments were made by the Niemeyer Center's administration without full agreement from the Asturias regional authorities. Month by month Spain has been slipping deeper into economic crisis. Its unemployment rate is 21 percent, the national debt is growing. National and regional governments paying for big name shows to fill their brand new, grand buildings is probably no longer possible.
What happens to these wonderful arts centers in this time of austerity is anybody's guess.