During my five months on an artist residency in the Northern Spanish City of Bilbao, I have noticed a lot of artists. Being based in an artist residency centre this is obviously a risk. Considering the size of the city, there seemed however to be more artists than you might find in a similarly sized post-industrial British city, such as, say, Wolverhampton. The city is also home to many art venues, three major museums, the Guggenheim, the Azkuna Zentroa and the Museo de Bellas Artes, as well as a vibrant scene of artist initiatives, galleries and event spaces. In order to find out how they make it work, I undertook some unscientific research and spoke to a motley mix of people about art and money.
Txema Agiriano studied Fine Art at the University of Bilbao and works as a curator and cultural producer. He is based in the slightly run down and very trendy San Francisco area of Bilbao. The area houses a number of small galleries, community centres and studios as well as vibrant street prostitution and large groups of mainly young men engaged in various illicit business. Txema is passionate about his barrio, he is keen to create opportunities for excluded people and to establish an underground art scene rich in the niche and experimental. He curates a number of art festivals and exhibitions including the MEM Festival and ExperimentoBio and brings many international artists to the city.
His extensive and year round art events are funded through regular grants from the Basque Government and the City of Bilbao. He says each district has its own budget and though the funding can vary from year to year it is fairly reliable. He pays participating artists a small fee when the budget permits and draws a salary himself. Artists are included through open calls as well as from his own extensive research. He says many artists in Bilbao live from a combination of jobs and grants, some receive unemployment benefits, which appears to be a great deal easier to receive than in the UK.
Something mentioned by everyone was that there is practically no local art market, there are very few collectors in the Basque Country and they rarely buy emerging artist’s work. One artist said he knew a large number of artists in the city and only two or three sell their work. Most major sales are to public collections, continuing the theme of the public purse perpetuating artistic production. One artist told me the big industrialists who made the region wealthy don’t like visual art very much, preferring more conservative theatre or music and but perhaps patronising the Guggenheim. I asked Txema how people felt about funding artists and art activities through their taxes. He thought most people were probably unaware of the fact and we shouldn’t publicise it too much, in case they found out and tried to put a stop to it. I assured him this article would have a niche readership.
My second stop was a rather fabulous little underground gallery space called Okela. I spoke to two women artists, Irati Urrestarazu and Sahatsa Jauregi. The interview was made more interesting by the fact that I spoke English to Sahatsa, she spoke Euskera (the Basque language) to Irati, who in turn spoke Spanish to me. It seemed symbolic of the difficulties and lost details in thinking about the specificity of local culture from a foreign perspective.
The artist-run gallery is a squatted former butcher’s shop. It appears on first entry to be a tiny but gorgeous space, with Maroccan tiles and the butcher’s hooks still in place. Beyond the shop the space opens out into a cavernous maze of corridors and rooms, some of them giant refrigerators, which are used for exhibitions, performances, video and lectures. On the day I was there they had created a huge installation and performance space with girls from the local community. Okela reach out to a wider community and occasionally provide their space to artists for workshops.
When they first squatted the space it was in poor condition and they had to spend a lot of time and energy renovating and improving it, but the neighbours were supportive of their presence and helped them thrive there. The space exists in some form of repossession no man’s land and as a result the artists have already been here for seven years. Irati said everyone feels the benefit of someone occupying the ground floor spaces, not so much because of the lively cultural activity but because they keep an eye on the pipes and the rats. In the beginning the three artists who started Okela also used the spaces as studios, but now they have moved out to make space for a full exhibition program. Their projects and salaries are covered by a combination of government grants, which has them working around 3 days a week on gallery business, with the rest of the time spent in their own studios.
The fact that the gallery was founded by women was frequently mentioned to me previously to the interview and so I asked Sahatsa, whether she felt being a female artist was still a disadvantage in contemporary Spain. Her answer was that more women are represented in public galleries now than ever before, but that people generally struggled to see women’s work as excellent. She added rather surprisingly that she herself struggled with the prejudice that the work of women couldn’t be excellent. Both artists work in sculpture, which in the Basque country comes with a heavy burden of history. Artists such as Eduardo Chillida and Jorge Oteiza, to name the most famous, with their giant rusting steel works, have emblematically captured the spirit of the Basque country, have put it on the map artistically and have in the subsequent decades shaped the materiality and conversation of Basque sculpture.
Sahatsa says that as a woman in sculpture she has struggled to feel comfortable making things ‘well’ by which she seemed to mean well constructed and using traditional sculptural skills such as welding. She says female sculptors have generally focussed on more ephemeral materials, less ‘totemic’ styles. Irati agreed with this view and said in her work she creates steel structures in which more delicate and fragile materials can exist. It struck me as an interesting problem that women would choose materials and media distinct from traditional ones, perhaps deliberately to make a statement about their different experience, but that a consequence of this would be a sense of being a less skilled artist, almost a self imposed trap. In a less binary gendered environment, which is emerging in Spain as much as elsewhere, it will be interesting to see how the use of materials and the ownership of traditions may eventually change.
Okela receive grants for various different activities and projects and exhibit mainly local artists, which they describe as their network. They like the idea of belonging to the local scene but also say that budgets don’t usually stretch to inviting artists from elsewhere. They have a great reception by the artist community and their openings are so packed it can be hard to get inside. They say that there is an unbridgeable gap between the upper end of the established art world and the activities of the artists working in Bilbao. They say the Guggenheim curators have never visited their gallery nor shown any interest in any of their activities or those of the artists they work with.
This was a sentiment repeated to me several times, the Guggenheim appears appropriately to be like a spaceship, landed amid a vibrant creative scene with which it does not apparently intersect. Someone said they’re a bit American and someone else said they’re a tourist attraction. The latter is clearly true, the Guggenheim attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year and contributes to making Bilbao a destination. It has been a major part of the city’s transformation into a cultural hub and attracts art interested people from all over the world. It also employs a significant number of local artists in its education program, which aims to connect to the local community and educate broadly about international contemporary art. When I arrived they had a retrospective of Jenny Holzer, which was the best and most complete exhibition of her work I had ever seen. It completely transformed my understanding of her work.
Education and workshops in museums is another source of income but there are also grants available for artists own projects. Of the many artists with which I spoke, the majority received some type of production grant support at some point, some including an artist fee, some only covering materials. Funding artists directly creates a more artist centred conversation around practice and makes artists more independent. Mural painting is widely practiced as a form of neighbourhood improvement as the working class neighbourhoods of the former mining town have turned out to be very fond of their giant wall paintings of dancing skeletons and geometric colour fields. One artist I spoke to who worked in this area said that in the Nineties only a handful of Graffiti artists would prostitute themselves to paint for money, so it was rich pickings for those who did. Nowadays it provides income to a sizeable number of artists in the form of public and private commissions. Another curious aspect of life in Bilbao is that most art events, whether upper or lower end, provide free food and drink, a successful way of attracting audience and a tacit line of support for starving artists. Overall living expenses are lower than in London but high compared to the rest of Spain, while salaries are very low.
Many artists arrived in Bilbao for residencies and afterwards remained. The young artist duo Los Picoletos from Argentina, are both keen to remain after the end of their residency. They feel attracted by the open and interactive liberality of Spain and the connectivity both culturally and literally within Europe, cheap flights, trains etc, which are lacking in Latin America. They say that in general there is little arts funding in Argentina, artists largely stem from wealthy families who fund their daily lives. The small number who are not in this position, work very hard in other jobs to make ends meet. Los Picoletos fund themselves through a side line of drawings sold via their Instagram account and they are certain that relocating their practice to Northern Spain would improve their conditions significantly.
At this stage I felt the need to widen my scope and due to my total lack of contact to anyone outside the art world, I convened a meeting in slow Spanish with Contxi Barrasa and Agurtzane Quincoces, who work at the residency centre as house keeper and secretary respectively and by their own assertion are not part of the art world and have no contact to artists in their private lives whatsoever. I asked them what they thought about public money, their taxes, being spent on art. They told me with great enthusiasm and no hesitation at all, that they felt this was the very best use of their taxes. All other stuff was necessities or wasted, but the money for culture, which was really a small amount compared to spending on health or the military, was there to benefit everyone. They listed all the events that they themselves had attended during the year, many of which involved public art and artist’s interventions in public space, street parties and festivals. They said that they liked the theatre and other ‘high end’ events occasionally but that they thought the street level things, which were free and included everyone, was what made Bilbao such a great place to live.
It struck me at this point that perhaps artists do need to get out more. And that after all Txema needn’t worry too much about the public finding out about what he’s doing with their money. In the absence of millionaire art collectors, public funds directed to the grass roots functions in Bilbao as a magnet for practitioners and makes the city punch far above its weight al nivel cultural. Food for thought.
Liane Lang is an artist based in London. In her mixed media practice she explores the connections between objects and memory and the animacy of sculpture. She studied at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and completed a BA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, London followed by an MA at the Royal Academy Schools, London, where she graduated in 2006. She has exhibited widely both in the UK and internationally, including the Musée de Beaux Arts Calais, PS1 New York and Kunstverein Heidelberg. She won the Photofusion Award, the Tooth Travel Award at Goldsmiths College and the Cheneviere Prize at the Royal Academy Schools. 2018 has seen a solo show in London at James Freeman Gallery and Lianzhou Festival of Photography and her work was included in From Life at the Royal Academy of Arts. In 2019 Lang’s major installation We’re All In This Together was exhibited at Kunsthalle Tübingen as part of ComeBack. She is currently exhibiting in the newly completed James Simon Gallery, part of the Berlin State Museum. Lang’s work is held in numerous collections, such as Arts Council England, Royal Academy of Arts, the Saatchi Collection, Deutsche Bank, Kunstverein Bregenz, Ernst and Young and the Collection of the Kunstamt Spandau, Berlin. The artist is based in Bilbao during 2019 for a residency at BilbaoArte Fundacion. In January 2020 she will be artist in residence at Elephant Lab.