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State of the Art: Madrid

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The Market For Collecting Photography In Madrid

By Robert Latona

Many reasons exist for living and making a living in the Spanish capital, Madrid, but without the city’s freshly-minted reputation as a European photography venue of the first order, Amparo would likely be doing both someplace else. She’s an established professional whose credits include an extensive portfolio of magazine work as well as photography-based art objects, more than a few of which have migrated from downtown galleries to private and institutional collections. For Amparo, then, being in the center of the frame is a career imperative as well as a personal priority.

“It’s easy to get started here and if your work is any good at all, curators and gallery owners will be responsive and encouraging,” she says. “It’s in their own interest, since there’s a demand for quality that hasn’t peaked yet, so private collectors and institutions are always looking for tomorrow’s talent. Especially if they can get it at today’s prices.”

Spain is a case study in the truism that whenever a society undergoes sweeping social and political change, you get far-reaching transformations in the culture. The urge to catch up with the rest of the world after sitting out most of the twentieth century, so to speak, goes a long way towards explaining the country’s eagerness to embrace the modern.

Luis Pérez Mínguez, 2, courtesy Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo (Madrid)

Photography came riding in on the coattails of the same dynamic that made contemporary art essential to the cultural re-tweaking process. Hard to believe that 20 years ago, there was only one modern art museum in all of Madrid and it had only a couple of so-so Picassos hanging on its walls. Since then, the sprightly and eclectic Thyssen has opened for business, along with the Queen Sofia National Museum of Contemporary Art, keeping company with the Prado along Madrid’s masterpiece mile.

At the present time, the most important institutional collections are in the Fundación Telefonica, an offshoot of the Spanish telecom operator which channels part of its immense capital mainly into good works and educational programs in Latin America. Starting in 2000 though, the foundation started aggressively buying up photography in a focused program of acquisitions emphasizing the dominant tendencies in the United States and Germany during the final quarter of the last century. The biggest player at the table is the Queen Sofia center. A vigorous acquisitions’ program has helped its permanent collection of photography-based art, increase in number and representative scope, even though it has not always proven easy to see the works displayed properly, with the museum’s paintings, sculpture and installations competing for exhibition space. The fact that the museum has undergone five changes of director (who is appointed by the Culture Ministry) since it opened in 1988, with the concomitant changes and reversals in artistic criteria, budget priorities and policy directives, has likewise impacted on the photography department.

Apart from museums and mission-specific government cultural agencies, other public entities have made acquiring or promoting photography as a key part of the cultural agenda. Modern Spain has been reconfigured into 17 regional governments, several of which, like rich, northeastern Catalonia or the Basque Country, largely run their own affairs. Catalonia in particular has built up an extensive photographic archive in a data base documenting folklore and celebrities, calamities and customs; fading constituents of the collective identity that legitimize on-the-ground political arrangements. Sadly, the archive does not include the work of Agustí Centelles, who has been called “the Catalan Capa” and probably deserves it. Although most were produced when Centelles was an employee of a precursor Catalan government, some of the best pictures ever taken – not just of the Spanish Civil War, but of early twentieth-century warfare in general, remain under private ownership.

Chema Madoz, Untitled, 1997; courtesy Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo (Madrid)

Another place you might not think of looking for photographic treasure troves is in Spain’s savings banks (cajas de ahorros) which by law are obliged to set aside a large chunk of their operating profits for pro bono projects, of which cultural initiatives such as prizes, exhibitions, publications, grants, etc. form the iceberg’s visible tip. An example: the Caja de Ahorros de Guipúzcoa, in the Basque Country, has tens of thousands of photographs in its archive, which it draws on to mount five or six exhibitions per year. In many of these collections, the interest is mainly historical. The northwestern city of Vigo has acquired over 100,000 images dating back to 1900 from a local family that produced four generations of photographers. But Spain is nothing if not a place of surprises, and you can never rule out encountering photographs of an altogether different type squirreled away in some extremely odd places.

Take Alcobendas: a Madrid suburb of hideous high rises, open-air bars and malls, best known to the rest of the world for the hardware store that at one time had Penelope Cruz behind the counter. There, of all places, the municipal authorities have built up a first-rate collection of contemporary Spanish photography under the title “Genres and Tendencies on the Threshold of the 21st Century.” It has gone after the big names, Ouka Lele, Carlos Canovas, Pere Formiguera, and the best available work in different thematic categories, portrait, landscape, social documentation, etc., while also making sure the new techniques that have come on board since the dawn of digital are represented. Some of the more than 400 different pieces in the permanent collection are likely to be on loan at any given time, since it has proven good public relations for the town to flaunt its cultural sophistication.

Chema Madoz, Untitled, 1997; courtesy Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo (Madrid)

Alcobendas is likewise written large on the cultural map of Spain for sponsoring a contemporary art competition that has photography, along with video and mixed media, among the eligible platforms. Taking home a medal from Alcobendas is actually a good career move for budding photographers, but far from unique in that respect. It’s hard for Americans to imagine the extent that competitions and prizes determine, for better or arguably for worse, what gets painted, photographed, published and performed in Spain and in other European countries. The same goes for direct corporate sponsorship; after an easy tax write-off; the capitalist is allowed to shovel his loot into the starving artist’s lap. Compare with the institution-to-institution paradigm in the United States, where IBM may give away millions, but will give them to Harvard.

“Sure it helps if you have one of these prizes on your CV,” says Amparo, who jump started her career by copping a prize for young photographers of promise. “But not having one doesn’t mean there’s no chance of you cracking the gallery scene. Doors open just the same, but with a prize under your belt they’ll probably do it sooner or easier, that’s all.”

There are over 50 galleries that belong to ArteMADRID, the contemporary art dealers association, ranging from the latest in post-modern posh to one that can be described as a hole-in-the-wall in more than just a figurative sense. El Escaparate de San Pedro is actually a store window without the store, a glass display case embedded in the façade of an ordinary building where its is hoped that the photo of the month will catch the eye of those passing by, with indications of the website through which it can be purchased for immediate home delivery.

Surprise, everyone, it’s money that keeps the Madrid art market, and its photographic offshoot, sizzling on the griddle. “You’d recognize the names of some of the people who buy my photographs,” comments Amparo. “But the ones you know about are the parents, who got rich from real estate and construction in the seventies and eighties. Now property is off the chart and the stock market isn’t as sexy as buying art. So their children are looking more at the art. They’re also very sophisticated about what they want. It’s not just an investment for them, but it’s not just art, either. How often do you hear about somebody losing money on a painting or photograph? Except the artist, I mean.”

If you must ask why this fireball detonated over the Spanish capital and not elsewhere, one partial answer is: by default. Yes, Barcelona used to be the epicenter of Spain’s cultural activity: prosperous, sophisticated and totally tuned in to what was going on the rest of the world. That was especially true during the 1970s, when it welcomed the diaspora of writers, artists and politicized intellectuals fleeing the bad news out of Latin America. All that changed, however, over the following quarter century of political and cultural hegemony imposed by Catalonia’s ruling nationalists. Nowadays, they mostly look after their own in Barcelona – and to be sure, many outstanding photographers are flourishing there. Which is fine, if you’re one of their own. If you’re not, you go to Madrid.

Going to Madrid is what they did in the early 1980s, while Barcelona retreated into a stupor of self-regard. From all over Spain they came. One was from the flatlands of La Mancha where his father pumped gas, and his name was Pedro Almodóvar. The people he hung out with, and the things they got up to in the eagerness to cast off the shackles of Francoist repression, is known as the movida, a kind of homegrown counterculture movement anchored very specifically in Madrid.

In the Madrid of that period, photography was cool, in the same way that doing drugs was cool, indie rock was cool, making 8mm films was cool, reinventing sex was cool. Everybody tried their hand at everything, but the contingent of soon to be famous photographers who came out of the movida can be whittled down to Ouka Lele (née Barbara Allende) who, long before Photoshop, saw possibilities in old-fashioned color-tints that nobody had seen before; and Alberto García-Alix, whose portraits of painters, porn stars, bikers, junkies and body tattoos (even more elaborate than his own) are borderline unforgettable. The photographer who realized that images of the movida were valid aesthetically as well as historically was Pablo Pérez Mínguez, who, on the occasion of a recent retrospective, remarked that “the legacy of the movida is its spirit of freedom, modernity and anything goes. We wanted to lighten up the progressive political mindset with something more frivolous.” Thanks to the momentum of the Madrid movida, followers, imitators, wannabees and a whole new generation of people who took the frivolity potential of photography very seriously was not long in appearing on the scene.

The third factor that contributed to Madrid’s consolidation as a photographic crossroads can be summed up in one word: ARCO, the international contemporary art fair held in early February each year. Despite the yearly catfights over the allocation of limited display space among foreign and Spanish exhibitors, ARCO has succeeded in anchoring itself in the agendas of critics, collectors and curators, museum and foundation directors who come from all over the world with checkbook at the ready. Though video art is now the hot thing, and likely to remain so for some time to come, photography still accounts for a very considerable part of the turnover and the comments from the 190,000 people who attended this year’s exhibition.

In due time, all of these converging tendencies paved the way for PhotoEspaña, the yearly festival that first launched in 1997 and has since been reincarnating itself regularly and reliably in mid-May each year when up to a hundred private and public galleries, institutions, museums and exhibition venues in the Spanish capital are mobilized as platform for the work of photographers both old and new, famous and nobodies, today’s hot trendies and timeless crowd-pleasers. At the same time, workshops and screening opportunities are scheduled so that young photographers of promise get a chance to show their work to visiting celebrities who are brought over for lectures, interviews and media bites. Although Madrid’s city fathers cough up most of the money that pays for all this activity, with corporate sponsorship picking up the slack, the event is actually run by a private organization.

One thing Madrid cannot lay claim to is hosting a convention-type encounter for photography buffs. That honor, for the past three years, has gone to the Basque seaside resort city of San Sebastian, where in May the Ordoñez-Falcó Photography Center and Foundation has organized DFOTO, an open-agenda of panels and workshops for people interested in photography, video art and the creative manipulation of imagery. In its short history, DFOTO has also clinched its reputation as a marketplace venue where enough money and artwork change hands to have attracted more than 40 galleries in 2006, coming from Switzerland, Germany and New York as well as from all over the rest of Spain. But those Spaniards who take photography seriously as a focus of their professional careers or private enthusiasms know that however many detours may be required, all paths still lead to the big city where it’s all been going down, and until something new develops, that means Madrid—it’s that simple.

From his base outside Madrid, American journalist, Robert Latona, writes about Spanish politics, books and the arts scene.

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