Puerto Rico’s Financial Troubles Weigh Heavily on a Vibrant Art Scene
Sitting at a table in the airy ground floor headquarters of Beta Local, a nonprofit contemporary art space in Old San Juan, its co-director Pablo Guardiola lays out the organization's financial straits in stark terms. “We’ve experienced a major drop in membership,” he says. When Beta Local was founded in 2009, it had 10 primary members who paid $2,000 a year in dues. By now, Guardiola had hoped to have 30 such members, but with Puerto Rico’s uncertain financial future, donors are few and far between. “Today,” Guardiola says, “I think we just have three.”
When Puerto Rico defaulted on a debt payment on Aug. 3, it was the culmination of a harsh reality that arts organizations on the island had been grappling with for several years. “We had more than 400 employees in 2010,” says Jorge Irizarry Vizcarrondo, executive director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. “We’re close to 150 now.”
Cuts to Public Funding
Irizarry Vizcarrondo’s organization is funded by Puerto Rico’s state government and the National Endowment for the Arts and manages, among other things, 12 museums across the island, 32 cultural centers, several theater festivals, and a handful of local art fairs. Two years ago, the Institute of Culture’s budget was close to $12 million, Irizarry Vizcarrondo says. Today, it has shrunk close to 26 percent, to $8.9 million. Of that amount, $1.5 million is automatically deducted for maintenance and utility payments, he says, and another $5.2 million is set aside for payroll, leaving just $2.3 million for programming for the entire island. (For context, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a yearly operating budget of more than $300 million.)
All that adds up to a vastly diminished state-sponsored cultural environment across the entire island. “The reduction in budget has seriously affected us,” says Irizarry Vizcarrondo. “We have services we’re mandated by law to provide, but we’ve reduced the support we give other arts organizations and cultural centers.” A theater festival, for example, used to receive between $30,000 and $40,000, he says. Now it gets $15,000 to $20,000.
Endangered National Identity
The cuts to Puerto Rico’s cultural organizations are particularly problematic, because “we’re not a nation state, we’re a cultural nation,” says Carla Acevedo-Yates, a Puerto Rico-based curator and writer. National identity comes from the distinctive Puerto Rican culture, in other words. Arts organizations are a big part of that. “Culture has always been instrumentalized as a nation building tool," Acevedo-Yates says.
But while large, state-supported museums are struggling, Acevedo-Yates observes that the small, artist-run spaces that dot Santurce, an up-and-coming neighborhood in San Juan, are still functioning as they always did. “The crisis has engendered a need for collaboration and support," she says. Last week, for instance, an event was held at the space La Productora to raise funds for the Puerto Rican artist Jotham Malavé Maldonado. "It was full of people, everyone pitching in 10 or 15 bucks so he could go to the Florence Biennial," Acevedo-Yates says.
Alternative Funding Structures
Beta Local, the nonprofit in Old San Juan, has an annual operating budget of around $140,000 and is too large to rely solely on the largess of the community, says Guardiola. As money has dried up, “we’ve developed a whole new strategy,” he explains. They’ve begun an aggressive grant-application campaign, and last year the organization was awarded a significant, two-year-long grant from the U.S.-based Warhol Foundation. “We’ve lost money from members, but now we’re getting it from other sources,” he says.
Irizarry Vizcarrondo is also looking into alternative funding structures for the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, specifically from corporate and major individual donations. Even so, “we’re looking at this as a crisis that we’ll come out of,” he says. “I don’t think what we’re doing can be sustainable for another three or four years.”