Miguel Oyarzun tells Nick Awde about the true extent of Madrid’s political problems and how they led to his sacking from Conde Duque
The recent removal of the joint artistic directors of Madrid’s Conde Duque cultural centre, Miguel Oyarzun and Isla Aguilar, has proved yet another chilling act that exposes the increasingly fragile position held by culture in the face of rising right-wing politics across Europe.
Oyarzun and Aguilar are the founders and joint artistic directors of Birmingham’s international BE Festival, a CV that helped the pair become part of the once left-wing Madrid City Council plan to create a ‘cultural spring’. The vision was to attract practitioners with experience in cultural management of festivals and organisations elsewhere in Europe.
In 2018 the council appointed Oyarzun and Aguilar as artistic directors of Conde Duque, which lacked direction and was woefully underused.
That rapidly changed. “We transformed a centre dedicated to mere exhibition into a centre for creation,” says Oyarzun. “We maximised our capacity for R&D and supported more than 40 projects, including national and international co-productions.”
He adds: “In just one year of programming, and despite all the difficulties, the centre improved its income, diversity and audience with an increase of more than 35%. In short, we carried out the artistic remit we were contracted to do.”
However, 2019 was a year of political turmoil for Spain and with culture being a major weapon, it was perhaps no surprise that Oyarzun and Aguilar found themselves abruptly sacked on November 22, 2019.
The reasons offered by the new council were based on unfounded accusations of management issues – cleared by an internal investigation as a historic problem linked to Madrid Destino, the company that formally runs the venue – and, ominously, a conflict with Oyarzun and Aguilar’s roles as artistic directors of BE Festival.
The reality is that the directors inherited a system radically in need of an overhaul. “When we started with our own programming in September 2018, we already had a decimated team from months before,” says Oyarzun.
Contracted independently, the directors were not part of the official hierarchy of Madrid Destino. “As such, we had no say in anything related to the pre-existing team or new positions. We weren’t able to modify staff duties for new projects, nor even be part of the selection process for new staff.”
The country’s artistic sector, which sees the dismissal as a purely political act, continues to vocally support the pair. In Madrid alone, the artistic directors of M21 Radio, CentroCentro arts centre and Fernán Gómez Theatre, all appointed by open public competitions, are also under attack.
It’s not hard to see the connection, Oyarzun points out: “Our programme in the last months addressed topics such as the refugee and climate crises, the revision of historical memory. Many of the artists involved in our programmes aim to provoke thought and to question our preconceptions.
“The new party in power on the council, Partido Popular, is there with the support of the extreme right and such topics are not well received. Our sacking is an attack on artistic freedom.”
Oyarzun is sanguine about the future. “We’re open to starting new projects in Spain and also to moving elsewhere if the right project appears. After all, we belong to a generation that is now so often forced to migrate in search of opportunities.”