The twenty-first century has brought numerous changes to the cultural sector. People working in this field, and curators particularly have had to adapt and find new working methods in order to maintain an increasing number of visitors. In a period of funding cuts from governments, especially in Europe where the state was a traditional funder of the arts, cultural institutions had to find ways to survive and continue flourishing. In Spain notably, where ‘public funding has been slashed’ (O’Neill 2013), la Casa Encendida, (the Incandescent House), a multicultural centre in Madrid created in 2002 under the patronage of the savings bank Caja Madrid, has survived the crises thanks to many activities, concerts, operas and contemporary art exhibitions. It also offers workshops, educative programmes and artistic training courses. It has managed to adapt itself to an increasingly heterogeneous audience who seeks to participate actively and not to remain static anymore. The staging of Mundo Extreme (Extreme World), an exhibition which has demonstrated the potential effect of spatial production and occupation strategies towards creating inclusive discursive environments will be analysed. This event ‘resulted in access and empowerment for people often excluded, patronized, or treated as somehow inferior by society at large’ (Moore 2015: 102), in this case, adults with intellectual disabilities.
The Project Team and Management
In 1998 Caja Madrid asked La Fábrica, a cultural open space, to come up with ideas for the use of a historical building built in 1878, closed at the time, on Madrid’s Ronda de Valencia. That was the start of a long collaboration that culminated in the inauguration in September 2002 of La Casa Encendida, Obra Social Caja Madrid’s cultural centre, which has revolutionised the cultural offer for young people in Madrid.
It notably hosted a TED event, the Madrid Salon in September 2012.
Therefore, a well-established artist is always exhibited concurrently with a lesser- known or younger artist, where each has equal access to exhibition space, time and resources.
An empowering building
In 1998 Caja Madrid asked La Fábrica to come up with ideas for the use of a historical building built in 1878, closed at the time, on Madrid’s Ronda de Valencia. That was the start of a long collaboration that culminated in the inauguration in September 2002 of La Casa Encendida, Obra Social Caja Madrid’s cultural centre, which has revolutionised the cultural offer for young people in Madrid.
The building was totally redesigned to create a space far more welcoming and favourable to cultural activites.
An imposing stair which dominated the main entrance hall was demolished and replaced with an open reception area connecting the street to the internal courtyard, a building strategy to dismantle the physical or psychological impediments that prevented curious passers-by from entering by welcoming them directly into the heart of the complex.
Previously open, the courtyard was roofed over with a contemporary, streamlined canopy, which retained the beneficial natural lighting of the courtyard while shading the roof terrace with its deep eaves.
There is also a roof terrace which offers a popular open-air space for sustainable garden projects, outdoor exhibitions, and organized activities, as well as for relaxation.
Mundo Extreme was designed to reveal the hidden creative world of artists with intellectual disabilities. It presented the results of a three-year collaboration between La Casa’s Solidarity department and a small Madrid-based group Debajo del Sombrero. The idea of Mundo Extreme was inspired by a 2006 documentary, entitled: What’s Under Your Hat? which was directed by Lola Barrera, the director of Sombrero. The documentary tracked the creative development of Judith Scott, who is a North American sculptor with an intellectual disability. They took this concept as the starting point, and aimed to provide an open space for creative and free expression of people with intellectual disabilities. Exhibition designers in La Casa founded multiple forms to engage artists and audiences with the exhibition. There were organised workshops, to create two-dimensional works, for example sketches and paintings, but also three-dimensional pieces and sculptures to present. Furthermore, a broader range of media was used to explore the works of artists. Especially, an interactive activity called "Table of Dialogues" was designed to express dialogues and stories through both art and words.
The design of the exhibition
The exhibition designer Alvaro Matxinbarrena is a creative artist, he saw La Casa’s neutral rectangular exhibition spaces as an ideal place for developing his concept, because they emphasised the regularity of his composition’s grid layout. His idea to arrange the artworks in straight rows intended to echo the procession of persistently recurring images and characters. A short ﬁlm "Danse Extreme (Extreme Dance)", which inspired the exhibition title, was to be screened in a corridor alcove. The two doors on each side led into two large exhibition space, which were linked by the short passage gallery. One space presented sculptures which were housed in rows of steel-framed, unglazed cabinets, an abstraction of the walk- around timber and glass cabinets of a traditional museum.
The other one collected two-dimensional works on the wall. These works had inclined mounting surfaces and excessive borders. And in the central of the space, there was a long central double-sided bench that invited seated contemplation.
According to Matxinbarrena (2013), the design intended to distance the pieces of artworks from a “false accessibility”. He explained that visitors might bring prejudiced attitudes toward these artworks, and they were likely to presume these artworks were easy to intellectually access and understand. The glassless cabinets of the sculpture gallery and exaggerated deep frames of the drawings gallery enable to create a “room” for each piece, reinforcing its intimacy while warning the visitor “Stop and reconsider”. This allowed audience to think and re-examine their mistaken assumptions toward the artistic value of these artworks and the ability of these artists.
The outcome and success
The exhibition successfully broke hierarchical occupation patterns and challenged the prejudices of La Casa’s cultural communities, even its staff. During the exhibition tour, artists’ personal stories were not involved, so that participants’ attention would not be detracted from artworks to artists’ disabilities. Their workshops simply shared the work process, stories and experiences behind their art, presenting a key of understanding the workshops as spaces of self-identity where the unhurried process of making each piece of the artist’s own first person narrative. In the meantime, guides asked artists if there were any comments and questions they would like to share with audience. This created a two-way communication environment for artists and visitors. The media coverage can also show the success of this exhibition. The exhibition featured in Spanish national newspaper cultural sections and it was ranked among Spain’s seven most-important art exhibition of the year, and gained prime-time exposure through national television and radio interviews.
Surveys have shown that La Casa’s overall annual visitor numbers now exceed 800,000 (more than 11,000 of whom participate in workshops or courses), closely tailing those of Madrid’s major museum attractions and even the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Arte Informado, 2012). Moreover, 90 per cent of the centre’s visitors are from local and recurrent audiences, which is a success for the manager who pointed to the need for a cultural centre to embrace the southern disadvantaged communities of Madrid and, equally importantly, to exert a dynamic influence on these areas. The exhibition Mundo Extreme and the whole building of La Casa show how curators must use and shape their spaces of exhibition in order to convey their intentions to the audience.
- Do you think it is specific to the twenty-first century for curators to focus on space while planning exhibitions?
- Do you pay attention, personally, to space when visiting any cultural institution?
- According to you, does the work of curators have changed overtime? Why?
Martin Tröndle , Stéphanie Wintzerith , Roland Wäspe & Wolfgang Tschacher (2012) A museum for the twenty-first century: the influence of ‘sociality’ on art reception in museum space, Museum Management and Curatorship, 27:5, 461-486, DOI: 10.1080/09647775.2012.737615
Moore, M. (2015). Creating Discursive Space for Intercultural Encounters: La Casa Encendida, Madrid. Curator: The Museum Journal (58) 1, pp.100-116.
Petrov, J. (2012). Cross-Purposes: Museum Display and Material Culture. CrossCurrents, 62(2), 219-234