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Nadia Arroyo: “The concept of the ‘major exhibition’ with huge visitor numbers is going to change”

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Today 89 percent of the world’s cultural heritage is totally or partially closed, and museums are losing millions in revenue every day, according to recent data from UNESCO. So it’s become more urgent than ever to encourage dialog, confidence in the future and the implementation of solutions to support our artists. MAPFRE and its foundation are firmly committed to culture, and proof of this is the opening of its new exhibition center in Barcelona.

Coinciding with the inauguration of the Fundación MAPFRE KBr Photography Center in Barcelona, we interview the Cultural Director of the Fundación MAPFRE, Nadia Arroyo, on the hardship that the pandemic has caused in the sector and also, on how culture represents vital support and sustenance for people in times of uncertainty.

She also talks about the creative process, the new digital formats, the need for solidarity to make content available to the rest of society, and her own personal memories.


Question: The COVID-19 crisis is having an impact on every aspect of our lives, including the cultural life of every city around the world. According to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), 95 percent of the world’s nearly 60,000 museums were closed in April. Do you fear that the consequences of this blocking of access to culture will have effects in the medium-term?

Answer: 95 percent of museums? I think that percentage is too small. I would have said that 100 percent of museums and cultural institutions were closed. The pandemic is bringing about an unprecedented economic downturn across the business world, and culture will definitely take a hit in the medium-term. The activity of many public museums depends largely on ticket sales, and visitors have now fallen by around 80 percent at all levels. Today we were talking to Long Beach Museum in the United States, who were due to lend us 27 works of art for our Jawlensky exhibition in January. They aren’t going to be able to come, though, because they are still affected by temporary layoffs over there. They told us that they expect more than 30 percent of the museums in the US to close down permanently. If you look at the figures linked to the sector, I would say that on a global level, culture is facing a situation that is really quite dramatic.

Is creative diversity at risk, or do you think, on the contrary, that crises of this magnitude always have a positive side and can represent a wake-up call to artists?

I wouldn’t dare say that a crisis of this magnitude has a positive side, but I do believe that we will emerge rejuvenated and stronger than ever. Art and the creative capacity of artists and cultural managers have shown us that, in difficult times, we can grow and develop new ways to continue expressing and creating. If you like, it’s the most direct statement of the idea that culture is a basic necessity, it’s a foodstuff that nourishes a major sector of society. During the lockdown—when we were unable to visit exhibitions and museums—the cultural world mobilized to create and offer a wide array of digital cultural content, the purpose of which was to help us overcome the lockdown and our sense of anguish. It was proven that there was a lot of demand: royalty-free electronic books, open theaters and shows, virtual tours of exhibitions, activities for children… It was non-stop. There was a lot of generosity.

From your position of responsibility in the Culture Area at Fundación MAPFRE, what has changed in what you offer, in the way you approach your public and in your expectations?

The simple truth is that the exhibition-going public has undergone a major change. First of all, the tourists have more or less completely disappeared and secondly—as is the case to a large extent in the sector—the average visitor is 65 years old. That visitor now stays at home because they have a greater incentive to protect themselves. I believe that for a while we will avoid and continue to feel uncomfortable in spaces with a lot of people, so the established concept of the “large exhibition” with huge visitor numbers is going to change. That doesn’t mean that we’ll stop working and believing in important exhibitions, in which we can enjoy art and which we hope to offer to our public in the coming years.

“We’ve noticed that the public who come to our photography exhibitions are more loyal, more equally balanced and younger”

Do you think that people will now turn more to photography and audiovisual production, since these are much closer than painting is to the world of television, advertising and video, which are the big winners in these times of “limited entertainment”?

Photography is certainly a medium that is generating more and more attraction. We’ve noticed that the public who come to our photography exhibitions in Madrid and Barcelona are more loyal, more equally balanced and younger. It mobilizes a part of society that represents the future: young people. These new generations have grown up in, move around in and express themselves through the digital world. This is a sensitive area that we are dealing with, as we must show them that their experience in the digital environment is very different from the physical and face-to-face environment. This does not mean that we don’t see the importance of attracting them, of gaining their interest and therefore, of generating a series of events with digital cultural content, a new project that we’ve called Cultura en digital and with which we hope to attract them and to gain their loyalty.

Is more investment in digital and innovation required to deliver new virtual experiences? Creating “virtue” out of necessity?

Without a doubt. I would not refer so much to virtual experiences, which are far from the experience that I like to call “getting to grips with a work of art,” “establishing a direct relationship,” or a “face to face,” which has nothing to do with a virtual visit. However, the digital world can also attract, endear and enrich. I honestly believe that art that can evolve the most in the virtual world is music because listening demands and requires maximum concentration and invites you to close your eyes and let yourself be enveloped by the sound. In terms of photography and the plastic arts, the virtual environment can never replace the face-to-face experience.

And on a more personal level, how are you? What lessons have you learned during these months of uncertainty and what work of art would you love to see right now if you could choose?

I feel very fortunate, as no one close to me has been seriously affected. My family, friends and team are all fine. In the world of organizing exhibitions, we need a lot of planning. We work three or four years in advance and we’ve seen that things are sorting themselves out. We’ve become more flexible. We’ve accepted that we cannot control deadlines that don’t depend on us. This is a lesson that I’ve also learned on a personal level. And to finish—I love this question—what work of art would make me stop in my tracks? A Rothko, I would say any work of art but racking my brains, I would return to the “Rothko Room,” at the Phillips Collection in Washington where you are suddenly surrounded by four of his works of art in a room that measures only 12 square meters. It’s an unforgettable experience, one that detaches you from reality. At this moment, in the face of all the horror and pain caused by COVID, I would hide there.