Art Takes Root in Fertile Soil in Spain
“FOUR years ago I would have told you that none of this would be possible here in Murcia,” said José Martinez Calvo, a native of this province in the southeast corner of Spain and a respected art dealer who owns the Madrid gallery Espacio Mínimo. “When my colleagues here told me what they were planning, I told them all to have a Plan B because this was just never going to happen.”
Well, it happened. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Calvo was standing in a lofty, light-filled gallery dotted with minimalist sculptures by the Irish artist Eva Rothschild at La Conservera, a converted cannery in the little village of Ceutí. Located 10 miles outside the regional capital city of Murcia — and a full five-hour drive southeast from Madrid — Ceutí feels light-years away from trendy, gallery-dense neighborhoods like Chueca in Madrid. But cleaned up and stripped of machinery, the factory’s open industrial spaces make spectacular galleries. And La Conservera, which opened last May, is just one piece of Murcia’s emergence as an artistic center.
Nearly a dozen new museums, galleries and other spaces devoted to creative use have popped up all across the often underappreciated province. Known as Spain’s vegetable garden — the region’s pata negra tomatoes inspire almost the same reverence as the jamón of the same name — Murcia typically makes national headlines only when there is a government battle over agricultural water rights or all-too-frequent real estate scandals surrounding development along the coast.
But in recent years, as government officials across Spain have succumbed to the so-called Bilbao effect — investing hundreds of millions of euros in shiny new arts centers in hopes that urban revitalization would quickly follow — Murcia has taken another road. Instead of putting all its cultural eggs in one high-priced basket, the local government is betting on a decentralized plan to spread cultural riches throughout the province.
The region is also exploiting raw materials: a considerable inventory of abandoned factories, Art Nouveau mansions, convents and churches just waiting for a second life. With renovation costs and start-up budgets that average well under 10 million euros a project, these properties have become the architectural equivalent of found objects converted to high art.
Art is not a new concept in Murcia, where a rich cultural heritage includes Neolithic cave paintings and Roman mosaics, not to mention things that just turn up, like the vast complex of Moorish ruins recently uncovered when construction began on a parking garage. In such an environment the art of today can seem like a blip on the radar.
“The important thing has been to strike a balance between the avant-garde of today and preservation of the past, our patrimony,” said Pedro Alberto Cruz, the culture and tourism minister for the regional government.
With its deep Moorish influences — increasingly resonant as immigration from Northern Africa has swelled — the influence of Islamic art in Murcia is highlighted by the intersection of old and new. Among the successful recent exhibitions was the installation of Anish Kapoor’s “Islamic Mirror,” a faceted concave mirror that reflects a mosaic-like display of countless tiny images, in the Sharq al-Andalus hall of Murcia’s Santa Clara Convent.
Founded by the Moors in the early ninth century, Murcia has all the charms one expects from a midsize Spanish city (population about 430,000) — a massive cathedral with a floridly Baroque façade, rows of colorful houses with elaborate balconies and lots of plazas shaded by orange trees and lined with cafe tables. A lazy river, the Segura, drifts beneath picturesque bridges that link its historic center with more recent barrios on the southern bank. It is in these neighborhoods that exhibition spaces like Espacio AV and cutting-edge commercial galleries like T20, which focuses on emerging artists, share narrow cobbled streets with traditional bakeries and basket weavers.
In the creative spirit of the city, one of the biggest events this year isn’t happening in a gallery, but rather in the Sala Verónicas, a deconsecrated church sandwiched between the remains of Murcia’s 12th-century Moorish wall and the city’s busy produce market. The second edition of the PAC Murcia Biennial, which opened on Jan. 25, is titled “Dominó Caníbal” (“Cannibal Domino”), a reference to how the exposition’s seven successive installations consume and reinterpret one another; each artist will base his or her installation on the one prior so that common thematic and material threads become inevitable.
The first installation is by Jimmie Durham, an American artist of Cherokee heritage whose approach to the former church, where cloistered nuns were once kept from sight, was to introduce the banalities of everyday life: a vacuum cleaner and refrigerator, used tires and empty oil drums. Graffiti covers the whitewashed walls, as tubes and pipes break through them to connect to the outside world. (The next artist, whose installation will open on March 26, is Cristina Lucas, a Spaniard.) Over the course of the year, a concurrent program of fringe exhibitions and conferences, known as OFF PAC, is ongoing at a number of galleries and foundations throughout the province.
Thirty miles south of the regional capital is the ancient Mediterranean port of Cartagena, a walled city that seems more Caribbean than Continental, with a faded, balmy, overgrown charm. In Cartagena, as in the city of Murcia, a sheen of contemporary design overlays grandiose mansions with cake-frosting stucco decoration and curlicue balconies, remnants of an early 20th-century mining boom. The architect Rafael Moneo has just finished resuscitating one of those mansions as the entrance and cafe of the new Roman Theater Museum, which showcases the city’s prime archaeological attractions. Another exuberantly eclectic early-1900s palace is home to MURAM, the regional museum of modern art, which just emerged from a major renovation and expansion in April 2009.
All of this sets the scene for the eighth edition of the roving European biennial Manifesta, which will arrive in Murcia and Cartagena in October. It, too, will occupy some unusual venues, including a former postal headquarters and military barracks. Since it was founded after German reunification, Manifesta has focused on east-west European relations; Manifesta 8 is the first to think north-south and to reach across the continental boundaries to Africa, one of the factors that drew organizers to Murcia, according to Hedwig Fijen, the director of the festival.
“Manifesta needs to take place at the edge of things — on the frontier where cultures meet,” Ms. Fijen said, “and right now, Murcia is one of those frontiers.”
IF YOU GO
HOW TO GET THERE
For dates in mid-March, Iberia has flights from Kennedy International Airportto Murcia with a stopover in Madrid starting at about $800. There is also train service from Madrid (four and a half hours), with fares starting at 44.60 euros, about $60 at $1.34 to the euro, though cheaper fares can often be found on the train service Web site (www.renfe.es).
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Siete Coronas, Paseo de Garay 5, Murcia; (34-968) 217-774;hotelsietecoronas.com; doubles from 65 euros.
Hotel NH Rincon de Pepe, Apóstoles 34, Murcia; (34-968) 212-239; nh-hotels.com; doubles from 80 euros.
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurant Jota Ele, Plaza Santa Isabel 6, Murcia; (34-968) 220-730; dinner for two, about 55 euros.
La Pequeña Taberna, General Margallo s/n, Murcia; (34-968) 219-840; lunch for two, 30 euros.
WHAT TO SEE
“Dominó Caníbal” at Sala Veronicas, Calle Veronicas s/n, Murcia; (34-968) 221-668; pacmurcia.es; free.
Espacio AV, Calle Santa Teresa 14, Murcia; (34-968) 930-205;www.espacioav.es; free admission.
Gallery T20, Calle Vitorio 27, Murcia; (34-968) 215-801; galeriat20.com.
La Conservera, Avenida de Lorqui s/n, Ceutí; (34-868) 923-132;laconservera.org.
Museo del Teatro Romano (Roman Theater Museum), Palacio Pascual del Riquelme, Plaza del Ayuntamiento 9, Cartagena; (34-968) 525-149;teatroromanocartagena.org; admission: 3 euros.
MURAM, Plaza de la Merced 15-16, Cartagena; (34-968) 501-607;museosdemurcia.com/muram. Through April 25: a survey of Art Nouveau treasures from Barcelona.