A new lease of life for the Tabacalera
Culture heads give Madrid social center an extra two years to operate
"This is just an experiment, but it's one that's been going on for nearly two years," says Luis Calderón, member of a group known as the "Self-Managed Social Center of Tabacalera in Lavapiés."
Since March 2012, this association has run part of the building that used to house the capital's tobacco factory, Fábrica de Tabacos de Madrid (also known as the Tabacalera), located in the Embajadores neighborhood.
This was made possible through an agreement with the Culture Ministry under the previous Socialist government, which in late 2011 extended the deal.
"Since then, we have had the legal backing to be here for at least two more years, creating and offering activities suggested by the local residents themselves," says Calderón, who was raised in the neighborhood and has been familiar with the Tabacalera building ever since he was a child.
Culture heads under the new Popular Party administration have confirmed that the agreement with the local association stands, although they would provide no further details. Nothing is known yet regarding the National Center for the Visual Arts, which was planned to be housed here on a 30-million-euro budget.
But while that project is languishing, the atmosphere at the association could not be more dynamic. The pioneering initiative is experiencing a new boost, as evidenced by the activities taking place on a recent day: everything from cleaning duties to a quarterly goal presentation by one of several specialized committees that make up the association.
The center keeps open a cafeteria, a garden, a patio and a library that anyone may access freely. But the group's main line of action is its free workshops. These cultural, social and educational activities have been varied in nature over the last two years, but they all fall back on an informal rule: "You propose it, you deal with it." This means that anyone with an interest in organizing an event - say a flamenco workshop, or using a room as an artist's studio or for music rehearsals - needs to take the time to find out what's already on the program, to define his or her particular needs, and consider what he or she can contribute, even if that means just helping out with the cleaning.
So far, the system has been able to keep going, but now there is a sense of greater continuity. "Given that we're good for another two years, we can consider more long-term initiatives," says Rafael Esteban, a 52-year-old journalist who is a member of the association.
A look at the website (blogs.latabacalera.net/talleres) shows a variety of options, from language courses - Arabic for beginners has just gotten underway - to circus rehearsals, traditional dance lessons and computer courses. "You can come on any given day, and within half an hour the center has completely changed," says Calderón.
The assembly that runs La Tabacalera is open to anyone with a link to the center. This is one of the few fixed rules that have been in place from the start, and it reflects the participatory nature of a project that takes a page out of the book of the 15-M grassroots movement against economic mismanagement by Spain's politicians. But now, meetings will be more spaced out, with just one monthly assembly for the foreseeable future. Instead, specialized committees (focusing on economic issues, communications, respect and so on) will meet on a weekly basis to make concrete decisions. These committees are also asked to present quarterly plans to the assembly. "The point is to become more operative," says Calderón.
Besides being home to a pioneering management model, the former tobacco factory is in itself a landmark site, which is why association members take care to preserve the building's integrity. Now that they have two years ahead of them, they plan to make added improvements to a structure that they themselves restored back when the Culture Ministry first let them use it in 2010. The first upcoming reform will affect the bathroom area, and further action will be decided on the basis of necessity.
"Now that we're here for at least two years, we could even consider something along the lines of heating," suggests Rafael Esteban.
Some visitors may be surprised at the building's esthetics and consider it to be a little unkempt: there are bicycles parked in the hallways, graffiti on the walls and signs with all types of messages hanging here and there. It would be easy enough to think the building had been taken over by a squatter community. But this particular "occupation" is sanctioned by the authorities, and the association members seem reasonably happy with the way it looks. It is worth remembering that they are working on a shoestring budget (they get no public grants and raise funds through special events) and that everyone here is a volunteer.
In fact, association members highlight "the fluid contact and the frank cooperation" that has so far defined their relations with the Directorate General of Fine Arts, the government agency in charge of the building, and they say they hope to maintain the same good relations with the new cultural authorities.
"We are a social center that has opened up a channel of communication with the administration in which citizens play the lead role, rather than being relegated to the role of mere spectators or clients. Now we need to further explore this new institutional approach," says Esteban.