Crumbling façade of the Museo des Bellas Artes, which ironically recently hosted a Gordon Matta-Clark show.
Around 3:30 am on February 27, 2010, an earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter Scale struck off the coast of Chile. The strongest earthquake to hit the region in a century, it impacted 80% of the population in the country and aftershocks were felt as far away as Argentina and Peru. The initial earthquake was followed by a tsunami which devastated the coastal city of Conceptión and nearby cities and towns. Santiago, the nation’s governmental and cultural capitol, felt the rumble less acutely than Conceptión some 300 miles away, but people there were nonetheless shaken out of their normal routines and jolted into a state of both action and reflection.
Due to serious damage to La Galería Artes Visuales at Centro Cultural Matucana 100, an ambitious show of paintings was quickly de-installed and shipped back to artists.
In the weeks following the earthquake and tsunami in Chile the arts and cultural communities in Santiago have been coping with structural damage while reassessing their role in the fabric of life here. The first phase was damage control. Museums and exhibition spaces closed to the public while staff de-installed artworks from insecure structures. Architects and engineers surveyed buildings around the city, giving official recommendations on moving forward with repairs or, in some cases, demolition. Some institutions, like the Precolombian Museum, were able to reopen within a week—although the artifacts still dance in their vitrines during every aftershock. Others, like the Museum of Natural History where ancient taxidermy displays were toppled and an overwhelming stench of formaldehyde remains from jars of specimens sloshing through the isles, remain closed indefinitely.
Rubble pile in front of a damaged adobe house.
Most of the historic adobe buildings in Santiago, one or two-story structures dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, have sustained structural damage and there is a debate amongst architectural historians about how to deal with the legacy of that material: to repair with traditional techniques or to rebuild completely? Contemporary building codes, however, produce structures that are largely resistant even to serious seismic activity. In newer constructions, especially in upscale districts like Providencia, one can see some flaking concrete and broken windows but not the structural cracks that are evident on almost every historic building. In striking contrast to new buildings in upscale neighborhoods, recently-built high-rise apartment complexes in the working class suburb of Maipu have not fared so well. Several housing projects built within the last few years have collapsed, leaving citizens to wonder how closely codes are enforced. Surprisingly, the ancient adobe, tin and timber hodgepodge of artisanal studios and shops at Los Dominicos sustained barely any damage.
Crumbled adobe bricks on Huerfenos.
In the realm of visual arts, structural and institutional impact has been varied but artists, curators, administrators and cultural producers will be hashing out the deeper impacts for a long time to come. A week after the earthquake, most of the high-end galleries tucked between luxury shops in the elite Uptown district were operating normally. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (run by DIBAM the Direction of Libraries, Archives & Museums) and U of Chile’s MAC (Museum of Contemporary Art), which share a historic building in Parque Forestal, were mostly open to the public, although there is serious damage to the MAC façade. Meanwhile Centro Cultural Matucana 100, a public institution administered by a nonprofit corporation, which is a robust presenter of contemporary art, cinema and theater with a 5-acre complex near the Central Station, has canceled all upcoming shows in La Galería Artes Visuales, a 15,000 square foot former munitions warehouse with serious structural cracks which may have to be demolished. The director of M100 has begun an international fund-raising effort to support stabilizing and rebuilding the structure, which is the cornerstone of the most adventurous contemporary art space in the country.
Interior of La Galleria before the earthquake. Via www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk.
After structural damage, the 3000 sq meter space will be closed indefinitely until funds can be raised to cover repairs. The building shifted slightly with each aftershock.
Beyond the issue of buildings and schedules, the arts community has been focused on serving people impacted by the catastrophe. At Galeria Metroplitana, Luis Alarcon and Ana Maria Saavedra’s 12-year-old space in a peripheral Santiago neighborhood near Parque O’Higgins, a fully committed relief effort was undertaken immediately after the quake. Since opening the first artist-run space in Chile in the back yard of their house, which is situated in a neighborhood that was completely off the visual art community’s radar, Alarcon and Saavedra had a mandate to be innovative from the start. Their location has shaped their programming, as the gallery’s public consists both of their immediate neighbors and the larger art community and the large metal building functions as a de facto community center when necessary. Artists showing work at Galeria Metropolitana create new projects that wouldn’t be possible in another existing space, and are asked to connect in some way with the neighborhood. For example, for General Idea-inspired initiative Collection Vecina (Neighborhood Collection), young curator Gonzalo Pedraza asked neighbors to lend an artwork from their home to the gallery. Posters, family pictures, and paintings from friends and local fairs filled the space, empowering the gallery’s neighbors by mirroring and affirming their aesthetic choices.
Exterior of Galeria Metropolitana prior to the earthquake. The building did not suffer structural damage.
On the night of the earthquake two of Ana Maria and Luis’ neighbors, artisans who there exhibiting at a craft fair in a coastal fishing village called Comuna de Pedro Aguirre Cerda, awoke to the tremors and fled home to Santiago. They returned to the village the same day with a carload of aid, and reached out to Galeria Metropolitana’s network to establish a grassroots effort to continue to send help. Programming was postponed so the gallery could be used for the effort, and neighbors and artists organized a collection and delivery system to benefit the tsunami-ravaged village, which hadn’t yet been served by official aid organizations. Soon Galeria Metropolitana was awash with donations of food, clothing and other necessities, which were sent daily in privately organized trucks destined for the coast.
Sorting donations at Galeria Metropolitana.
Through Luis and Ana Maria we learned of other informal channels of aid, mostly consisting of artists from the metropolitan region seeing to the general well-being of artists in Conceptión and Constitution. Immediately after the earthquake there was an overwhelming need for food, clean water, toiletries, cleaning supplies, tents, and clothes; worries about studio space and artwork restoration would come later. To raise funds for these immediate needs, benefit concerts and shows sprung up organically almost immediately. Pop artists and TV personalities supported the Chile Ayuda Chile concert effort, while almost everyone involved in any kind of creative endeavor–from street corner jugglers to amazing electronica trios contributed to grassroots benefit concerts. Taking a longer view, a new coalition of artists, curators and administrators is organizing an auction to aid the rebuilding process. At a time when both artists and institutions are forced to critically reexamine their roles in the fabric of society, the emergence of such a coalition indicates a trend towards collective action in the face of unimaginable tragedy[.]
This post was contributed by Christy Gast.