The Niemeyer Center's swansong (after less than one year)

Victim of a political spat, Asturian complex closes doors after just eight months

When money is the issue, culture is always going to suffer at the hands of politicians. Above all in Asturias where, within just six months of taking charge, regional premier Francisco Álvarez-Cascos has managed to shut down Avilés' brand-new Niemeyer Center.

Since he took charge after winning the May elections, Álvarez-Cascos and his steamrollering Foro Asturias party have been engaged in a face-off with the administration of the Niemeyer Center Foundation, armed with the demagogic if effective argument that in times of crisis, cuts in culture have to be made.

The two chapters in their relationship were Álvarez-Cascos' opposition to the reform of the Foundation's statutes, which reduced the number of regional government representatives on its board from four to three, and a later accusation of supposed irregularities in the management of the center.

"This is an embarrassment, but no matter, now there's nothing left to do; it's shitty politics"

A third might have consisted of Álvarez-Cascos paying a visit to the center, designed by the great, 103-year-old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer; being impressed by the execution of the project - its domes, walkways, concourses, tower, auditorium, cinema, art, theater, literature - and striking up negotiations with the management team after understanding its cultural (in the short term) and economic (in the medium to long term) potential. But that wasn't the case. Álvarez-Cascos has not set foot on the Niemeyer concourse since he became Asturian premier.

This Thursday, December 15, the Niemeyer Center Foundation's lease on the buildings runs out. That day, center director Natalio Grueso and his team will hand over the keys to the complex, which has received a million visits and sold 250,000 tickets for its exhibitions, concerts and film seasons since opening its doors in March, to the regional government.

They will do so via a lawyer, bringing a 20-million-euro lawsuit against Álvarez-Cascos and his culture chief Emilio Marcos Vallaure for damages, slander and corruption. And they will also set in motion the collection of 10,000 signatures to apply for a popular legislative initiative against the regional parliament that controls the center.

So it was that Sunday, as a strange white sun hung over Avilés, was the Niemeyer Center's swansong. At four in the afternoon workers hurriedly collected books and objects from the shop and packed them into cardboard boxes.

At the front desk of the multipurpose space, where you find the movie theater inaugurated by Woody Allen in March of this year and since then has programmed numerous successful seasons of films in their original version, Pedro, one of the local volunteers who decided to do his bit for this cultural project, despaired at the state of things. "This is an embarrassment, but no matter, now there's nothing left to do; it's shitty politics."

"All that money for nothing!" shouted another worker clearing up nearby.

If, as the regional culture department says, the Principality decides to keep the center open, it will not be as the Niemeyer Center. The Foundation has the rights to the name and Oscar Niemeyer himself has made it known that his legendary name cannot be attached to any management team other than the current one.

Neither is it known what the new management will offer at the center. Well, one thing is known: one of the first art events will be a show devoted to the Asturian artist Amado González Hevia, "Favila." The painter was the fourth name on the Foro Asturias candidate list at the elections.

One other little thing: the official closing date of the Niemeyer Center in its current form this Thursday also marks the 104th birthday of the architect who dreamt it up and gifted it to the people of Asturias in 2006. No doubt he will celebrate it in his study-refuge by Copacabana beach, with a whisky in his hand and upset at receiving such a poisoned birthday present.

So it's goodbye to a cultural center that in its brief existence saw pass through its doors the likes of Kevin Spacey, Jessica Lange, Paulo Coelho, Wole Soyinka, Enrique Morente, Paco de Lucía, Carlos Saura, Woody Allen, Gilberto Gil, John Mayall, Yo-Yo Ma, Barbara Hendricks and Amaral, and where The New York Times held one of its renowned Conversations events.

The Niemeyer Center management had in time wanted to set up another miniature Guggenheim in Cantabria, though that looks unlikely to happen now. The jungle of yellow Post-It notes that greets visitors to the hall of the enormous 1,000-capacity auditorium was on Sunday a metaphor for its swansong. There were messages to suit all tastes. "Ah, Foro Asturias, I didn't know you were going to fool us after voting for you." "The Niemeyer Center still has a lot of fight in it." "We want transparent accounts, with no socialist cliques." "Come to an agreement, please!"

The last event at the Niemeyer Center was the recording of a video to wish its Brazilian architect a happy 104th birthday.
The last event at the Niemeyer Center was the recording of a video to wish its Brazilian architect a happy 104th birthday.ALBERTO MORANTE (EFE)
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