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Chile Declines Invitation to Spanish Art Fair Because of “Social Unrest,” Prompting Backlash

Chile’s artistic community is criticizing the country’s recent decision to forego ARCOmadrid in 2021, arguing the government wants to censor artists who would air its human rights transgressions abroad.

The 2019 edition of ARCOmadrid (courtesy of ARCOmadrid)

Citing Chile’s “social unrest,” the Chilean Ministry of Culture has declined an invitation from ARCOmadrid, Spain’s major contemporary art fair, to participate as the guest country in its 2021 edition. The decision has been viewed as a heavy blow to the nation’s artistic community and a means of silencing artists who could air the government’s transgressions abroad.

Chile has been jolted by anti-government protests since October 18, 2019, when an increase in subway fares sparked a country-wide movement against inequality. Protesters, mostly from the poor or middle classes, took to the streets to decry the center-right policies of President Sebastián Piñera, who responded by deploying the military to repress the mostly peaceful demonstrators. Evidence of excessive use of force and other human rights violations by police has prompted interventions by organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and brought back haunting memories of Chile’s bloody military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. 

In an audio message shared with Hyperallergic, Juan Carlos Silva, Undersecretary of Culture and the Arts, confirmed Chile’s decision to opt-out of ARCOmadrid as its guest country in 2021. “The events that began in October led the Ministry, in all of its programs, to rethink the different priorities that had to be put in place,” said Silva. “Given this social outburst, it became necessary to focus on the local, regional, and community needs of the visual arts.”

But critics argue that the government is unwilling to participate in the fair for fear that the highly visible event will draw further scrutiny to the Chilean police force, which has been accused of torture, mutilation, and rape of protesters.

Sagrada Mercancía, a gallery and artist collective in Santiago, shared a statement written collaboratively by its members. “We believe that the government’s refusal of ARCO’s invitation is a way of preventing the possibility of having to censor the artists who would have represented the country at the fair, in a public and international context,” they write.

Sagrada Mercancía believes the Ministry’s explanation for declining the invitation is based on “a deceptive logic,” whereby the government wants to present itself on the international stage as proactive and focused on the country’s crisis. 

“Day after day in the media, which is dominated by the right, they have criminalized the participation of citizens in this popular movement; they have defended police intervention; and they have denied the violations of human rights. In every media outlet, journalists who refused to work for the governing party have been fired,” reads the statement.

“As such, there is no doubt that the measure of declining ARCO’s invitation is the result of the same repressive policy by the government, which wants to posit itself as focused on real solutions to the problems of the local crisis. Chile has in its history a long trajectory of censorship implemented during the dictatorship years; what’s disturbing is that these same mechanisms from our dictatorial past are emerging in 2020.”

In a phone call with Hyperallergic, Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña expressed support for the local artistic community and lamented the Ministry’s decision.

“The government has been retaliating against the arts and against artists in Chile. It’s a nefarious inclination to attack culture and the arts,” she said. “I think the Chilean artistic community is right in its position that the government does not want artists to talk. It’s a form of censorship.” Vicuña cited the fires that engulfed the art museums Centro Arte Alameda and Museo Violeta Parra in Santiago, which some believe could have been caused by police-administered tear gas bombs. 

Vicuña is also suspicious of the Ministry’s rationale for investing in local rather than international projects. “The lack of support for the arts in Chile has been going on for decades and it’s certainly a necessity, but the artistic community also advocates for an international dimension. The two would be mutually beneficial, not exclusive,” said Vicuña. “One thing doesn’t rule out the other. It’s an absurdity.”

Pablo Jansana, a Chilean artist based between New York and Copenhagen, thinks the decision “will harm the development of the visual arts in Chile.”

“The Ministry of Culture’s explanation of choosing to inject resources into local rather than international projects has no direction in my opinion. There have been repeated attempts to make an international management plan in past administrations,” said Jansana. “I don’t even know if the current government has a strategy and a program developed by experts. Therefore, the Ministry ends up making political decisions on key issues. Art galleries in Chile are more organized through the gallery association AGAC or Sísmica, which seeks to visualize Chilean art abroad. Nor is it surprising to see how this right-wing government, like so many others in the region, ends up focusing on an agenda with little expertise and accentuating their discourse on local development only.”

In his audio message, Silva said that the fair’s invitation for 2021 had not yet been made official. ARCOmadrid confirmed via e-mail that fair organizers had been in talks with the Ministry of Culture regarding collaboration with Chile, but said the project had not been formally announced or made public. 

But an anonymous source from Chile’s artistic community said that the invitation had already been extended and accepted: “Many people had been working on this, including employees from the Ministry of Culture, ARCOmadrid, and gallery representatives.”

ARCOmadrid is held every February in the Spanish capital. Last year, the fair’s guest country was Peru, which participated in ARCO with works by 23 Peruvian artists selected by Sharon Lerner, a curator at the Lima Art Museum. (This year’s edition, scheduled to open in two weeks on February 26, will not feature a guest country.)

“The Ministry of Culture communicated their decision to not move forward with the project in view of the country’s current situation,” said an ARCOmadrid spokesperson in an email to Hyperallergic. “We understand and respect the decision and will continue to work on other projects.”

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