It always adds spice to international cultural relations when you know that the Arts are playing a lead role in improving bilateral relations. Hence the support from both Ambassadors (in London and Buenos Aires), the enthusiasm from the UK arts sector to join me on a British Council delegation to Buenos Aires, and the warm welcome we received from Argentine artists, institutions and government agencies, at national, provincial and city levels.
We all headed to Buenos Aires at the start of October to coincide with the Theatre Festival (FIBA), MICA (the creative industries forum) and Trimarchi (the design fair in Mar del Plata). The high-powered (and fun!) delegation comprised Alice Black (Design Museum), Dave Moutrey (HOME and representing a consortium of theatres from across the UK), Eluned Haf (Wales Arts International), Gabrielle Jenks (Abandon Normal Devices), John McGrath (Manchester International Festival), Karen McKinnon (Artes Mundi), Nick McDowell (Arts Council England) and Ruth McCarthy (Outburst Queer Arts Festival Belfast). It was great to have so many experienced colleagues, who, like me, felt the timing was absolutely right to take our cultural relations with the energetic Argentine arts world to the next level. They also enjoyed spending time with each other away from the usual UK routines! Dave, John and Ruth are active members of our Arts and Creative Industries Advisory Group and it was an important for them to see first-hand the value of our work and to share this with their extensive networks across the UK.
Potential collaborations emerged in Design (with the immensely moving Parque de la Memoria - to the “disappeared” - which had just seen a huge Anish Kapoor installation); in Theatre between Manchester and the newly-energised National Theatre, as well as FIBA; in Literature (with FILBA and others); and variously in Music, Creative Industries, and the intersection between Science, new technologies, Visual arts residencies, and extensively with the Welsh arts sector. Colleagues spoke at MICA and Trimarchi, attended multiple performances in FIBA, glad-handed their way with me around various receptions, and also met senior arts people from Chile and Uruguay.
We also had the chance to visit new and refurbished venues in the City: the Colon, MALBA, the National Theatre, the Fine Arts Museum, Centro Cultural Recoleta, the extraordinary CCK Centre, and various venues in La Boca, including Fundacion Proa and a gargantuan Florentine inspired Usina del Arte (a former power factory, now reinvented as Buenos Aires version of Tate’s Turbine Hall!).
Street arts and graffiti are powerful and eye-catching, as is the inventive use of space, for example museum spaces under the flyovers, once the haunt of drug dealing and organised crime.
It was hard for the vegetarians among us (but they survived) and the rest of us enjoyed amazing steaks and fine wine. The former Culture Under Secretary Enrique Avogadro (ex BD Creative Entrepreneur) and now a very good friend of mine and the Council entertained a few of us to an excellent “asado” at his picturesque house in the centre of the city. He and others explained the complexities of navigating the political systems, the need for dramatic change in the public sector, and the need for a more dynamic mixed economy in the sector. However the people we met seemed confident enough to me, and sincerely welcomed the depth of the UK’s engagement, as evidenced by this visit. No fewer than five ministers turned up to a lunchtime reception hosted at our Council office by our Country Director Mary Godward. She and Valeria Zamporolo, Arts Manager, had meticulously and efficiently planned the whole trip, successfully responding to various meeting and performance needs of the various art forms represented.
Full feedback and evaluation will be done, coordinated by Billie Lindsay, who accompanied us throughout, and was a pivotal link between London and Buenos Aires. Also significant was the presence of a few colleagues from Spring Gardens with Americas arts specialisms, using the performances on offer to update their knowledge and networks.
To me this was a perfect example of a new British Council model at work, with country and the full extent of the UK (internal and external) working closely together. I was also struck by how closely colleagues in Chile and Uruguay are now working together, helping each other and ensuring that UK visits to southern America are maximised. This way of working is central to the pillar of our Arts Strategy which refers to Networks and Collaboration (both internal and external).
My highlight of the trip - a play session in a blue balloon installation by Martin Creed at the CCK Centre, in which the child latent in all of us came joyously to the surface.