Buenos Aires is trying to use culture and creative industries to address some of its wider social and economic divisions. In doing so, it has developed a number of innovative approaches, from which other cities might usefully learn.
City data: Key facts
Geographical area: 200 sq. km
Total population: 2,890,151
Total national country population living in the city: 7.20 %
Working age population: 1,728,382
Number of households: 1,425,840
Foreign born population: 13 %
Creative industries employment: 9.30 %
A hundred years ago Buenos Aires was the richest city in one of the world’s richest countries. Its French-style architecture and wide avenues, bohemian literary scene, open spaces and cafés earned it the nickname of ‘the Paris of South America’, and European immigrants poured into the city. Culturally too Buenos Aires was making its mark, in both high and popular culture: its celebrated opera house, the Teatro Colón, attracted the world’s leading singers to its stage, while a new dance, the tango, emerged from the poor district of La Boca.
In the century that followed autocratic politics, military coups and hyperinflation took a heavy toll, resulting in a steep decline in Argentina’s (and Buenos Aires’) status in the world. Today the city grapples with many of the problems that face megacities across the developing world, such as the gulf between rich and poor. Yet the legacy of its past still lingers in its broad cultural offer, high levels of cultural participation, its large number of formal and improvised venues, and a history that embraces the freedom of being in public space, particularly since the return of democracy in 1983.
Buenos Aires nowadays is a city of contrasts. Some of these are visible when travelling from the northern to the southern areas of the city, expressed in a landscape that combines skyscrapers designed by international architects with shanty towns lacking access to basic resources. The project to transfer the City Government offices from downtown Buenos Aires to Barracas is a response to this need to improve economically deprived and under-served city areas. A key challenge, then, is to develop public cultural policies (in conjunction with local practitioners as well as the private sector) which address the city’s inequalities. How can cultural programmes, when combined with economic, social and urban interventions, contribute to a more inclusive and less antagonistic everyday culture?
From a policy-making perspective, culture is seen in the city as a key resource for economic and social development. Long-standing neighbourhood cultural programmes engage audiences of all ages and backgrounds across the city by providing free access to cultural services. The value of culture for tourism has long been recognised by local authorities and private agencies looking to attract national and international visitors. Tango remains one of the city’s main cultural exports, with its own festival, World Cup, dance halls (milongas) and local dance competitions. The Tango Festival is the most popular festival in the city, with 600,000 people attending each year. In 2009 UNESCO officially designated tango as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Yet tango is only one small portion of the city’s cultural life. Venues such as the Teatro Colón, the Museum of Latin American Art (MALBA), the Fine Arts National Museum (MNBA) and the Decorative Art National Museum (MNAD) are internationally renowned and attract a large number of visitors. With a growing audience in the last fourteen years, the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) is now the city’s second best-attended festival. Long-established cultural centres such as the Centro Cultural Recoleta and Centro Cultural San Martin, together with more recent ones like the Centro Cultural de la Cooperación, offer the best of the city’s contemporary culture through a vast array of dance, visual arts, music, theatre, cinema and arts training. Ciudad del Rock is a large-scale popular music venue for national and international bands, developed in a former outdoor theme park, which is intended to help revitalise the cultural offer of the south of the city. The port area, Puerto Madero, is the site of the major urban redevelopment project in central Buenos Aires, turning the city’s waterfront into an entertainment, office and exclusive residential area with green public spaces. The local authorities are also seeking to position Buenos Aires as a key destination for sports and business tourism by hosting international events such as the latest International Olympic Committee Meeting and the 2018 Youth Olympic Games.
Another striking feature of Buenos Aires’ cultural life is its great variety of free-of-charge events, ranging from music festivals, arts exhibitions, book fairs and design showcases, to film, theatre, dance and circus performances. Informal cultural activities strengthen the development of artists’ communities and encourage diversity and innovation in cultural forms. After the 2001-02 economic and institutional crisis, the city has also seen the emergence of new cultural spaces, factories converted for cultural use, alternative theatre venues, independent design stores and private museums. The newly built Usina del Arte (Arts Factory) in a former power station, for example, now provides Buenos Aires with its second concert hall. Outdoor fairs of crafts and local traditions, such as those of Mataderos and San Telmo, have been revitalised and are seeing a growing number of visitors.
Buenos Aires has been a pioneer of creative industry development in Latin America. Back in 2001, the city government issued a ten-year strategic cultural plan with the broad goal of strengthening Buenos Aires’ role as a regional hub for the creation, production and dissemination of culture. To deliver this vision, the Municipal Ministry of Culture, in conjunction with the Ministry of Economic Development, set up the Creative Industries General Direction. The establishment of this agency jointly by the economic and cultural departments of the city was innovative as it demonstrated an understanding of the cultural and creative industries’ interrelationship with the city’s public cultural infrastructure. Through a combination of urban regeneration and tax incentives the city has tried to build a sustainable model for its creative economy, attracting domestic and foreign companies. These efforts have been rewarded with the title of UNESCO City of Design, the first city in the world to receive this honour.
One result of these innovative policies has been the creation of the Design Metropolitan Centre (CMD), as part of the wider Design District Project. This former fish market located in an economically deprived area was turned into a design hub aimed at providing business incubation, training courses for enterprises and residency programmes. As well as an auditorium, a 3,000m² space for exhibitions and displays, a cultural centre and a museum, the CMD houses governmental offices. These include the Creative Industries Observatory which seeks to produce a knowledge base about the creative industries in the city. The Observatory’s work complements Buenos Aires’s Observatory of Tourism, which collects information about the impact of tourism on the city’s social and economic development.
Buenos Aires, then, is trying to use culture and creative industries to address some of its wider social and economic divisions. In doing so, it has developed a number of innovative approaches, from which other cities might usefully learn.