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Written by Anne Tschida - BT Arts Editor   
June 2012

After years in Coral Gables, the Cultural Center of Spain moves to downtown Miami

ArtFeature_1Sixteen years ago, the Cultural Center of Spain in Miami, or Centro Cultural Español (CCEM), opened up its doors, the first space of its kind in the United States. A cultural arm of the Spanish government, the CCEM has always been a unique institution. While the huge Spanish-speaking population of Miami-Dade made the area a natural choice for a headquarters in North America, several other elements made it intriguing from the very start.

While there is a cultural and linguistic affinity between Spain and its former colonies, the fact that much of Latin America was conquered territory that then fought for its freedom has always given the relationship an edge. Back in 1996, the first director of CCEM, Guillermo Basso, recognized this tension and began immediately trying to open dialogue and repair bridges through artistic interactions. But Spain was also in the midst of delivering another message to the world: After decades of dictatorship under Francisco Franco, this part of the Iberian peninsula was now promoting openness, democracy, multicultural diversity, and human rights. A part of this outreach, the Spanish cultural centers were born -- in South America, Mexico, and here.

While CCEM’s home in Coral Gables, on the periphery of what could be considered Miami’s Hispanic heartland -- Little Havana -- seemed a no-brainer, something about the actual building worked against its mission. Outwardly the massive stone structure felt like a fortress; the spaces within, constrained rather than open.

ArtFeature_2Nonetheless the second director of CCE, Maria del Valle, expanded on the center’s offerings, with music and literary events combined with visual arts (generated locally, to our south, and in Spain), including increased co-productions and collaborations with Miami-based organizations.

Then in 2011, the CCEM decided to join the cultural hub that has developed around the urban core of Miami, moving to the 1400 block of Biscayne Boulevard. To inaugurate this new center, Spain’s Queen Sofia and the country’s blockbuster pop star, Alejandro Sanz, headlined the opening party. Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Emilio Estefan were also in attendance.

The new space is about as different from the old one as possible. Situated in a modernist building, two sides of the center are glass walls fronting downtown streets -- hard to get more open than that.

The latest director of the CCEM, Maria Palacios, who hails from Madrid and moved here last year (del Valle has since become the director of ArtCenter/South Florida), says the literal transparency of the building was a main reason for the move, as was the rent. “The rental contract was expiring in Coral Gables, and it was time to study options,” she explains, sitting in her new office. “This space was much bigger, and it talked to the street, with all those big glass windows. And it was cheaper.”

(The Biscayne building is owned by Spanish real-estate development company Espacio, which has an interest in bringing people to the burgeoning area.)

ArtFeature_3While Palacios says there was a risk of losing a dedicated audience from the old neighborhood, the prospects of developing a wider one -- owing to the new center’s proximity to the Arsht Center, Wynwood, and the Design District -- outweighed that concern.

This summer a photography exhibit shows off the advantages of this expansive space. Large prints shot by Madrid-based photojournalist Isabel Muñoz cover the walls. Best known for her searing images of tattooed Central American gang members, Muñoz, this time, has documented three trips she took through southern Mexico on a train called “La Bestia,” which is also the name of the exhibit. (La bestia means “the beast,” which is what tens of thousands of impoverished Central American migrants have called the iron horses that take them to the U.S. border.)

In more than 70 portraits, men, women, and children cram into the freight trains, sit on top of them, or lounge next to them during breaks in the journey. Yes, they are desperately poor or they wouldn’t be making this perilous trip, risking violence and rape, but Muñoz captures a beauty and dignity of people who often seem to remain faceless, both in their homelands and eventually -- if they make it -- in fields and kitchens on our side of the border.

“You have to feel the beast under your legs to know what these people feel,” explains Muñoz, whose work can be found at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Houston Contemporary Art Museum, as well as in the leading Spanish newspaper, El País. Accompanying the exhibit is a video made by two Mexican artists who joined Muñoz on the last leg of her trip.

ArtFeature_4The powerful display would not have been possible in the smaller Gables space, and certainly the portraits -- like the magnificent, larger-than-life photograph of three shirtless young men, staring, unsmiling, at the camera -- would not have been visible to pedestrians on the street, as is the case here.

This summer, CCEM also took advantage of its new home by using its backyard patio as a stage for “Microtheater Miami,” an absorbing series of short plays on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. According to Palacios, the plays are “no more than 15 minutes long, for an audience of no more than 15 people.” Micro on every level.

Throughout the years, CCEM has also brought in music, dance, authors, film, and performance, a tradition that will continue on the Boulevard. In June alone, the center held a series of workshops for seniors, a children’s theater performance, a Spanish Short Films night, and a pretty unconventional seminar called “Psychoanalysis in the City.” And coming up on Friday, July 6, a collaborative from the Dominican Republic, El Hombrecito, will combine spoken-word poetry with Dominican rhythms in a free concert at the center.

CCEM will continue to work with local organizations throughout the year, including the Miami International Book Fair, the Miami International Film Festival, and the International Hispanic Theater Festival, which starts later this month.

Furthering this diverse interaction with the community is in keeping with CCEM’s move, says Palacios: “Downtown Miami is transforming into a cultural center, a multicultural center, with a unique character. We want to be part of the development.”

 

“La Bestia” runs through August at the Cultural Center of Spain in Miami, 1490 Biscayne Blvd.; 305-448-9677; www.ccemiami.org.

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