For the government, it’s a target for crisis taxes and cuts like any other: the subsidized arts sector. For actors, artists and audiences, it’s Spain’s moral lifeblood, bleeding away in the recession.
The arts in Spain — including the big film sector that gave the world Pedro Almodovar — is in peril from a sharp rise in sales tax that will drive away audiences, top cultural figures say.
“They are generally killing the cultural activity in this country,” said one of the country’s best-known actors, Oscar-winning Javier Bardem, as he joined in a street protest in Madrid on July 19.
“It’s a country that produces great culture and is very well recognized outside our frontiers,” he told AFP. “But what they are doing is to really minimize the cultural industry in this country.”
Spanish schools and hospitals have been suffering for months from budget tightening measures aimed at lowering the public deficit, which have drawn hundreds of thousands of protestors onto the streets.
The government insists its austere reforms will strengthen the economy in the long run, but economists warn measures such as the rise in sales tax from September 1 will hit consumption and depress the economy further.
Spaniards have already been curbing their spending on cultural pursuits and the industry warns the tax rise will be the final blow.
“I go out much less,” said Cristina Rial, a Madrid resident of 28. Unemployed, like one in four Spanish workers, for the past year, she has cut her weekly outings to concerts and shows down to virtually none.
“I have to eat and live. Everything else is a luxury,” she said. “It shouldn’t be, but it is.”
Artists say the subsidy cuts threaten the intangible long-term benefits of culture in a country still marked by its 1936-1939 Civil War.
The war saw one of Spain’s greatest poets, Federico Garcia Lorca, shot dead by Francoist soldiers. The next four decades of dictatorship and censorship drove its most influential film maker Luis Bunuel into exile.
“It’s like going back in history,” said Carlos Iglesias, 56, an actor and film director, at the Madrid protest.
‘A country without culture is dead’
“Since the Civil War ended, a great effort has been made to recover the level of culture we had before the war. Now all this progress could be lost. A country without culture is a dead country.”
The reform — the latest in tens of billions of euros in savings announced by the conservative government — raises sales tax on cultural shows from its current preferential rate of eight percent to a full 21 percent.
If the whole burden of this tax rise is passed on to the consumer, it could add more than a euro to the price of a seven-euro ($8.50) cinema ticket and several euros to a more expensive theater ticket.
The rise affects all cultural spectacles but most of all stage and screen, which currently enjoy a lower rate. Tax on tickets for bullfights and professional football matches will rise from 18 to 21 percent.
Figures from theater, dance, opera and concert-promoting have criticized the measure and Almodovar himself last week issued a joint cry of alarm with various directors, actors, gallery-owners and even a bullfighter, Miguel Abellan.
Meanwhile the recession in Spain is driving artists abroad, like thousands of other desperate Spanish workers.
“I live here, this is my country, but since a while ago I’ve been working more outside Spain than inside,” said Bardem, known for Hollywood roles including the hitman in the 2007 picture “No Country For Old Men”, the romantic painter in Woody Allen’s 2008 “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and the villain in the upcoming James Bond film “Skyfall.”
“Me, thank God, I have that opportunity, and because of that I keep on working,” he said. “But if I based all my work in Spain at this moment I would be unemployed.”
Spain’s film industry is also looking abroad, with producers assessing Spanish film pitches strictly on their international appeal.
“If we do not have enough spectators to make a film profitable at home, we have to produce in a way that makes films releasable outside Spain as well,” said Pedro Perez, president of Spain’s film and television federation FAPAE.
Rodrigo Cortes, 39, shot his latest picture “Red Lights” with Hollywood stars Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver, in English mostly in Barcelona. It has been released in 60 countries.
“When the investment is of a certain size it is more advisable to do it in English because it is the only way to widen the possible market and reach more spectators and make it profitable,” Cortes told AFP.
“Of course it would very unadvisable for all films to be made using this model,” he added. “That would be like giving up on what is ours.”