Journey to the Middle of the World — PAP Cultural Exchange trip to Quito

October 27, 2008  •  6 minute read

… PAP in Quito, Ecuador, by Elizabeth Doud The Performing Americas Program (PAP) staff and U.S.-based curatorial team traveled to Quito, Ecuador from September 11-16, 2008 to convene with our counterparts in La RED (The Network of Cultural Promoters of Latin America and the Caribbean) for their 16th annual meeting, to see work by local and festival artists and to gain a greater understanding of the culture and artistic climate in Ecuador. Our host was Nelson Diaz, the protagonist and Artistic Director of Humanizarte, a 17-year-old arts organization dedicated to social and cultural transformation through the arts. Our visit coincided with the Spondylus Festival, which Humanizarte organizes each year as part of a three-city, three week festival organized in conjunction with RET, the Ecuadorian Network of Theaters. Purpose of La RED La RED functions much like NPN, with the added complexity of it being a network of organizations from different countries, which greatly increases the challenges of travel logistics, language and fundraising. PAP has been a joint venture between La RED and NPN since it began in 2002, and the PAP staff and curators attend La RED’s annual meetings, and vice versa. Our delegation of nine U.S.-based PAP curators and staff spent five days convening, attending performances and discussing work and the state of the arts with colleagues from all over Latin America and the Caribbean, some of whom have been Latin American-based curators of PAP or have presented U.S. artists over the years. The meetings allow each member to talk about their respective areas of focus and expertise; NPN was able to share the work that we do as a network and discuss our mission and values, as well as learn about current festivals, arts funding trends and projects in other countries of the Americas. The international travel component of PAP is one of the most important ways that we can build and share peer knowledge between the two networks. We are able, as U.S.-based arts professionals, not only to learn through these face-to-face meetings, but to use this important international platform as a way to give a voice to our Partners and many artists who would not have a voice outside of the United States, and who represent an important sector of the true contemporary arts practice of our nation. On the Ground in Quito At over 9,000 feet altitude, the city of Quito is surrounded by mountains and often unexpectedly swallowed by clouds; it is a UNESCO world heritage site reputed to be the largest colonial center in all of Latin America. The Old City has undergone a substantial restoration, and is crowded with magnificent churches from every epoch of the conquest; there is even a Gothic Basilica, which one La RED colleague noted was “absolutely vulgar in its riches.” This astounding architectural and religious presence is juxtaposed with the rich indigenous culture that is very much alive in the faces, clothing, food, politics and energy of the people of Quito and Ecuador. The recent history of Ecuador is also fascinating and has included much political unrest including the ousting of two presidents since 2000 due to a very polemic “dollarization” policy and its devastating economic and social after effects, and the government is now in a phase of recovery and greater tolerance for liberal policies. The current arts scene in Quito mirrors that of many of the communities throughout Latin America and even the United States. The organizations that support, produce and advocate for the performing arts—traditional and contemporary—do so as independent, mostly non-profit enterprises that form local alliances and find support from private sponsors to survive, often in the manner of an arts collective. Humanizarte, which hosted a residency with D-Projects in 2006 as part of a PAP residency, occupies an old house that has a large enclosure built on to the back, which functions as a café-theater at night. Their company regularly performs contemporary adaptations of traditional Ecuadorian and Andean dance and music, has regular shows there; they also hold classes and community meetings in the ample and welcoming space. Nelson and his staff have entered into a partnership with an Ecuadorian chef, Edgar León, who has transformed the cafe into an indigenous eating experience where he “revives the lost culture of Ecuador through gastronomy” by cooking with only Ecuadorian-grown and produced ingredients. Can you say blended boiled green plantain, lime and coconut milk soup with a buttery chunk of fresh avocado on top?How about hand-turned passion fruit sorbet with fresh minced basil confidently swirled in? We visited other artist spaces such as the Casa Grupo de Teatro Malayerba, El Patio de Comedias and a local art house cinema/café called OchoyMedio, where we watched a screening of an experimental film called Blak Mama. All of these organizations began as independent projects or collectives and have survived tenaciously over the years, building audiences and programming in different ways. Ministry of Culture? In the last year and a half, the federal government of Ecuador has created its first Ministry of Culture. This has meant unprecedented support for many arts industries such as film, opera and other disciplines, and many of the artists are relieved and grateful for this support. Others observed that while the funding is better than it’s been, it still seems to go to the larger more ‘established’ groups (the National Theater for example), and experimental or smaller groups get left out of the distribution. No one denies, however, that things seem to be improving. Artists abroad are always surprised to learn that the United States doesn’t itself have a Ministry of Culture. The perception that we have inexhaustible wealth and resources extends to our arts and culture infrastructure, and the assumption mostly is that the arts in the U.S. can’t possibly be struggling like they are in other places. The Minister of Culture, Dr. Galo Mora Witt, graced a luncheon held at Humanizarte in honor of the 16th La RED meeting. He was definitely a celebrity presence and spoke eloquently about how an artist’s gratitude is “not expected from a government that has as its basic responsibility the support of the arts.” He added that “artists drive the process of what needs support, and the government’s job is to listen and provide.” When I heard that, I thought there was something wrong with the microphone, but then I noticed that he had conspicuously long fingernails on his right hand. Later I asked, “Ministro, are you an artist?” He confirmed that he is a guitarist and writer. During his speech, in a nod to our delegation, he mentioned a world folk music festival that had been held in Quito years back where two of the featured artists were Pete Seeger and Sweet Honey in the Rock whose performances clarified for him who were the real ‘people’ of the United States. Quito Landmark:  Lost and Recovered Among several magnificent theater spaces we visited was the Teatro Bolivar, which is an old theater palace built in 1933 by an American firm in the grand style of the show, using neoclassic shapes, mixed with Moorish influences. The building seated originally 2400 and hosted ballet, symphony, zarzuelas, opera and film for the elite Quito citizenry. After a slow and depressing deterioration and loss of audiences over the years due to the advent of television, urban sprawl and lack of municipal infrastructure, it turned into an ill-frequented movie house from 1988-1997. In 1998 it was slated for restoration and a return to live performance, coinciding with the overall restoration of the Old City of Quito. Then, suddenly, on a fatef ul day in 1999, a fire that apparently started as a gas leak in a neighboring Pizza Hut ignited the old building. The theater was almost lost. Now, under the management and restoration of the Teatro Bolivar Foundation (led by the third generation of the theater’s original owners), the theater is coming back as an amazing performance space as well as a movie theater. When the owners approached Pizza Hut for some recompense, the multi-national refused to take responsibility and never paid a cent towards the millions of dollars of damage. During our tour of the space, we saw how glamorous the palace must have once been.  After we climbed a set of back stairs to a second floor where you could once see stars through the charred remains of the roof, we stood firmly on a rebuilt floor looking out over the proscenium which itself was miraculously undamaged. At the end of the tour, we were lead to a dark corridor that lit slowly as double doors at its end opened to reveal an elderly man seated in a red usher’s uniform. He stood and announced that he was a 50-year veteran usher at the palace, and hoped that we enjoyed the show. I’m never eating at Pizza Hut again. Journey’s End For our closing dinner, we sat as a group in Humanizarte, savoring some of Chef Edgar’s amazing dishes and enjoying the performances by Ballet Humanizarte and local musicians. After midnight we said goodbye to Nelson who was leaving the next morning for rural Argentina to release a group of rescued condors into the wild, a project he’s been dedicated to for years. (The Andean Condor is considered a symbol of power and health by many Andean cultures, and is endangered in many countries of South America.) An artistic director’s work is never done. In the past, PAP has traveled to Caracas, Venezuela; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Bogotá, Colombia; Santiago, Chile; Montevideo, Uruguay and San Jose, Costa Rica. This year’s trip to Quito, Ecuador was important to our PAP planning process as we are implementing the second phase of the PAP Creative Exchange and welcoming new curators from La RED to participate in selecting U.S. artists for future tours in Latin America. We are fortunate that these two new curators, Cuautehmoc Najero from Mexico City, and Marianella Protti from San Jose, Costa Rica, along with other La RED representatives will be attending the NPN Annual Meeting this year. Upcoming Performing Americas Trip The next Performing Americas trip will be to Mexico City from March 12-15, 2009 to attend the Puerta de las Americas festival for a four day cultural extravaganza featuring dance, combined with curated studio visits with artists and convenings with members of La RED and other cultural promoters from Mexico. For more information, check out the following websites: Performing Americas Program: La RED: Humanizarte: Fundacion Teatro Bolivar: Website of the film Blak Mama: