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In the boom years, Spain spent billions on big infrastructure projects — high-speed railways, roads and gleaming structures like the Niemeyer Center for the arts in Aviles, in the country's north.
Opened in March this year, the dazzling museum has hosted sold-out performances by Kevin Spacey and Woody Allen. But it's slated to close on Dec. 15, after barely nine months of operation, because of regional budget cuts.
And the fate of the Niemeyer could be an omen of what could happen across Spain, as conservative politicians cut funding for the arts and other big public projects become white elephants littering the landscape.
Regional Spending Woes
With its gleaming white plaza overlooking the harbor, the Niemeyer complex bears the name of its designer, legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who also collaborated on the U.N. headquarters in New York.
The plaza where Allen, Spacey, Yo-Yo Ma and many others have all performed is hauntingly empty now. The Niemeyer Center put the scruffy but charming little town of Aviles on the map. But now it has fallen victim to political squabbles over what the government should keep funding.
"The arts are always in danger. It's the first thing any public budget will cut," says Joan Picanyol, the Niemeyer Center's deputy director. Picanyol says conservatives who have just won control of the regional government are unfairly punishing this popular arts center for a nationwide spree of spending and building that went on for far too long.
"They are using it as a symbol of what has really happened in Spain. Spending a lot of money, glamorous experiments, or this craziness about having a cultural center in any town, or high-speed trains everywhere, any small town has an airport, and so on," Picanyol says.
For example, Granada's subway system is frozen half-built, with gaping holes in the streets. Lights are being turned off in new but barely used airports in Huesca and Ciudad Real.
Overspending by regional governments is one of the reasons Spain's economy is such a mess. Most taxes are collected on the national level, but most of the money is spent at the regional level. One of the few taxes regions could levy themselves is on construction. So they built and built, to make money.
Gayle Allard, an economist at Madrid's IE Business School, explains.
"They did raise money off of property, building licenses and the rest, and the collapse of the construction sector has hit them hard there. But in general, the regional governments collect very few taxes," Allard says.
"What they do is they receive transfers from the national government, and they spend them. And when they run out of money, then they go to the national government and say, 'We need some more,' " she says.
But now the national government is nearly broke. And so the regions can no longer afford to maintain infrastructure they've already built.
Local Support For The Center
For residents of Aviles — previously known only for smokestacks and pollution — the opening of the Niemeyer Center in March was almost too good to be true. The local steel plant was hemorrhaging jobs. Then, the dazzling arts center came along, and brought tourists with it. A local English teacher, Pablo Rumoroso, says he couldn't believe it when celebrities like Brad Pitt showed up in his local pub.
"It's not that I'm a fan of Brad Pitt, but it was like, 'In Aviles? What are you talking about?' Suddenly, having international people, it's unbelievable, and we feel really proud of it," Rumoroso says.
But that pride looks short-lived.
Ruben Bada plays traditional folk music — bagpipes and the accordion — and performed at the Niemeyer Center over the summer. He says all the concerts, plays and exhibits brought a bit of culture to this gritty town.
"Loads of people here are having a really hard time. So that was like a light at the end of the tunnel, and now there's no light," Bada says.
Local shops and restaurants have red stickers in their windows: "I support the Niemeyer Center," they read. So far, it's unclear what the center's future will be, though there are no plans to bulldoze the structure or change its design once it closes. But kids are already using the museum's plaza as a skateboarding park.
The center's workers will be out of jobs on Dec. 15. Sadly, that also happens to be architect Niemeyer's 104th birthday. He sent a letter from Brazil saying he's "disturbed" by the news, and expressed solidarity with the Spanish people.