Public or private theaters: The case of Barcelona’s Liceu
Are there any alternatives for the financing of public theaters and auditoriums?
The image of the Liceu theater, the most emblematic opera house in Barcelona, has been terribly damaged after the mismanagement of the budget for this season, hampered by the general cuts for cultural events carried out by the Catalan Government.
Last February 1st, the Gran Teatre del Liceu announced a temporary mass layoff for two months, and consequently the closure of the theater during this period. The main reason was a deficit of 3.7 million Euros which the opera house faces after a reduction of public funds.
However, after two months of intense and tense negotiations and a strike threat for the 18 performances of “La Boheme”, the theater’s management and employees reached an agreement on the theater’s deficit reduction measures: no workers will be fired, no strikes organized, and the Liceu will continue its planned season, but the staff will have to resign to June’s extra wage.
Although the tension is now relatively eased down, the Liceu workers’ representatives read a harsh statement last week, declaring that the theater’s management is not carrying out the agreement as accorded. Furthermore, they remarked the chance this delicate moment offers for laying stronger foundations, in order to fortify and improve “a weak model, damaged by the difficult external circumstances”.
Thus, the debate about the financing of public theaters and auditoriums is opened with the global crisis. The Spanish Net of Public Theaters, Auditoriums, Circuits and Festivals questions the viability of the current financial management model for these spaces, supported by city councils or regional governments. They propose alternatives such as “mixed formulas”, obtaining funds from both public and private entities, apart from the box office’s income.
There are some theaters already operating with this model in Catalonia, such as the Auditori de Sant Cugat, and at the moment it is working properly and paying to the theater companies on time (this fact being impossible for 100% public theaters). They use the theater for scenic arts during the weekends, and rent the place out for conferences or congresses during the week, which is something that the Net of Theaters is demanding as well.
On the other hand, a total privatization as an alternative does not seem to be the remedy, for companies look after their own interests and some risky proposals are not accommodated. Instead, public theaters have the duty to guarantee the access to plural and universal culture, accepting alternative performances which do normally not fill the theater’s complete capacity.
Would a theater such as the Liceu accept funds from private entities? Would this fact affect its prestigious program? Are private companies likely to risk on ‘quality’ theater? What is clear is that the Liceu is not faring too well at present: some aspects must be reflected and alternatives on financing and management should be considered if the theater wishes to maintain a historical and recognized reputation obtained since its beginnings in the 19th century.