Whether many people who use Nau Ivanow’s facilities on a daily basis know it or not, the centre is part of a long and world-wide tradition. In different regions and countries these places may be known by various titles – cultural centres, arts centres, cultural labs, kulturfabrikken, etcetera – but they all have commonalities and a commitment of purpose that connects their ambitions, intentions and reasons for existing. The first thing to say about this model is its emphasis on participation and its support of creativity as an empowerment tool, valuing process over product and advocating the right of all citizens to have a cultural voice.
For centuries, before the advent of centres like Nau Ivanow, there existed two types of institutions in the cultural hierarchy: the ‘fine art’ auditorium (the classical opera, ballet and theatre houses) and then the popular entertainment venues (for vaudeville, variety shows and the like) but the contemporary cultural centre that emerged in the 20th century responded to a new possibility: that culture should be created and developed by all citizens and that different cultural voices should be valued and respected and not excluded or suppressed. The history of these independent cultural centres is one of struggle and determination closely linked to many of the social, cultural and political struggles of the last one hundred and fifty years.
Originally emerging from the Industrial Revolution, culture centres have existed since the late 1800s. The first examples manifesting as vital to working-class battles for equal rights in the face of mass industrialization and exploitation. Fundamental to this fight for justice was culture and by this I mean the importance for all people to have a role in creating culture and, by definition, a meaningful future, for themselves and their children. In reality, this meant creating not just better working conditions but also communities, with shared spaces where opportunities for education, self-expression and celebration could take place. All over Europe structures began to emerge, often funded, built and run by workers and their families. These centres were commonly known as ‘people’s houses’ (in Scandinavia ‘Folkets Hus’, in Italy ‘Casa del Popolo’, in Belgium ‘Maison du Peuple’. Spain had its own network of ‘Casa del Pueblo’ or Ateneu, which exist to this day).
As the 20th century progressed, the concept and definition of ‘people’s houses’ of culture grew and diversified and their numbers increased, influenced and sustained by grass-roots initiatives, often the result of historic shifts in the global narrative. It is impossible to document all of this evolution here but even a cursory look at the record shows the important role cultural centres played in individual and communal lives, sometimes changing public consciousness in fundamental ways; other times providing supports and opportunities that private business or the state was unwilling or unable to provide. Besides the Industrial Revolution originators, there are hundreds of thousands of examples all over the world but here are just a few and the background that gave rise to their existence.
In 1935, the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, initiated a public expenditure programme to offset the effects of the Great Depression called the New Deal. This initiative saw $46 million (over $800 million in today’s terms) spent on a nation-wide arts programme, including the establishment of cultural centres all over America, such as the People’s Art Centre, in St. Louis; the Harlem Community Art Centre in New York and the Raleigh Art Centre in West Virginia. (It is worth noting that at roughly the same time Russia introduced a programme that saw cultural centres, known as ‘People’s Palaces’, developed or constructed in almost every town and city throughout the Soviet Union. By 1988 there were over 137,000 such establishments. While now they are seen as part of a controlling and indoctrination programme, back then these centres were viewed by many left-leaning artists and cultural workers in the West as progressive and inspirational and a fitting companion to their own ‘People’s Houses’ initiatives and many did indeed provide the same possibilities of education and celebration, as their Western counterparts).
The Second World War resulted in a fundamental shift in social and cultural norms globally, and nowhere more so than in the United Kingdom. The Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, a morale-boosting initiative during the war, was a forerunner of the Arts Council of Great Britain (established in 1945), which immediately began to support arts centres, a policy that continues to this day. Some early examples include the South Bank Centre and Roundhouse (London), Mac (Bermingham) and Chapter Arts Centre (Cardiff).
Equally important was the ‘squatters’ movement, which began in the post-World War II years, as many people found themselves homeless due to the devastation of the war and subject to the dire economic circumstances that the conflict had visited on Europe. Many of these ‘squats’ also developed as centres for freedom of expression and this translated into a movement to create a new post-war society. Inspired by these radical initiatives we find original squatters now established and still living their ideals in many countries: ufaFabrik (Berlin), WUK (Vienna) and Melkweg (Amsterdam).
If we fast-forward to the 1960s, we discover that the ‘squatters’ have merged into a new world-wide movement of spaces that advocates cultural democracy and the liberating of individual creativity. Initially called ‘arts labs’, these alternative spaces, which originated in the USA, were at the heart of the countercultural movement. ‘Labs’ began to spring up all over the world. Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York (1962), the Drury Lane Arts Lab in London (1967) and Yellow House Artist Collective in Sydney (1970) are examples.
As we entered the 21st century, the cultural centre movement had grown and developed with a version embraced and supported by funders and politicians alike (with the latter sometimes performing the controversial role of ‘loss leader’ for urban regenerator). The original grass roots ideal of the cultural centre is still evolving, with new initiatives appearing almost on a daily basis. ENCC (European Network of Cultural Centres) calculates it represents 3,000 members and Trans Europe Halles (network of independent cultural centres) has close to 100. The United Kingdom alone listed 1,002 arts centres in 2017.
So, yes, Nau Ivanow is unique to its location and its community in the neighborhood of La Sagrera in Barcelona, but it is also part of a 150 year-long project that places creativity at the centre of people’s lives. At a fundamental level, a cultural centre like Nau Ivanow is a free, open and safe space where citizens can enter to explore not only their creativity but more importantly, their dreams and aspirations. This is profound because what we are talking about here is an active culture with individuals and groups using their creativity to build purpose and meaning and to enable new ideas and thinking to evolve. In short, to empower people to invest in the development of society itself, what Joseph Beuys called ‘social sculpture’, with the cultural centre as the new ‘factory’ for the sharping and transforming our world.