LA CASA ENCENDIDA TURNS TEN: Interview with Mónica Carroquino

By Cristina Álvarez Cañas. March 15, 2013

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It’s not by chance that green is the colour of La Casa Encendida. As one of the great and inspiring hits on the Spanish culture scene this century, it is this centre’s management and cultural programme that have given it its “green light” and made its progress unstoppable. The woman entrusted with such responsibility is Mónica Carroquino, Culture Department Coordinator since 2009. Exhibitions, workshops, festivals, conferences, film seasons and more – there are thousands of activities for everyone in this space that is open and far from any elitist or hermetic views on culture. La Casa Encendida has just turned ten years old and over that time it has managed to attract the attention of over five million visitors thanks to its commitment to solidarity, the environment, education and the arts. And it all began in an old pawn shop.



Over five and a half million people have taken part in the activities offered by La Casa Encendida, which welcomes 800,000 visitors per year. That is almost as if the city it inhabits, Madrid, has passed through it at some point. Congratulations. How do you look back on this time?

These past 10 years have been fantastic. The project has grown thanks to people’s enthusiasm and interest. It’s a project that has accommodated very different proposals and groups of the public and that today has become a reference point. For me, that is its greatest asset - having opened up the concept of a centre for contemporary culture to all audiences and having helped to recognise emerging talent in La Casa’s four areas of activity: Culture, Solidarity, Environment and Education.

Which management model led to La Casa Encendida becoming a reference point for the culture scene in Madrid and in Spain as a whole?

The cross-disciplinary nature of the model has been applied not only to the project’s content but also to its management. We are an accessible and sustainable centre and, although a proximate space, one that is equally aware of how to move around in different environments. We have benefitted from not limiting ourselves to one specific area, from being able to remain open to a lot of different content simultaneously and to process their multiple layers all at once, with the same intensity and the same respect towards everything we do. We have seen fantastic results from this “aimlessness”.

With over 12,000 activities behind you, which part of the programming, concerts, exhibitions etc. would you choose to keep for yourself for the effort put into achieving them? And which would you choose for your own personal taste?

We have undoubtedly had some incredible exhibitions such as the Warhol one or the Louise Bourgeois exhibition dedicated to the last ten years of her artistic work, but I would opt for a project like on&on. It was a collective exhibition about ephemeral art that was a real success with the public thanks to word of mouth. As far as our own projects are concerned, it would have to be Generaciones and Inéditos – both crucial in helping to draw the map of Spanish contemporary art over the last ten years. In terms of music I would choose the tour by a festival like Electrónica in April or the live film festival PLAY – a real gem that explores the crossover between live film and music. In terms of my personal tastes, I like the life in the centre on any given day, the way different groups of the public come together, the people who make La Casa their second home and who come not only to participate in activities but also to use the resource centre or enjoy a sandwich on the terrace.

What shape does the curatorial process take? What is your team like and how do you decide on the exhibitions and their related activities?

The projects arrive from all possible routes. People sometimes think it’s a very closed circuit and don’t submit their projects but it’s relatively straight-forward. We’re a small team that works with a lot of external contributors. We’ve got a team of three people who organise the exhibitions, one person in charge of performing arts, one in charge of everything audiovisual and one that takes care of the courses. We try to work with projects to their full extent so that, for example, an exhibition can be told from all disciplines possible. It gives the public different ways to access the projects. In order to work along these lines, the team’s spirit and a team spirit in itself are very important.

One of La Casa Encendida’s greatest successes is its openness and the way it listens to others. It’s noticeable to the visitor and to other cultural agents – it has that kind of horizontal collaboration that brings so many good results. How do these connections develop?

It’s essential to have reciprocal communication. Being open to listening and knowing how to react appropriately to praise or criticism, being just as effective when the answer is good as when it is not so good. At the moment we ask our users to complete questionnaires, we keep up-to-date and renew the facilities. We don’t let the passage of time and our “supposed success” make us lose touch with reality. The connections come about naturally but maintaining independence is fundamental.

Things have changed a lot in ten years. We’ve got to know your podcasts, initiatives like the possibility of being a Community Manager at La Casa Encendida for a day etc. How have you been incorporating new technologies into raising awareness of La Casa Encendida?

The new technologies are vital in terms of working along the proximate lines I mentioned previously. In our case, they give an incredible amount of strength to the project by making it independent from its physical space. We have a strong presence on social networks and we’ve had to work on it. We endeavour to adapt to the new concepts the internet demands, like that of immediacy, without distorting the projects.

This age of change is also an age of opportunities. How do you see the future of cultural projects via the internet, and of creative digital industries?

I see them as feasible in the medium and long-term and as a fascinating challenge. Progressing in an environment you know about is predictable and boring. I think that one of the keys to the success of La Casa Encendida is having assumed risks, and although the current situation differs greatly from the situation when we started out, I feel like they have something in common. To some extent we are starting from scratch.

How have the complications faced by Caja Madrid affected the wellbeing of La Casa Encendida today? At the time, it was seen as a real threat to the centre’s survival. There was even talk of its closure.

The effects of the financial crisis have also been felt in La Casa Encendida’s budget, which has been cut in the last three years. We have had to make a lot of adjustments so that, at the end of the day, our user doesn’t notice any changes. Despite the cuts, La Casa managed to offer around 2,000 activities in 2012 and with over 818,000 users we reached a record number of visitors. The truth is that those of us on the inside never felt the project was in danger.

Have you thought about other alternative self-financing strategies? For example, lots of people would love to have a drink or a bite to eat on the terrace every time they go to La Casa Encendida. Do you avoid going down that route because it would undermine the original concept?

Obviously adjustments are being made. We are working towards that and searching for self-financing alternatives that suit the project. I think there is a lot of scope for that to take place coherently.

In comparison with other activities, do you think that your editorial projects are not as visible as they should be? How do you address this facet?

I don’t think our editorial projects have less visibility. We publish catalogues for all exhibitions; bilingual versions are made and distributed internationally. We have always taken great care of our publications; they are our historical archive and an essential part of the project. A noteworthy example amongst our latest publications is the Louise Bougeois catalogue - HONNI soit QUI mal y pensé.

What does the phrase “sustainable, accessible and profitable cultural model” mean to you within the context of Spain compared to the rest of the world and vice versa? Utopia or reality?

Necessity.

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