When Hurricane Maria barreled into Puerto Rico last year, it swept away homes, businesses, and jobs. Not only did it leave a catastrophic environmental mess, but Maria also blew away any remaining cover for the island’s dire fiscal crisis. That’s affecting the basics of life like power and education, but it goes further. Shifting financial priorities are also affecting the arts.
In his downtown San Juan studio, Tomas Gonzalez Hernandez is crouched on the floor -- cutting, gluing and reshaping old street posters into new works of art.
“I’m interest[ed] in that kind of objects because that kind of objects got a history in their environment,” he said.
The aftermath of Hurricane Maria has pushed him in new artistic directions.
“Maria was a really tough experience to the island, to the people, to the government,” said Gonzalez. “And yes, right now my work is going to start to get a little more -- patriotic is the word?”
He says his next project will be based on how well he can support himself. To earn rent money each month, Gonzalez performs on the streets as a juggler.
“And I’m going to do an installation,” he said. “Because everyone is juggling right now.”
He’s juggling and struggling, like other artists, to re-imagine what arts and culture will look like on the island in the coming years.
Maximiano Valdes is music director of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. He said classical music funding in Puerto Rico historically was modeled on a European vision, which sees the arts as a responsibility of government.
“Symphonic orchestras in countries like this ones, we are paid by the state. We don’t raise money,” said Valdes. “This society is organized as a European society, not as an American one. So we have many things covered by the state: museums, orchestras, festivals, schools. This was organized according to the Spanish tradition of Puerto Rico.”
And that’s changing now, said Valdes. He’s concerned the shift could threaten long-established arts institutions, and is advocating for more private sector support for classical music.
Eduardo Arosemena is chairman of the board for the Puerto Rico Culture Institute. He and other government officials are working with the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board created by Congress to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt.
“They have been making some tough decisions and they reduced the institute’s operational budget by 89 percent,” he said.
The institute’s mission is to promote arts and culture on the island.
“It has been mostly government sponsored,” said Arosemena. “We want to pivot to seeking private support, private philanthropy. We’re going to create our first endowment fund. This is not help for the government. This is help for young, talented, aspiring painters, and aspiring musicians and artists.”
But Rosario Romero, a professor of art history at the University of Puerto Rico, is critical of the shift toward privatization. She’s originally from Spain, and sees the move as part of a larger abdication by the island government of its responsibility to its citizens. She argues this strategy began before the storm – starting with cuts to public arts education.
“I do not believe there is a before and after Maria in terms of educational institutions in Puerto Rico,” said Romero. “Rather, I think Maria has accelerated the destruction of that which is public because I believe the government of Puerto Rico has used it as a way to cancel on its responsibility.”
Romero credits local nonprofits with stepping in just after the storm to offer critically needed help to Puerto Rico’s arts community. One group, BETA-Local, created an emergency fund. Money went to artists for basic necessities and to help those who’d lost workshops, and collections.
Co-director Michael Linares said BETA also began a mapping project -- identifying where cultural workers live and work throughout Puerto Rico. He described support of the arts as critical to nation-building.
“We make culture. That’s our product, which is an important thing for us to protect,” said Linares. “Because when things like this happen, we understand that one of the first areas in society to be dismantled is culture, no? And our nation gets weak if that happens.”
Eduardo Arosemena of the Puerto Rico Culture Institute stressed that not all fiscal cuts have been made by the island government, but have been required by the U.S. government’s oversight board.
“We are in a process where we have to to reach agreements with the oversight board,” he said. “And, for example, you have certain areas where you cannot, you cannot cut – health, education, security, law enforcement. You have to have doctors and teachers and cops.”
And he hoped eventually, the government’s new endowment fund will offer opportunities to young artists to further their careers.
Romero argued it's never been more important to protect arts in Puerto Rico.
“Without art, it’s hard to understand life,” she said. “It’s that artists are the ones who help us create who we are. They don’t just interpret reality - its that they help to construct new realities.”
Artists, says Romero, can play an important role as Puerto Rico navigates this moment of change.