Viva España

Unlike the UK, Spain happily invests in the best, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto.

January 31, 2008

Smile," say the ads, "You're in Madrid." I am in Madrid now, but the smile withers on my lips when I compare the riches available here with the dreariness and philistinism that prevail in Britain. Here, the state takes seriously the obligation to invest in art and learning without impeding the flow of civic and charitable donations. Spain manages to combine the best of France and America: lavish state patronage, through centralised funding, alongside a private sector that values arts and education. Six institutions I have visited in the past few days have benefited or contributed in ways unthinkable in Britain.

First, take the Prado museum: €150 million (£112 million) - a modest pocketful of taxpayers' money compared with fortunes squandered heedlessly and needlessly on the Millennium Dome, say, or the British Library - has bought, on schedule and to universal aesthetic acclaim, a vast and ingeniously designed extension. Excavations into the adjoining hillside and the sensitive appropriation of an old monastic cloister on the summit have increased the available exhibition space by half as much again. The next couple of years will bring another enlargement on the same scale. By opening all day and long into the evening, the museum can accommodate both paying and non-paying visitors at different times. Free of charge, you can now see the collection - probably the world's best of pre-modern paintings - every day of the week.

Or take two of the national theatre companies. At the pink and gilt Teatro de la Zarzuela, which is dedicated to reviving Spanish musical theatre of the 19th and early 20th centuries, you can get a decent seat for a performance that combines outstanding dance, song and drama, with full orchestra, for €22. In the picaresque depths of the old town, €18 buys one of the best seats in the house to see Spain's national classical theatre company perform - with great originality but without contrived updating or dumbing down - plays by Shakespeare's Spanish contemporaries. Performances in both venues are vibrant, brilliant, inventive and inspiring. Thanks to public subsidies, thousands of ordinary people can enjoy them, and bring their children. Corporate sponsors can get their kicks at football matches.

I have been working with two of Spain's many private foundations that help to fund education. The Fundacion Rafael del Pino has a highly imaginative programme, repatriating Spanish academics and intellectuals from previously better paid jobs in the US. The Fundación Juan March is presenting a series of free lectures by leading academics - part of a constant stream of talks, round tables, public interviews with professional intellectuals, concerts, recitals and poetic readings. These happen not only in Madrid but in dozens of Spanish cities. Nightly, despite the competition of many concurrent events, they pack large auditoria. Britain cannot achieve Spain's level of intense cultural and intellectual life because the public will not stand for it and the state will not pay for it.

More disturbing, for Britain's long-term intellectual health, is the growing gap in state investment in academic research. I have just seen the evidence, as a result of taking part in two events - both celebrating the work of foreign historians - at Spain's brand new centre for humanities and social sciences. Because of the size of the domestic economy and the traditional excellence of the universities, Britain could be the home of a sort of European "research triangle", attracting the best brains in the Union. But that would take money and imagination in quantities unobtainable from British governments.

The home of the Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales is unappealing from the outside - it was designed to house the national lottery, until the Government decided to sacrifice fortune to wisdom. But it is vast, airy, lavishly appointed, abundantly equipped and adorned with plenty of books. There are features British academics abhor. The centre's researchers are all state functionaries and there are lots of forms to fill in. Typically, they do no formal teaching, though about a fifth have permission - thanks to more form-filling - to teach in nearby universities. The system works. The centre is an interdisciplinary agora: historians, philosophers, anthropologists, cognitive scientists and specialists in literature and linguistics all took part in my events. The researchers teach each other in a whirligig of seminars.

The concentration of resources means that the centre can bring in visitors from all over the world. And there are measurable benefits from isolating research. Twelve per cent of Spain's academic personnel are in research-only institutions but between them they generate about a quarter of all the research.

To some extent, Spain needs to concentrate on its research institutions because the universities are undervalued in world rankings. But universities benefit from a lively research environment. Even in Britain, top universities' renown will decline if the world ceases to associate the country with excellence in research. Europe needs big research facilities to compete with the US and to supply the world with thinking for the future. Without a change of attitude in Britain, those facilities will be located elsewhere.

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