Beta-Local is a nonprofit center for contemporary art initiated in 2009 and located in the heart of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Curator Ruba Katrib met the three cofounders, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Michy Marxuach, and Tony Cruz in 2010. Katrib writes that “While Beta-Local doesn’t exhibit art, it is an essential site that fosters interdisciplinary production and dialogue within Puerto Rico.” The curator was invited to interview Beta-Local for Museum as Hub, who feature the space in their Art Spaces Directory. [Also see the latest call by Beta-Local: Call for Submissions: Beta-Local’s “La Práctica 2014-15”.] Here are excerpts (with a link to the full interview below):
Ruba Katrib: Can you talk a little bit about why you started and what you consider to be the central focus of your program?
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz: Beta-Local grew out of our interest in rethinking aesthetic thought and artistic practice from our local context. We began the project in 2009, during the economic crisis. We viewed the lack of local institutional support structures, such as contemporary galleries, museums, and art schools—along with the crisis in traditional modes of production and art economies—as an opportunity to develop alternative support structures for art and vernacular pedagogies. We insist on artistic practice and aesthetic thought as an essential social and political practice part of life.
Beta-Local is organized around three main programs: La Práctica, a nine-month production-based program, The Harbor, a residency program, and La Ivan Illich, an open school through which anyone can propose a class that they want to take or teach. These three programs generate many independent projects from performances to seminars, concerts to collective meals. [. . .]
When we began the project, it was important for us to emphasize the lack of functionality in institutions, not a lack of exhibition space. We really looked to bring home the point that if there was no functionality in institutions, if the museums provided neither the resources, the relationship to a public, nor the critical context, than your living room—a street corner or a factory was just as good or perhaps an even better space for exhibition/presentation. We also wanted to de-emphasize the exhibition as the only point of contact between public and artist by opening up the process of production to the public, and allowing it to be challenged and enriched in the process.
RK: With these different components comprising your structure, how do you balance the courses and workshops that are initiated by Beta-Local (that have your interests in mind) with the more “user-generated” elements of the program? Do these aspects of the program correlate or do you see them as separate initiatives entirely?
BSM: It is very hard to disentangle the two as there is a certain flow and synchronicity between them. Beta-Local has some clear interests—they are evident in the structure of Beta-Local, in the physical space, in our personal work as artists and cultural producers—but as the community of participants grows, those interests also grow, overlap, and meander. We follow our interests, but we leave all sorts of doors open for others to do the same. We are moved by the commitment of others to their own work and vision.
For example, we have received a lot of proposals related to bike culture, from mapping routes to bike mechanics. There is also a community of architects who are interested in experimental practices and architecture as research who participate regularly in programming, proposing, and leading classes; we have had classes and lectures proposed by economists, neuroscientists, ninety–year-old cooks, and teenagers. [. . .] On the other hand, we also have found ways to pursue a sustained investigation into ideas of interest to Beta-Local. This year, we have begun a new series of intensive seminars anchored in our specific geography, local knowledge, and emerging art practices.
[. . .] In the most practical sense, we can do this because we are willing to literally and figuratively lend them the keys. During our first and second year, we had so many proposals for courses (interesting ones!) and programming that we had to decide early on how to handle this. We would have collapsed if one of the three of us had to be there for everything. Andrea Bauzá, an architect who participated in La Práctica during our first year, organized an eight-week course on architecture, public space, and activism. We gave her the key to the space and from that point on we have done it many other times. On the one hand, it solves a practical problem, on the other, it really gives programming autonomy to the public school project. Also, all La Práctica participants have the ability to program the space and pursue their interests through programming. As we bring more people in, we have more and more reliable collaborators who can run programs, create projects, and teach classes.
RK: How do you believe Beta-Local’s program is perceived locally? There is a dynamic community of artists, curators, and collectors in Puerto Rico, what role do you think your program plays in the local art scene?
BSM: We have been very lucky to have the support and collaboration of the local community of artists and curators—as well as architects, designers, and non-art neighbors. They create programs and are our main audience and participants. Without their support and participation this simply would not work. This, in part, has to do with the fact that the public or La Práctica participants propose at least half of our programming. Establishing a steady connection with collectors is a bit trickier. We are not a traditional presenting institution. Some unconventional collectors avidly support our programs and regularly participate in events. We have also collaborated with Espacio 1414, a private collection, in creating a public program, which was very successful. But more conservative collectors may still be working on figuring out what we do and how this supports a healthy art community. Our place in the local ecosystem is as an engine through which new art and other relationships are forged, tested, and experimented with.
For full interview, see http://www.newmuseum.org/blog/view/museum-as-hub-interview-with-beta-local-by-ruba-katrib