Seeing opportunity in the tumultuous days of the post-crisis period, foreign media companies began buying up Argentine assets at firesale prices, accelerating a process that had begun in the 1990s (Postolski, Santucho, and Rodríguez 2002). Under progressive mayor Aníbal Ibarra, the city’s undersecretary of cultural industries (and later minister of culture),1 Gustavo López, sought to reverse this trend. He organized local cultural producers and industry leaders concerned about foreign dominance of local media content, resulting in a new social movement, the Foro para la Defensa de las Industrias Culturales de Buenos Aires (Forum for the Defense of Buenos Aires’ Cultural Industries). The movement promoted legislation to limit foreign ownership of Argentine media companies and ensure access to local cultural content in industries such as film. The city government organized international conferences and reports to oppose free-trade and copyright laws that favored multinational entertainment and communications firms, while seeking alliances with other Latin American nations as well as countries such as Canada and France (Luker 2016, 154–67). As López recalled in a media interview: “The defense of cultural identity is nothing less than the defense of our national identity.”2 For López, cultural industries were not just a set of economic sectors appearing on administration spreadsheets; they were at the heart of national identity and belonging in a globalizing world. Movement organizers, however, eventually situated their claims through the global imprimatur of UNESCO, working through the organization to create policies that strengthened its existing commitment to “cultural diversity.” Through this association with like-minded nations, López’s movement ultimately embraced a cosmopolitan, rather than merely nationalist, approach to cultural identity.3
The Ibarra administration’s tightrope act, casting culture as both a sacred form of local identity and a resource for economic development, was soon evident. The conferences and publications the movement produced were published under the banner of “cultural diversity,” hardly an idiom of hard-line nationalism. By appealing to cultural diversity, López and other organizers of the campaign had it both ways: cultural diversity could blend the economic priority and cosmopolitan vision of growing tourism and cultural industries, while appealing to the protection of local identity. As Carlos Moneta, a local scholar of the cultural industries, put it in his contribution to an official city publication titled Diversidad cultural in 2005: “To preserve the national historic patrimony in the construction of identity . . . requires incorporating . . . a productive base that contains cultural industries with national/regional industries that permit the production and exporting of cultural goods” (Moneta 2005, 52).
And as the economic crisis abated in 2003, López—the city’s minister of culture beginning that year—settled into a far less strident position vis-à-vis cultural goods and economic needs. When he created long-term goals for his ministry he suggested that Buenos Aires should market itself as the “cultural capital of Latin America” (G. López 2005b; Bayardo 2013, 105). López’s proposition attempted to balance the economic goal of being a center of tourism with the priorities of his progressive government. For example, he allocated resources to expand a museum and create a cultural “pole” in the disinvested southern portion of the historic center, saying that it “would give value to the entire south of the city, unifying and extending the touristic corridor, [to] attract more investment.”4 But throughout his tenure his statements vacillated between the goal of being “a” cultural capital “in” Latin America and that of being “the” cultural capital “of” Latin America, seemingly due to questions over whether this proposition was overly commercial and based on competition with other cities. In a number of media interviews he gave in the years following his role as the city’s minister of culture (when he had joined the left-of-center national administration), he appeared defensive about the promotional and competitive ethos of this goal, especially given that conservative mayor Mauricio Macri’s administration had continued the same branding. The cultural capital of Latin America was “not a place of competition,” López said years later, but “rather a space where it is possible to experiment, where there would be a synthesis and it is possible to exchange [culture] with others. . . . The goal was to guarantee access to cultural goods and services to all citizens.”5 Macri’s cultural policies did not guarantee access for the whole population, but rather saw culture as “a spectacle or a commodity exclusively,” López said. As Figure 2 shows, the Macri government saw things differently. Rather than a call for intercultural exchange, the “capital of culture” brand was reoriented exclusively toward tourism, evident in a city government thirty-second advertisement (Figure 2) showing the city’s new open-air tourist bus next to Buenos Aires’ internationally recognized opera house.
The tension between culture as a value and innate feature of urban life versus culture as a commodity to be mobilized in economic development was a constant theme of the post-crisis period (Luker 2016). As the movement for cultural diversity showed, these values intersected with the political projects of different parties, new opportunities presented by the local economy, and the exigencies of city governance, situated between local constituents’ needs and the possibilities for culture-based reinvestment. Although the Ibarra government (2000–2006) was hesitant to fully commercialize local culture in service to economic development, the conservative Macri government (2007–15) embraced the commercial opportunities presented by tourism more fully. As this chapter demonstrates, local culture became a key site for city officials to meld social and political life to economic imperatives, especially in the context of economic crisis.
Culture and the Creative City
Latin America is a useful site for thinking about culture, the economy, and uneven development because of its complicated place within global hierarchies since independence. It has long been the site of high expectations imagined through the progressive horizons of modernity (e.g., Coronil 1997). Buenos Aires in particular occupies a meaningful position in this puzzle as the site of what cultural critic Beatriz Sarlo (1988) famously called a “peripheral modernity,” an affluent, culturally vanguard, and technologically advanced urban society by the 1920s and 1930s that nonetheless relied upon the unequal exchange of its staple agricultural products to produce this “modern” urban society. In this respect, it was not a coincidence that Buenos Aires would aspire to be “the cultural capital of Latin America.” In fact, Buenos Aires had, since the early twentieth century, been a pioneering player in the regional cultural industries. Its voracious reading public was well known to the publishing industry, its cinema penetrated the Latin American market since the mid-twentieth century, and its colossal opera house was ranked among the world’s best for its acoustics, notwithstanding its monumental scale (King 2000, chap. 3; Benzecry 2011).
The 2001–2 crisis that shook Argentina’s economy to the core also called into question a larger regime of economic development elaborated during the 1990s based upon international debt, business services, and finance (Ciccolella and Mignaqui 2002). In the immediate aftermath of crisis the city lost many of the value-added service sectors it had accrued during the open-market restructuring of the 1990s (Galbraith, Spagnolo, and Pinto 2007; Wylde 2011). With a weaker and more volatile currency as well as the economic growth of neighboring Brazil, Buenos Aires surely lost clout to São Paulo as a regional center of business. The city, however, had become “global” in other ways. In the face of a financial crisis, city officials turned to international tourism as a way to bring more revenue into the city, and they turned to cultural branding to attract these visitors. And Buenos Aires has punched above its weight in its ability to attract tourism. In line with a worldwide increase in the importance of tourism and its mobilization of local culture and the arts (Hoffman, Fainstein, and Judd 2008; Judd and Fainstein 1999), Buenos Aires has become a regional giant, representing the top destination in South America for international visitors by 2010.6
Postindustrial forms of growth rely upon local, place-specific cultural meanings. As cities upgrade spaces and urban infrastructure for entertainment and leisure, they must find ways to market the intangible: traditions and histories that differentiate place-based character (e.g., Gotham 2005a, 2005b). Postindustrial redevelopment relies on the consumption of not only goods and services but also cultural experiences that users view as authentic to specific contexts (Zukin 2010). Beyond the importance of international flows of visitors and information, at its core the cultural economy has enlarged the role of local traditions, identities, and places. Cultural forms that are most identifiably local are particularly attractive for branding efforts aimed at tourism. Forms such as tango in the case of Buenos Aires provide multidirectional opportunities for image production: a cultural form is associated with a city, while the city itself gains a reputation for producing these cultural forms. But local culture is also a profoundly contested terrain in terms of who controls dominant images of a city’s identity. Although urban governments may try to promote or develop cultural offerings using instrumental logics, at its core, culture is difficult to detach from the local identities, spaces, and histories that produce it.
Sociologists have long noted how urban officials may attempt to meld culture to economic development goals (e.g., G. Evans 2003; Zukin 1995). But culture itself is a quality of city life, as commentators and critics have noted throughout the modern period. Cities, whether intentionally or not, produce a certain way of life, captured in early-twentieth-century sociological interest in phenomena such as the stranger, anonymity, and heterogeneity at the center of modernist accounts of urban space (Wirth 1938; Park and Burgess 1925). In this sense, culture—like cities themselves—is a messy constellation of practices, memories, and lifestyles that often resists top-down definitions.
To capitalize on cultural activity in the city’s economic recovery, urban officials needed to organize this messiness into a coherent global brand. To do so, successive administrations reshaped the city’s urban core for culture and tourism as a clear strategy of economic development. City officials consolidated heritage districts with new planning laws starting in the late 1990s, while promoting tourism through various initiatives to incentivize traditional cultural practices such as tango through international competitions and prizes (Kanai and Ortega-Alcázar 2009; Kanai 2015; Dávila 2012; Luker 2010). By the 1990s these local urban initiatives inched the city toward more entrepreneurial approaches to cultural industries. But as the following sections demonstrate, the 2001–2 crisis represented a watershed in reorienting Buenos Aires’ global reputation and maximizing its competitive strengths in culture and the arts.7
Buenos Aires’ Urban Modernity
Appearing in the New York Times on June 22, 2003, Michael Luongo’s “What’s Doing in Buenos Aires” kicked off half a decade of travel stories documenting Buenos Aires’ rise, fall, and apparent reemergence as a cheaper, grittier version of Milan, Madrid, or Prague. “Walking along the Avenida de Mayo, lined with Belle Époque buildings, you would think you were in France,” Luongo wrote. “Adding to the confusion,” however, were “young fashion plates who seem to have spacewarped from Milan. But under the glamour is the chaos,” he asserted.8 Once the Paris of the Americas, the city had fallen on hard times, yet it retained not only the architectural relics of its past prosperity but also a stylish population, said to be culturally sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and fashionable. In describing the city as both elegant and chaotic, these media stories pointed to a broader theme of the travel genre emanating from major northern metropolises: Buenos Aires was distant geographically, but the seasoned traveler could easily recognize its cultural offerings.9 Paradoxically, however, this new visitor economy would only emerge once the country’s economy had hit rock bottom.
Since the late nineteenth century, foreign observers have had difficulty categorizing Buenos Aires. A 1906 New York Times headline characteristically observes: “Buenos Ayres: The Paris of America,” describing the city as possessing “the beauty of Washington, the wealth of New York, and the hustle of Chicago.”10 But beyond these aesthetic comparisons, such characterizations were never far from observers’ perceptions of Buenos Aires’ purported racial exceptionalism. Already by the late nineteenth century, press accounts were eager to tie the city’s surprising modernity to its “European” character, expressed by its architectural idioms and European immigrants. These accounts of Argentine exceptionalism, though exaggerated, did point to one unique aspect of the city’s development: by the early twentieth century, Buenos Aires’ territorial morphology departed in key ways from the Hispanic model of city building in the Americas (Gorelik 1998). The central plaza surrounded by colonial government buildings and a cramped traditional street grid were replaced starting in the 1890s by imposing boulevards and lavish government buildings built for their perspectival impact.
By the nation’s centennial in 1910, Buenos Aires had emerged as Argentina’s showcase of European culture and an early form of global urbanism based (quite loosely) on Baron Haussmann’s redevelopment of Paris (Walter 1993, chap. 1; Needell 1995). This conception of the city elicited admiration among European visitors during the celebrations and also validated the prestige of the country’s leadership. Buenos Aires’ monumental architecture, its sophisticated public amenities and urban infrastructure, and its Parisian-inspired parks and boulevards provoked widespread comparisons to Paris among foreign observers.
As architect and urban historian Adrián Gorelik (2004) points out, however, Buenos Aires’ claim to rival Paris in beauty and sophistication was always a questionable comparison, even for those attending the festivities and lauding the visionary efforts of the local governing elite. The praise bestowed upon the progress and modernity of the center of the city was in part based on these same visitors’ unease with the relative decline of “Latin” cities compared to the burgeoning capitalist modernity of North American urban growth.11 It was Buenos Aires’ position in the New World, its rapid capitalist and consumer expansion, and its claim to a shared “Latin” culture that in large part explained the enthusiasm with which a number of European notables (particularly of Spanish and French origin) reacted.
This claim to European culture was not altogether false. Between 1871 and 1914 Argentina received some six million immigrants, largely from southern Europe, about half of whom stayed in the country (Rock 1985, 141). The majority of these immigrants settled in and around Buenos Aires. During the first half of the twentieth century, economic prosperity contributed to the consolidation of a middle class of primarily immigrant origin. The first sociological studies of social class in Argentina show that by the 1940s some 55 percent of the country fell within these middle sectors (Germani 1950). Outside of the city center, the endlessly monotonous street grid inherited from the city’s colonial past (and much derided by local elites as a relic of the country’s backward Hispanic origins) served the expanding city well as the mostly Spanish and Italian immigrants settled in neighborhoods farther from the central plaza. Despite elites’ investment in the center of the city, the expanding middle classes of European descent gradually inhabited neighborhoods throughout the city, which—if unlikely to recall Paris—contained an urban sociability and openness that was unique in the regional context (Scobie 1974, chap. 5; Sarlo 1988; Gorelik 1998, 273–306). Neighborhood sociability based on local institutions such as libraries, social clubs, and plazas formed the basis of a new middle-class way of life in a prosperous country during the first half of the twentieth century (Gutiérrez and Romero 1989; Liernur and Silvestri 1993). The emergence of this new lifestyle and middle-class identity was, from its inception, tightly interwoven with the high quality of the city’s public spaces and a sense of grounded citizenship for which neighborhoods emerged as a social referent (Braun and Cacciatore 1996, 44–45; Gorelik 1998, 276–77).12
Sustained migration of the rural working class to the city, however, as well as the broader decline in the country’s economic fortunes, led to increased fragmentation and porosity even within the limits of the country’s most privileged urban center. The arrival of mestizo13 workers from the provinces to the city and its outskirts, the rise of the populist Peronist government in the 1940s, and the subsequent influx of immigrants from neighboring countries called into question the city’s dominant image of modernity, even while reifying its supposed “European” character (Gorelik 2004, 93–94), an identity made more concrete as it was called into question by purported outsiders. With the rise of Peronism in the 1940s, rural migrants from the nation’s interior were transformed from an invisible, excluded working class to a highly visible public. Historian Enrique Garguin (2007) suggests that representations of the entire nation as upwardly mobile and “European” were so dominant that the notion of a middle class did not even come into circulation until this commonsense notion was challenged by the appearance of darker-skinned, working-class bodies in the city center. These workers were evidence of Argentina’s colonial-creole and mestizo past, a past that in Buenos Aires had been eclipsed by the mass scale of European immigration. Phenotypically marked and seen as out of place, rural workers continued to materialize in the streets of Buenos Aires, even as much of the local middle class was unable to comprehend their presence as anything less than a foreign invasion (Luna 1971, 273, 321–22; Ciria 1974, 297).14
Peronism reshaped urban development in ways that would have profound and lasting impacts. The “aristocratic” feel of the city, dominant until the 1930s (Romero and Romero 1976; Johns 1993), was materially and symbolically reordered in 1945 by the appropriation of central plazas and streets by working-class mobilizations in support of Juan Perón. In terms of future urban development, this process was particularly important. The upper classes abandoned areas in the center of the city as spaces of representation, now overtaken by Perón’s government, its working-class followers, and their mass demonstrations (Podalsky 2004). In more structural terms, the monopoly of upper-class property ownership was diluted through the reformation of planning laws that for the first time allowed for the development of individually owned condominium construction throughout the city (Ballent 2005). This was a boon to the middle classes, who previously had been forced to rent apartments or buy an entire home.
Despite the “massification” (Romero 1976, chap. 7) of society during the Peronist years, Buenos Aires remained fairly privileged locally, with much of the migration from the countryside concentrated outside the city, in the industrial municipalities to the south and west (Torres 1993). In this sense, the city was an exception in the regional context, insofar as Buenos Aires was largely consolidated in population terms by the late 1930s when migration from the countryside increased substantially. At this point the city’s population was roughly 2.5 million, while the peak population has remained steady at three million since the mid-1940s.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, to support the country’s industrialization model (W. Baer 1972), national and provincial policies developed the outskirts for the working classes. The federal government nationalized regional transit in 1947, fostering the suburbanization of workers (Torres 1993, 9–10). For this reason, the growth of informal housing within the city’s limits (characteristic of many Latin American contexts) was less pronounced in Buenos Aires. This led to a rich city with a poor hinterland: through the 1990s, the GDP per capita of the capital was roughly that of the per capita GDP of France (Ciccolella 1999, 24), despite a far less prosperous situation at the national level.
This pattern of development, largely unchanged up until the 1980s, reversed itself during the debt-financed economic boom of the 1990s. For the first time, higher-income residents fled the city to gated communities in the suburban periphery, a familiar trajectory to scholars of North American urbanism. But at the same time, a process of reinvestment took root in some areas of the city center, a key node of a regional, “global city” (Sassen 2002), as spaces like Puerto Madero were retrofitted for office space and luxury condominiums. Meanwhile, other historically middle-class areas deteriorated as higher-income populations decamped to the gated suburbs of the capital (Libertun de Duren 2006; Svampa 2001; Ciccolella 1999).
As urban scholar Horacio Torres (2001) shows, the traditional image of the metropolitan region, visually represented as a “stain” of urbanization, with a clear center tapering off into less dense suburbs, by the 1990s departed from this pattern. This metropolitan reorganization now demonstrated a loosely connected web of low-density agglomerations cut off from traditionally working-class areas and fractured by a sinuous system of highways and gated communities (Libertun de Duren 2006; Carrión 2001, 18; Narodowski 2013), not unlike the “postmodern” restructuring of U.S. cities (particularly Los Angeles) described by North American geographers.15
Crisis and Transition
Argentines awoke on January 7, 2002, to a much-changed country and, as a result for many ordinary citizens, much less valuable bank balances. After a decade of IMF-prescribed structural adjustment policies, the Argentine state and many citizens alike were drowning in dollar-denominated debt. The way out for the state was a dramatic delinking of the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar, chained at parity for much of the prior decade. The results of the devaluation were disastrous: spiraling inflation, bankrupt businesses, and large-scale social protest.
The middle classes, placated for the prior decade with a strong currency, imported consumer goods, and relative price stability suddenly erupted onto the political scene. For weeks, students, housewives, and businesspeople alike marched from the tranquil northern and western barrios to the Congress and the executive mansion banging metal pots in a low but sustained din. In a surprising reversal of historical roles, they were not the typical protagonists of local street protest, displaying empty kitchenware to indicate their hunger. Rather, they were largely well-fed professionals who had reluctantly accepted cuts to social programs, subsidies, and education in return for the state’s glittering modernization project, backed by powerful foreign allies and international financial institutions. The project’s emphasis on the global spaces of the city of Buenos Aires and its promise of transforming the local populace into “First World” subjects had seduced many porteños throughout the 1990s (Guano 2002a, 2003).
The following days unfolded in a maelstrom of violence, police repression, and presidential resignations. Locked out of their dollarized bank accounts, protestors gathered around foreign financial institutions, battering their imposing copper and brass doors with diminutive spatulas and ladles. The peso’s relation to the dollar declined from 1:1, to 1:1.4, to 1:4, then 1:5, and 1:6. Salaries plummeted. Mortgages went unpaid. The lines for visas at foreign embassies snaked around the eerie elegance of Buenos Aires’ most plush barrios, built a century before at a time when a rapidly developing Argentina was expected to dominate South America.
Almost immediately following economic implosion, however, something unexpected happened. Overnight, Buenos Aires went from being one of the most expensive cities in the world to one of the cheapest, producing a wave of international visitors and propelling a process of urban reinvestment with an emphasis on cultural and touristic production.16 While Buenos Aires for most of the twentieth century was a leader in the cultural industries in a regional context (Getino 1996, 46),17 the crisis period and its aftermath reoriented culture, with the city government invoking a more entrepreneurial program in part aimed at the development of touristic industries. This program was evident in both the progressive administration of Aníbal Ibarra (2000–2006) and the conservative administration of Mauricio Macri (2007–15). In short, the crisis required city officials across the political spectrum to rethink what kinds of cultural practices could be marketable to domestic and international publics. This opportunity reshaped major nodes of the city, transforming them from stigmatized spaces bereft of investment to spaces of touristic and cultural consumption (Kanai and Ortega-Alcázar 2009; Dinardi 2017; Lederman 2015).
These priorities were reflected in local officials’ slow reorientation of the city’s cultural apparatus, which increasingly brought culture to bear on neighborhood change. From the establishment of “creative districts” (such as technology or the arts) in working-class neighborhoods to the use of international festivals as a form of urban branding, these changes went far beyond the city’s museums and Ministry of Culture. Instead, city policy increasingly mobilized culture to bolster urban redevelopment projects that ministries such as Economic and Urban Development directed. For example, the local state attempted to criminalize street artisans who did not conform to the touristic reinvention of the historic center, while low-income residents’ tenancy near the city center was disrupted by the conversion of single-room-occupancy rentals to hotels and hostels. Expressed concretely in terms of who had a right to be on the street, cultural changes turned particular districts into sites of social conflict. On the one side was an entrepreneurial local state, seeking to take advantage of newly competitive sectors of the economy. On the other were informal workers and marginalized groups seeking their right to work in the city center. The market-friendly Macri administration’s conception of culture as a top-down economic project favored producers whose practices were marketable. Yet even within this more entrepreneurial approach, the visitor economy offered the urban poor and struggling middle classes opportunities to carve out space in this new economic order. To do so required residents to transform particular forms of cultural knowledge into touristic goods.
Economically, this turn to culture was hardly surprising. Decades of state-led disinvestment had decimated Argentine industrial capacity (Canitrot 1981; Azpiazu and Kosacoff 1989; Azpiazu and Schorr 2010). Creative industries and those based on tourism promised to provide less-capital-intensive activities at a time of parsimonious state resources. But as central districts became a physical showcase for emerging forms of touristic production and higher-end consumption, novel methods of social regulation were required. Social inequality had increased, and various city administrations, from center-left to right, sought to encourage new definitions of “social inclusion.” Officials believed that properly regulating urban marginality (e.g., by evicting the urban poor from buildings slated for hotel development) could spur tourist- and culture-based economic development, but they also sought to meld these productive activities with long-held imaginaries centered upon “integrating” Buenos Aires’ sharp north–south geographic inequalities.
Officials of various political stripes promoted the creative economy as a tool of economic reactivation and growth. But the shift from a marginally productive activity to the subject of intense state interest was hardly linear. While the conservative Macri city government, elected in 2007, took a more stridently market-friendly approach to questions of tourism, culture, and urban reinvestment—by focusing public investment in neighborhoods with touristic potential or by establishing arts and culture districts through tax abatements to developers—the first phases of this process had begun under prior, left-of-center mayoral administrations (Luker 2016, chap. 5). The steady direction of these changes suggested that politically dissimilar governments grappled with the juggernaut of culture-led reinvestment and tourism, and their potential in a broader transformation of the city center and the local economy.
But this shared agenda did not indicate a lack of conflict. Multiple city administrations were forced to balance the demands of everyday citizens, informal workers, and grassroots cultural producers with the interests of investors, tourist dollars, and local business interests. City governments had to define and codify who was an artisan, suitable for selling goods to tourists on the street, and who was merely an “ambulant vendor” with no right to these spaces. Officials sought to promote culture, but especially that which integrated with the local visitor economy. For example, the Macri administration sought to dismantle an Afro-Argentine cultural center—which it had initially promoted—because it did not produce events geared toward an outside public (discussed in chapter 2). These disputes led to growing tensions around the city’s cultural and economic life, particularly as both the Ibarra and Macri administrations converged on an increased role for culture and tourism in the local economy. Such dissimilar political orientations mobilized rhetoric that at times tapped into older idioms of cultural citizenship and inclusion, while at others invoked a more business-friendly discourse centered around the creative economy. But no city administration could fully ignore the opportunities produced by tourism, reinvestment, and postindustrial service activities such as entertainment, both in the city center and its nearby peripheries.
Touring the Crisis
By the early months of 2002, Argentina’s unemployment rate had reached 21 percent. From the picketing of major avenues by unemployed demonstrators to the emergence of scavengers sorting through trash, the crisis presaged a far more conflictual occupation of the city’s public space (Grimson 2008; Perelman and Boy 2010; Whitson 2011).18 Paradoxically, the demands for food, work, and housing being leveled on the street showed why Argentina was suddenly appealing to tourists and foreign investors. Salaries were low and workers abundant. Prices remained rock bottom compared to other cities. Newspaper headlines reflected this paradox: “Estamos mal pero vamos bien”—things are bad but going well—became the ironic zeitgeist of the local business class.19
During the 1990s, as part of IMF-backed structural adjustment, which included a 1:1 peg between the peso and the dollar, Buenos Aires was one of the most expensive cities in the world, and certainly among the most expensive in Latin America. Although the 1990s saw the rise of a visitor economy attracted to niche Argentine markets such as polo or tango, the devaluation ushered in a far more mass form of international tourism.20
Figure 4 shows the evolution of Argentina’s tourism industry during the 1990s and 2000s, with arrivals typically totaling between two and three million per year in the 1990s. One of the curve’s steepest points is from 2003 to 2004, aided no doubt by prominent international media coverage of the city’s bargain prices. Despite a short downturn during the 2008–9 global financial crisis, by 2011 tourist arrivals had reached almost six million, nearly double the amount at their height in the 1990s, surpassing all other South American countries. The comparison with Brazil, with a longer tradition of international tourism, is instructive. Two additional patterns are evident. First, international tourism has increased in the region since the 1990s, and second, Argentina since 2002 had experienced a particularly large increase.
Local and national authorities understood the importance of these developments. By 2003 the national government placed billboards in the capital instructing Argentines to treat tourists well. “Turismo es trabajo”—tourism means work, urged the signs. The progressive mayor Aníbal Ibarra prophetically declared, “Buenos Aires is not going to compete with cities with slave labor, but in culture, there we can compete” (Centner 2007, 20–21).
But aligning tourism and culture with a new visitor economy required more than just marketing. For a decade, culture had been undergoing a slow process of change, responding to local events such as Buenos Aires’ newly established autonomy and the chance to elect a mayor beginning in 1996. At the same time, globally circulating policies gained new importance for local officials, particularly as gestión cultural—cultural management—developed as a field of public policy around the world, connecting the now autonomous city and its officials with the field’s emerging best practices. At least in the case of Buenos Aires, Spanish public policy training loomed large, with Barcelona’s cultural resurgence widely diffused throughout the Spanish-speaking world (González 2011). Its early adoption of university academic and professional programs in cultural management helped spread this model to other cities. During this period, the University of Barcelona’s program in cultural management created an online cultural management portal aimed at “contributing to the construction and development of an Ibero-American cultural space, including and enhancing initiatives as much from the Iberian Peninsula as from Latin America.”21 Barcelona’s early adoption and dominance in such cultural management programs and professional degrees meant that the portal’s Catalan organizers would be doing much of the policy circulation, despite a rhetorical appeal to cross-cultural exchange.
As Argentine anthropologist Mónica Lacarrieu (Lacarrieu and Cerdeira 2016a, 2016b) suggests, economic changes in “central” countries influenced the rise of a cadre of professionalized cultural managers in Latin America. In the past, the professional trajectories of Buenos Aires officials in culture had typically included a background in artistic or cultural life. But as Lacarrieu and Cerdeira note, the growing role of private and philanthropic sectors (and the concomitant decline in state funding) in culture and the arts in the global North required technocratic managers to coordinate investment, measure outcomes, and organize collaborations. Concretely, this meant that circulating best practices in cultural policy became infused with a new entrepreneurial spirit even if the cultural ethos in Buenos Aires in the late 1990s and early 2000s was framed around values such as inclusion and citizenship and managed by progressive officials with ties to the world of art and culture.22
The commercial potential of culture-based revitalization coexisted with the historically important role of cultural and intellectual life in public policy. Even the term “cultural management”—incorporated into university curricula in the late 1990s in Buenos Aires—retained an extra-economic sensitivity. As Carlos Elia, a longtime administrator of major Argentine theaters and an early advocate of professional programs in cultural management, put it, “Technically, the professional training [in cultural management] is marked by the interplay of two trainings: specifically disciplinary (technical, artistic, socio-cultural), and the properly managerial [gestionaria] (planning, evaluation, impact, strategic design, communication etc.)” (Elia 2009). This was a far cry from the neoliberal injunction to turn culture into a purely instrumental tool for economic growth.
During the progressive Ibarra years, then, these officials sought to meld economic opportunity to a deeper understanding of culture in public life. Even those local officials who saw a new role for culture in fomenting economic activity (as Gustavo López came around to) often maintained high-minded views about the importance of culture in everyday social inclusion. As chapter 2 examines in more detail, these professionals had their feet in two worlds: on the one hand, they tended to have advanced degrees, significant interaction with artists and cultural producers, and an academic sensitivity to the role of culture in fostering inclusion; on the other hand, they had backgrounds in the very professional training—international conferences, administrative fields, and degree programs—that Elia outlined above. The subtle shift between these high-minded ideals and a new, more entrepreneurial program of governance showed the growing internationalization of culture-based revitalization projects. It would take the far more market-centric administration of Mauricio Macri to do away with this pretense of artistic appreciation and adopt a more stridently commercial approach to culture-led urban reinvestment. In fact, in one telling remark in 2010, Mayor Macri suggested that tango (and its touristic potential) was Buenos Aires’ soybean—referring to the country’s most famous cash crop, the high price of which had done much to drive the nation’s economic resurgence (Luker 2016, 177).
Institutional Foundations, 1996–2006
The processes described above stretched at least as far back as the city’s autonomy in the 1990s, which produced a novel concern with local identity at the level of city administration.23 In 1996 the federal government of Peronist orientation turned the city over to their traditional political adversaries, the Radical Party, following that party’s local electoral win. Peronism had historically been anathema to the outward-looking residents of the capital, and the Radicals only secured the city’s autonomy with support for a constitutional change needed for the Peronist national government to remain in power another term. In other words, losing direct control of the city (prior to this the president appointed a Buenos Aires mayor) was the quid pro quo the national Peronist administration agreed to in order to maintain control of the federal government. Although this jurisdictional change responded to national politics, it also found encouragement in global developments. The need for decentralization had been a clarion call of neoliberal politics across the globe (Brenner and Theodore 2002; Harmes 2006; Porter and Craig 2004), undergirded by the injunction to make cities, regions, and states globally competitive. Institutions such as the IMF and World Bank had specifically recommended these policies through the implementation of market-based reforms—structural adjustment—in countries like Argentina during the 1990s.24
The end of Argentina’s military dictatorship in 1983 had ushered in a period of intense cultural life in the city and nation, in which democratic pluralism became an expression of the reopening of the political sphere. This could hardly be traced to the kind of neoliberal cultural strategies starting to coalesce in urban revitalization projects in cities like Barcelona, whose culture-led resurgence would become a model around the world (Monclús 2003; González 2011). Rather, it was a collective expression of relief following a military regime that had tightly regulated cultural production. It could be seen in an emerging term in cultural life: public space (Gorelik 2008), which city officials, academics, and cultural producers now routinely invoked to talk about democratic values. The term seemed to signify the reemergence of pluralistic social encounter and forms of democratic engagement tied to the city’s physical spaces.
In the city’s cultural agenda during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the novelty of local autonomy produced robust conversations in the political and intellectual sphere with regard to how the administration of culture could reflect local identity. For example, as discussed in the following chapter, historical preservation—as a tool of both material and cultural protection—gained new impetus in local laws aimed at safeguarding entire areas of the city. The early 1990s had seen the urban shopping mall become the symbol of both the national government’s IMF-backed market reforms and the country’s increasingly privatized and exclusive public sphere (Sarlo 2001). But the first elected mayor of Buenos Aires, Fernando de la Rúa (1996–99), crafted his political persona in contrast to the then national government’s privatizing agenda. The city government sought to frame itself as culturally inclusive, concerned with the city’s parks and public spaces, and open to pluralistic forms of expression being undermined by privatization (Guano 2002a, 2002b). In his opening of the city’s legislative session of 1998, de la Rúa argued: “The city has an identity that is based on integration, not exclusion, that should be protected. . . . Culture for everyone, culture for the whole city, recuperation of Buenos Aires’ identity, participation.”25
De la Rúa’s city administration advocated for the importance of heritage and culture as part of the city’s newly autonomous organization. Culture as part of an explicitly urban economic agenda gained momentum, albeit in fits and starts and constrained by the limits of an increasingly apparent economic crisis, which had begun by 1998 and reached its chaotic peak by 2001 (at which point de la Rúa had become president). For example, the city government put into effect an overarching regime of architectural heritage laws.26 In January 1999 it passed a law recognizing tango as an object of cultural heritage, to be promoted, diffused, and developed.27 This recognition of culture as not only a source of heritage and tradition but also an economic resource in a country rapidly privatizing major industries reflected the political and economic priorities of the newly autonomous city.
When de la Rúa won the presidency of the nation (1999–2001), his successor in city government was Aníbal Ibarra of the Frente País Solidario (Frepaso Party), a progressive movement with roots in local Buenos Aires politics (Mauro 2007). That Ibarra came from a nontraditional political party would have a significant impact on the nature of urban governance between 2000 and 2006. Ibarra ushered in a number of officials with deep ties to the world of cultural and intellectual life.28 These professionals lent otherwise mundane matters of state policy an air of intellectual import and high-minded debate, rather than conducting decision making based solely on economic (or purely politically oriented) management (Pavón 2012, chap. 6).29 In areas such as urban heritage, for which the Ibarra government created in 2000 a division of the Ministry of Culture, officials infused preservation discussions with questions over the nature of collective memory and the sociohistorical, as well as material, import of particular historic sites.30 City institutes for studying the cultural industries released publications invoking social theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and neo-Marxian cultural critics such as Theodore Adorno (see Observatorio de Industrias Culturales 2005). High-minded professionals in the arts and culture framed cultural policy within a local lexicon that promoted their center-left political space as one of democratic renewal, pluralism, and diversity.31 Many had their feet in the worlds of both administrative management and the realm of cultural and intellectual life.
In this sense, city administrations in the 1990s and early 2000s responded to a mix of local politics, such as Buenos Aires’ autonomy, and global pressures, such as the influence of cultural management paradigms and the opportunities presented by the economic crisis. Officials such as Silvia Fajre, the Ibarra government’s undersecretary of urban heritage, had studied public administration in Spain but also architecture in Buenos Aires, where she had taught at the University of Buenos Aires. Local officials had professional backgrounds in the arts and the academy but also the globally expanding field of cultural management. This meant that policies to foster identity and pluralism were often integrated with culture-led reinvestment strategies making their way around the world, even when their local origins were rooted in a more politically sensitive vision of culture.
This confluence of political and economic logics made for a policy that was at times contradictory, particularly amid economic crisis in the early 2000s. For example, to take steps toward highlighting the importance of tourism, the city passed a number of new laws. In July 2001 the Ibarra administration codified tourism as an activity of public and cultural, “socioeconomic” interest.32 In June 2003, film was declared of public interest to the cultural life of the city,33 and theaters dating prior to 1980 were given special economic and architectural protection. While these projects sought to capitalize on Buenos Aires’ cultural resources, they tended to embrace a logic that stressed preservation, cultural diversity, and social inclusion over purely market rule. For example, the preservation of such theaters occurred in part due to concerns over North American–style cineplexes that were gaining market share in the shopping malls and gated communities within and outside the city and threatened to undermine the cultural character of local film consumption.
The shift between entrepreneurial approaches to culture and those characterized by more traditional idioms of inclusion and belonging demonstrated the Ibarra administration’s desire to squeeze more economic development out of culture, and its hesitance to fully do so. If officials like Gustavo López still wavered in crassly commercializing culture as a tool for economic growth, this was no longer a cause for the nationalist outrage characterizing the “cultural diversity” campaign against media monopolization. That movement framed its struggle through the language of cultural identity, which it sought to protect. But when López became the city’s culture minister in 2003 his policies required a more nuanced approach to foster investment, and his denunciations of foreign ownership receded. Instead, he seemed to embrace a competitive vision of culture-led reinvestment through his promotion of the “capital of culture” city branding. Ibarra’s government had deep ties to intellectual life, and less easily marketable definitions of culture, so its policies included support for local culture and cultural industries as well as nascent attempts to mobilize these sectors as a tool of economic reactivation. In this light, López’s nationalist defense of cultural industries and his later effort to brand the city the cultural capital of the continent appears coherent. When a left-of-center newspaper interviewed López in 2004 he affirmed his intention to create a capital of culture, but explained, somewhat paradoxically, that this should be done “through the crucial axis that is the ‘culture of solidarity’ and ‘culture for everyone.’”34
The complex balance achieved with regard to cultural policy during this period demonstrated how local political orientations modified multiple administrations’ intentions to create a globally competitive city. Early attempts to commercialize culture in service to urban redevelopment may have been diluted by the preferences of academically inclined Ibarra officials, but they nonetheless set the stage for businessman Mauricio Macri’s administration beginning in 2007. In the next chapter we turn to this piecemeal evolution toward a more commercial approach to managing culture in three areas of city policy: the preservation and revitalization of the historic center, the institutionalization of tourism as an imperative of local policy, and the creation and promotion of the cultural and creative industries. Each of these sectors would become a new field of public policy as city officials sought out novel forms of investment and oriented these policies to specifically urban redevelopment goals.