Casas de Cultura in Cuba: “Empowering communities to access, consume and create culture”

Interview with Agustín Adrián Pérez, Vice-President of the National Council of Casas de Cultura, published by La Jiribilla magazine.

If you ask a Cuban about a cultural centre in their town, they will most likely mention the Casa de Cultura (‘House of Culture’), as today these institutions have the greatest social and popular presence in the artistic field.

“Our Casas de Cultura respond to the social mandate to meet the need for open access to art and culture, to the process of making art as well as appreciating it. In fact, the Casa de Cultura is the first place to go for arts and culture”, Agustín Adrián Pérez González, vice president of the National Council of Casas de Cultura (CNCC), explained in an interview for La Jiribilla magazine in Cuba.

Agustín Adrián Pérez González, vice president of the Cuban National Council of Casas de Cultura (CNCC)

There are currently 349 institutions across the island. “In some areas there is a library that may not be able to provide services due to the deterioration of its facilities, but there are still the culture and art instructors, and a cultural program that contributes to generating opportunities for access to culture”.

Even in the most remote places there are activities such as the ‘Cultural Guerrillas 50th anniversary’, the travelling theatres from the amateur artists’ movement as well as support to develop creative events from within the communities.

For many years, the strength of the national network of Casas de Cultura has been to lead and support sociocultural initiatives and projects. “[The Casas] exist so that more people, no matter where they live, can access and participate in cultural processes,” says Pérez González.

This is complemented by the work of the art instructor-teacher, the sociocultural promoter (people who live in and work for the community), together with the various other cultural institutions, organizations and artists and writers that feed into these initiatives. The work of the network is planned so that the work of the other institutions has an even broader reach.

Casas de cultura take a role in promoting amateur theatre in remote areas of the island. Photo Yaymara Villaverde/ACN

Some people argue that the Casas de Cultura are only useful for the people that live nearby and that not all of them are well equipped in terms of the building or the resources. Is that true? What strategies do you have for countering that?

“The Casas de Cultura are not separate, they are not immune from suffering from deterioration and the effects of the economic situation that Cuba is experiencing. Currently, of the 349 Casas we have, 10 are closed due to an advanced state of deterioration of the building. However, their social role in the community has not stopped and they are continuing to provide these services in alternative places offered by other cultural institutions locally.

” For many years, the strength of the national network of Casas de Cultura has been to lead and support sociocultural initiatives and projects.”

“Over the last four years the CNCC has worked to deal with these specific cases – the pandemic and difficulties in travel have affected this – but there has been an awareness and plans made especially by local governments, to invest in the repair of these Casas de Cultura.

“We have positive experiences in Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Ciego de Ávila and Matanzas. In these territories there were institutions in poor state of repair and the local governments included the repair of these Casas as a priority in their plans. They understood the importance of the Casa de Cultura and the place it occupies in local life”.

The vice president of the CNCC recognizes that there have also been difficulties obtaining materials, mainly in visual arts supplies and musical instruments. “During the last three years, materials have been purchased and distributed by the CNCC itself, in conjunction with Cuban companies such as TecnoEscena, the Factory of Musical Instruments of Havana and the Cuban Fund of Cultural Goods to distribute materials for non-professional visual arts groups, groups of the Amateur Artists Movement and groups that promote Cuban traditions. Last year the Traditional Popular Culture grant was awarded to the three Tumba Francesa groups (music/dance genre in Eastern Cuba) and they were given an amount of money to renovate their changing rooms”.

The three Tumba Francesa groups were given a grant last year to renovate their premises.

The Casas de Cultura in eight provinces were provided with new audio equipment, via TecnoEscena. In addition to this, through international collaboration projects and the management of one-off donations, distribution of AV equipment has been made to Casas de Cultura all over the country, to be used in their music, dance and theatre workshops.

“The CNCC, supported by the provincial culture departments and in alliance with companies at national and provincial level, has worked to reduce the effects a bit. It is still not enough. There are many problems accumulated over the years, but we are working through our development program to be able to reverse this situation before the year 2030”.

How, do the Casas de Cultura take art to the most remote corners of the island? What activities and festivals stand out?

“To regenerate the cultural programming and promote and stimulate the work of the Amateur Artist Movement, different spaces, events, contests and festivals have been created. For example, the Olga Alonso Theatre Festival, which is based in the town of Fomentos in Sancti Espíritus. After more than 20 years, today it is the most important site for the promotion of the work of non-professional theatre in Cuba. Another example is the theatre festival ‘Between the curtains’, in Pinar del Río.

“We create spaces for socialization and generational exchange.”

“Similarly, the dance festival in Villa Clara; the ‘Jornada Cucalambeana’ in Las Tunas, which, at 53 years old, is one of the most solid platforms to promote rural traditions in all their musical-dance splendour, including culinary traditions. More recently, the Blanca Becerra Festival has been incorporated from Bejucal, Mayabeque. Likewise, we have in Ciego de Ávila the National Popular Art Fair that takes place every two years.

“Little by little, many areas have been taking action and creating events – on their own initiative and with the support of government structures. Such is the case of the Tierra Buena Festival, in Tacajó, Holguín, which is becoming becomes an event in the east of the country that is generating spaces for socialization and promotion of the traditional Cuban repertoire, while at the same time is encouraging and giving voice to the local Amateur Artists Movement.

“Of course, there are others, such as the Choir Festival, the Rueda de Casino (salsa dance) Festival and the contests ‘Donde crece la palma’, ‘Cuba que linda es Cuba’ and that is carried out in conjunction with the Cuban Libraries Network, ‘Leer a Martí’”.

“To regenerate the cultural programming and promote and stimulate the work of the Amateur Artist Movement, different spaces, events, contests and festivals have been created. ” Bayamo, Cuba

How important is quality in the CNCC’s cultural programming?

“Quality is one of the fundamental dimensions, or the main one, when conceiving and producing cultural programmes, in order to contribute effectively to the consumption of culture.

“We must ensure what the audience of a cultural product receives is marked by quality, and at the same time by promoting the most indigenous, of the cultural essences of the nation, is how we respond to that fundamental mission of contributing to the development of comprehensive cultural education for all audiences”.

Considering Cuba has an ageing population, what strategies are carried out to directly serve this sector?

“The Casa de Cultura system is working to generate spaces that are specifically designed to function to meet the needs of the older population, who want ways to use their time productively and through art, for free.

“Quality is one of the fundamental dimensions, or the main one, when conceiving and producing cultural programmes, in order to contribute effectively to the consumption of culture.

 “We create spaces for socialization and generational exchange. There are many years of experience of care at our ‘Hogares de Ancianos’ (care homes for the elderly) and ‘Casas de Abuelos’ (day centres for the elderly). There we give workshops and develop cultural activities, not only with art instructors, but also promoting the Amateur Artists Movement, itself composed of senior citizens.

“Today the development of the ‘Amigos del Danzón’ clubs in the Casas de Cultura and the presence of the elderly in the arts and crafts groups is very strong; also in music.

“Do those spaces need to grow? Do they need to be more fine-tuned? Can they be made more interesting to attract more people – to encourage them to leave their home and spend their free time learning and socializing in our institutional space? Yes. But it is also a reality that right now the Casas de Cultura provide special, targetted and prioritized attention to this part of our population”.

How important is promotion in the work of the Casas de Cultura?

“The role of communication and its link to programming is vital, starting from the principle that no one turns up to a cultural activity they don’t know about.

“One of the fundamental challenges that the CNCC has had in the last five years is precisely to consolidate a communication strategy that is capable of making the voices of our artists and users heard and that can create bridges of knowledge with the wider population about the work of the Casa de Cultura system.

“In our institutions we do not abandon the traditional physical cultural billboards as one of the fundamental spaces we have to promote what events and workshops are coming up. We also place posters in other places of influence [including online] to advertise the events.

“Recently, we have used the mass media more. The creation of territorial television channels and provincial and municipal stations are also a strength.

“The arrival of COVID-19 has made us rethink communication models used a long time ago, that were abandoned and that today are being used again like radio programmes. Also, the rise of new technologies and digital platforms have allowed us to create profiles on the different CNCC platforms. We have more than 250 Casas de Cultura with a presence on social networks.

“We want this communication process to also be able to build and educate ideologically from culture. It is not communicating for the sake of communicating, but understanding its role in forming social conscience ”.

The system of Casas de Cultura gives the possibility that, in addition to becoming a consumer of culture, people also become a protagonist, an actor, a creator. “Each of our institutions works for that latent need to make art; our express objective is to form audiences from the community”.

Link to original interview in Spanish published by La Jiribilla