Public space belongs to everyone. That’s why the latest proposal to expand the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA) must be stopped: its construction would occupy 908 m2 of a public square. The problem here is not the architecture of the carefully thought-out proposal by Harquitectes and Christ & Gantenbein, but its very site. Plaça dels Àngels is one of very few urban-scaled squares in El Raval, the neighborhood with the lowest ratio of public space per inhabitant in all of Barcelona.
If this project goes ahead, a dangerous precedent will be set: the concession of public space for buildings that are not in the public interest. The MACBA is hardly visited by locals; it is mainly a tourist attraction. Even so, its visitor numbers are not very high: in the year 2019, it received a record 357,029 visitors, of which more than half were tourists. The few Barcelonians who do visit this museum come mainly from other, more affluent neighborhoods. There is certainly precedent for building public libraries, kindergartens, and schools in parks and plazas in Barcelona, but such facilities serve a local community, while a contemporary art museum serves a highly specialized global community.
In fact, the MACBA is in many ways a disservice to the local community. Since its inauguration in 1995, it has expanded into several buildings surrounding the Plaça dels Àngels square, including a Medieval convent. Some years ago, it attempted to expand further, into a semi-ruined church, but a group of neighbors physically prevented this from happening and demanded that the church be used to expand the local medical clinic instead; demands to which the city was forced to capitulate. As compensation for this, the city is now giving the MACBA nearly a thousand square meters of La Plaça dels Àngels.
What is it with contemporary art museums? Why all the expansionist zeal? It seems as though “the 1%” are increasingly in need of bequeathing art institutions with ever more (tax deductible!) donations of artworks and galleries. This has become so widespread, that many are starting to see through these efforts at white(cube)washing. Art and real estate are the principal means by which illicit money is laundered, it might also be worth remembering. While this may be good for art and architecture, it’s bad for working-class neighborhoods such as El Raval. Why can’t the MACBA expand into satellite facilities elsewhere in the city and the country, as the MoMA and the Tate have done to great success? Why is it so hell-bent on concentrating all its spaces within a single campus located in the middle of an overcrowded low-income neighborhood?
Under its new directorship, the MACBA seems to be trying to improve its problematic relationship with its neighbors. But to do so while simultaneously stealing public space is arguably not the best public relations strategy. If it is serious about getting along with its neighbors, the first thing MACBA must do is cancel its current expansion project.