Cultural Revolution: The Chavez Government Attracts Attention for Its Social and Political Programmes, Yet Its Effect on Venezuela's Art Scene Has Been Just as Striking

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Venezuela's Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts) took a rare cameo role in the international spotlight recently as Hugo Chavez donned a sombrero and launched an exhibition on the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. As Zapata's daughter, now 93, awarded the president with a medal for his services to social and political change, he said he felt "awash with honour". In the days before the launch, staff had worked round the clock to give the museum, built in 1974, a much-needed makeover. "I think it's great," said a worker as he scrubbed one of the creaky lifts. "No other president ever bothered to visit the museums."

Chavez's appearances at Venezuela's art museums may be few and far between, but they are definitely strategic manoeuvres. The Zapata exhibition received unprecedented media coverage as the state-run Venezolana de Television channel broadcast adverts every 15 minutes announcing: "The revolution has reached Mexico!" The exhibition was part of a week of official celebrations last month named La Semana del Bravo Pueblo ("week of the courageous people"), designed to commemorate Chavez's return to power after he was briefly ousted in a coup in April 2002, and also to bolster morale in the run-up to November's regional elections. Back in 2006, just weeks before the presidential elections, Chavez snipped the ribbon at an exhibition on the Venezuelan independence fighter Francisco de Miranda. Building work at the Galeria de Arte Nacional (National Art Gallery), a project that has been in the pipeline for 20 years, was rushed though so that two of the three floors could be used for the show. When it ended a few months later, the gallery was boarded up and construction abandoned until it creaked back into action in mid-March this year.

While constant media attention is given to Chavez's social programmes and his controversial nationalisations of the oil, communications, steel and cement industries, the Bolivarian Revolution's effect on the cultural sector has been a little-reported phenomenon. Yet the changes are no less striking. The creation of a ministry of culture in 2003 introduced an entirely new bureaucratic framework to implement policies that aim to widen access to cultural activities. A national network of bookshops, cinemas and galleries is being set up, and Caracas is now home to a state-of-the-art printing press and a film-making complex that seeks to rival Hollywood. In oil-rich Venezuela, money is no object. Between 2006 and 2007, the cultural sector's budget rose by 33 per cent. This year the culture ministry will spend nearly $18m ([pounds sterling]9m) on a film by Danny Glover; the eight Caracas institutions that make up the Fundacion de Museos Nacionales (National Museums Foundation) will have a budget of [pounds sterling]12m and additional funds to set up three further museums, while regional cultural activity will be financed with some [pounds sterling]18m. And this is just a selection of the projects.

Though few would complain about the influx of resources, bitter tensions have risen in the past as the museums have increasingly come under the tutelage of the state. In 2001 Chavez used this weekly TV show, A16, Presidente, to fire-in public--Sofia Imber, co-founder and director of the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (Museum of Contemporary Art), and Maria Elena Ramos, director of the Museo de Bellas Artes, along with heads of other arts institutions. The move was justified as a necessary purge of the "elite" who were controlling the arts in Venezuela, which would pave the way to making everyone feel the museums were part of their national heritage, and not just that of a minority group.

From her office inside the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Parque Central, a residential complex in downtown Caracas that houses several thousand people, Zulevia Vivas, president of the Fundacion de Museos Nacionales, defends the move. "Our museums were being run like commercial galleries by individuals who just put on exhibitions of their friends' work. …