One of these new points of call is the Patio del Liceo, home to five new galleries and several artists’ and designers’ studios as well as hair and make-up salons, a photo studio, and a radio station, among others. Situated on Santa Fe Avenue, the Patio’s tall wooden door, painted red, opens into a wide corridor. After just a few meters two staircases take visitors to the upper levels, centered around the open yard below. With its traditional structure, based on the layout of a typical Buenos Aires high school, this space now provides new focus for the city’s young gallery and design scene.
Located on busy Avenida Santa Fe, in the center of a commercial area, the former school grounds have more than a few stories to tell. According to legend, they used to serve as a cemetery during the British invasions of 1806 and 1807 – and the same spot also saw several teenage suicides. While these anecdotes remain undocumented, we know that a wealthy family donated the spot for school-building purposes, resulting in The Liceo de Señoritas Nro.1 (Number 1 Girls’ High School), which remained open until the end of the 1980s. According to a nostalgic neighbor, quite a few “bad girls” attended this school, conjuring up images of teens in white pinafores, Argentina’s public school uniform, enjoying a secret smoke at the entrance.
When the school was moved in 1989, the building itself was sold and remodeled to serve as a shopping mall. To this end, the former classrooms were divided and converted into shops, while the smaller upper level yards received glass ceilings, and the stairs became escalators. Divided among 50 shop owners, efficient management soon proved tricky to impossible. By 1994, it became clear that the project had failed: Without a minimum of maintenance, basic services like power and running water had stopped and many tenants refused to pay the rent. Hernán Taraman, a trained lawyer and now the main owner, tells of sheltering criminals and neighbors afraid to enter the building. And with increasing problems, the price of leases bottomed out.
Faced with this dire situation, Taraman turned to the potential of artists for adding symbolic and economic value to a building dubbed the “ghost gallery” by other businessmen. He admits that many shop owners had considered contacting a construction company to tear down the school and replace it with a modern apartment or office block. In this uncertain climate he started to buy shops at low rates and now commands enough votes to head the decision-making process.
In order to stabilize the situation, described by him as a squat, he decided to evict everyone who refused to pay a minimum rent. “While I started these evictions,” he says, “and without my particular knowledge, Nicolás (Barraza) moved his graphic design studio here, into the space that would later became the Mite gallery. And Marina (Alessio), his partner (and co-director of Mite), opened Purr, a bookstore that specializes in art. I didn’t know them, I didn’t understand what they were doing, and I simply wondered who these people were and why they had come.”
Nicolás Barraza joined the Patio del Liceo in 2007 because he wanted to open a studio in a shop “just in case something came up.” Before renting today’s Mite premises, it apparently took him a whole month to locate the building’s owner. “This used to be like one of those Berlin shopping malls, all trashed, abandoned and decayed. We liked it that way. It wasn’t like this by design – the walls weren’t covered in stencil or street art – but that was the general feeling. You came in and saw rubble and squatted shops. There was nothing, nothing happened, everything seemed possible. At the same time, it used to be, and still is, a very peaceful and quiet place.” Other galleries followed suit: Central de Proyectos, Studio 488, and Pasto and Fiebre, also dedicated to young contemporary art. A tiny museum, La Ene, joined the ranks in 2010 and now offers artists from all over the world residencies and exhibition opportunities. Mercurio, a record store that deals directly with musicians, followed only last year. As record prices are low, the shop also offers guitar and painting lessons. Most of the projects on display combine exhibitions, classes, music, and parties.
Taraman carefully considered the suggestions. Once he had understood how the art scene works, he decided to provide the right context. Beyond improvements to the building itself he takes into account how artists tick: As they rarely rent shops or deal with complicated bureaucratic issues, he does not require any guarantees and manages the contracts directly, avoiding intermediaries or potential stumbling blocks like real estate agents, deposits, long-term commitments, or extra costs. “This place is going to be written about in art history books,” he says proudly. “We have set up our own small world here and we have to take good care of it. Such a meeting of minds is a rare thing indeed. I know that I could raise the rents, but I also know the limits imposed by many projects. If I ask for more money, they will leave and I that is not what I want. That’s reality. I have to find a balance, doing right by my tenants and allowing them to keep their projects without forcing them into something more commercial.”
Since 2008, things have been changing, slowly but surely, at the Patio del Liceo. Along with other shops and an open bar the Bookshop Purr and Green’s, the clothing store, has moved to the ground floor, while offices and studios tend to stay upstairs. Gradually, the former school and squat has become a strange, but natural habitat of its own on Avenida Santa Fe. A tranquil retreat within the surrounding turmoil and activity, it remains an island and oasis for kindred souls.
Text by Gabriela Schevach
All photos, incl. the header image, by Lena Szankay