Sunday, May 19, 2013

Too broke, or too disorganized, to keep the national gallery open

The Honduran National Gallery of Art locked its doors this week.
The government hasn’t provided any money since January. Staff haven’t been paid since November. They finally quit coming to work, and now management has chained the doors and started packing away some of the works.
The gallery is good. We visited, looking to kill time in Tegucigalpa, the capital, and liked it.
It’s in a 450-year old convent, a beautiful two-storey building with an open courtyard. There are about six galleries, and they cover art in Honduras from pre-Columbian carvings, through the religious art of the Spanish era and into the contemporary scene. There is a nice auditorium, and gardens in the courtyard.
The displays are basic, but that adds to the power of some work, especially the religious paintings and spectacular silver from the colonial-era churches.
I gave it a glowing review on TripAdvisor.
It’s a bad sign, I think, when a government can’t make the budgeted payments to the national gallery. It’s not even big money; gallery managers say $45,000 would be enough to open the doors and get through the next four months. The total annual budget is about $135,000.
None of this is surprising. Stories of government employees going unpaid for months - teachers, health workers, anyone - are regular features in the newspapers. Sometimes, it seems the government simply can’t get its act together to issue the cheques. Sometimes there is no money. (Sometimes, I’m sure, the employees’ claims are bogus.)
What’s surprising, for a North American, is that people keeping showing up for work for months without getting paid.
Mostly, that’s what happens when people really need a job and have no other prospects. You keep on heading into work, hoping some day that you’ll get some of that back pay and the regular wages will start flowing. Why not? There is nothing much else to do.
But it might also reflect a cultural value of just accepting life’s blows and keeping on. (Written down, that looks practically noble; in practice, it look more like learned helplessness.)
The failure to pay people also illustrates another problem. Hondurans talk a lot about ‘impunidad’ - the ability of some people to ignore laws without consequences. 
Honduras has a fine set of laws and regulations. They just aren’t enforced.
There are legal minimum wages, for example, based on the nature of work and size and location of company. But employers can ignore them without fear of consequences. Or they can simply refuse to pay people for months at a time.
It’s new to be in a land where the government doesn’t have the money to pay the bills. Canadian governments, even in deficit years, can borrow whatever they need to cover budgeted costs.
The Honduras government can’t do that. Tax exemptions and evasion are widespread, so revenues are low. The domestic borrowing market has been tapped out, and foreign borrowing is difficult and interest rates are high. Some months, there just isn’t enough money to cover costs, or pay salaries. And, eventually, people get fed up.
A national art gallery isn’t essential. (Though Tegucigalpa has few attractions for visitors - a couple of other museums, a great nearby national park. The gallery could be a draw. And it is a refuge just a few blocks from the central square and the quite ratty downtown - the neglected office buildings call up the end years of the Soviet bloc.)
Government could even have decided to close the gallery’s doors to save money in tough times.
But it didn’t. The Finance Ministry just failed to send the promised money, month after month.
And, finally, the national gallery closed its doors, for who knows how long.