“Oh yes, it’s a very cultural city” is a line that punctuated most of the conversations in my first few weeks in Buenos Aires. “There’s so much to do, so much to write about.” And it’s true, there’s an endless and inexhaustible supply of gallery openings, theater shows, tango shows and lessons, festivals and concerts that take place throughout the city each day. Every evening residents are spoiled for choice: gallery opening (with free wine) or milonga? Free jazz concert or physical theater? But with roughly the same number of cultural institutions as London (both cities have around 50 major museums and galleries), it seems that this conversational refrain refers not to quantity but to access. Most things to do in Buenos Aires are free, therefore more people go: the city is more culturally engaged because it can afford to be.
CCK (Centro Cultural Kirchner) and CCR (Centro Cultural Recoleta) are two of the pillars upholding the free cultural life of Buenos Aires. A few weeks ago at CCK, I saw the Philharmonic Orchestra play Gershwin, Copland, Sousa and Persichetti for the first time; I giggled at the coconut-shell percussion which gave Gershwin’s An American in Paris its playful lilt, and I finally learnt what it is that a conductor actually does (in case you didn’t know, they’re not dancing, but keeping musicians in time). In London, this experience would have cost a minimum of AR $300 and up to AR $1000. In New York , something around AR $1700.
A few days later, I saw Jazz Piano Legend Barry Harris hobble on stage, at the ripe old age of 87, and play the music that he had once played alongside Miles Davis. “I don’t remember the name,” he wheezed as preface, before proceeding to sing along to his own song. It was quite a night, and once again, it was free. And what’s more, these experiences are open to everyone, with free tickets released every Tuesday, and available online or at the ticket counters of CCK and CCR. Their new season begins in February, and be quick getting your tickets – events often sell out quickly.
Moving south to San Telmo, every Sunday in Plaza Dorrego, to mark the end of the famous Sunday market, the small square transforms into a milonga. It opens at 6 PM with a brilliant salon-style performance from a professional couple, before the floor becomes accessible to everyone. The music and dancing continue until 9 PM, and once again, its free to participate.
The Usina Del Arte, an enormous power station re-purposed as a cultural center, is another institution offering a multitude of free events. At the moment, for example, you can film your own movie in an installation designed by director Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Participants work in groups of 20 people, with full creative control over all aspects of the project, including gender, title, script, acting and filming, and can take home a DVD of the movie at the end. It’s free, but participants must register here.
Students can also get free entry to the MALBA (Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires) every Wednesday, while everyone else goes half price, and the Museum of Modern Art in San Telmo does free entry every Tuesday. The Bellas Artes Museum (Museum of Fine Arts) is always free, including special exhibitions, and right now you can see ‘Miro: The Experience of Looking’ from Tuesday-Sunday for absolutely no cost. The Botanical Gardens, next to Plaza Italia, are also free of charge year round – just bear in mind that they close if rain is due!
But, you might wonder, who’s paying for these things? All of this (gratis) gallivanting around must have some kick back – someone must be paying Mr. Harris, and the 80 or so musicians who played in the Philharmonic Orchestra, and Björk. The answer is, of course, the tax payer. Argentina has one of the highest tax pressures in the world: 40 percent of the final price of food is tax, and company tax is 35 percent, compared to a regional average of 27 percent. Income tax ranges from 5 percent to 35 percent, with the average at around 20 percent – higher than most countries in the region.
So, enjoy the free cultural scene that Buenos Aires has to offer, but maybe think twice the next time you feel like complaining about the price of a steak or a carton of milk: your food bill is also funding your theater ticket.
For more things to do in Buenos Aires, be sure to check The Bubble’s social calendar – it’s not always free, but it is always fun!