FHB interview with ARACELI PEREDA, President of HISPANIA NOSTRA

As President of Hispania Nostra, Araceli Pereda says that the Foundation’s team of volunteers are simply “obsessed” with playing their part. From the village communities fighting to preserve historic rural chapels, to the President herself – all have found in Hispania Nostra a way to continue protecting our heritage. In the meantime, among ancient deeds, scripts and monuments, President Araceli Pereda encounters the lives and stories of the innumerable, almost fictional characters of the past.


(Translated by ALEX HOSSBACH)

March 2022

I see the press reporting that the Foundation is currently banking on a new institutional agreement to protect our national heritage.

What we’re trying to put across is that the present National Heritage Law has been in force since 1985 and that therefore a broad agreement – beyond political fractions – on its update and reform should be reached. Even the concept of what Heritage is has since changed. At the time, the traditional idea of ‘heritage’ was limited to what we would now call material or physical patrimony. However, national heritage is now a much broader concept and includes other national assets such as landscapes, contemporary and industrial architecture or even subaquatic archaeological sites. For its part, Spain has signed up to many international agreements, treaties and norms with differing legal standing. We believe these should all be reflected in a new piece of updated, national legislation.

Talking about international agreements and norms, I understand that Hispania Nostra is integrated into “Europa Nostra” – an organisation which you represent Spain and within which Hispania Nostra is also represented.

That’s right, we also represent Europa Nostra in Spain. Europa Nostra is the international voice of civil society in the field of national heritage, bringing together over 2000 members from over 40 countries. It’s an organisation made up of smaller organisations, aiming to be a single European voice and awarding prizes for the preservation (of cultural heritage) in the European Union. Said prizes are awarded under a European financial framework and are either formally or informally represented in other international organisms such as the Council of Europe. These institutions are crucial for creating common norms and recommendations, but also to contribute to the wider philosophical debates on the preservation of national heritage. What we’re seeing now is the progressive realisation that taking care of our cultural heritage should be neither solely private nor public endeavour. The preservation of our culture should be a shared responsibility we should all collectively share and contribute to from our respective backgrounds. For example, local administrations are crucial because they are closest to the sites themselves – but so are regional and national bodies. Likewise, without the involvement of civil society and institutions like ourselves – in other words, without the close cooperation of the public-private sectors – it would simply be impossible to get all these projects going. The final, key element might I add is education.

Millennial olive tree of Sènia, Premio Hispania Nostra 2013 y Premio Europeo de Patrimonio – Premio Europa Nostra 2014 © Mancomunidad de la Taula del Sénia

And with regards to everything that you’ve mentioned: where is Spain currently at when it comes to the preservation of our national patrimony?

Each country is a consequence of its own culture and hence the importance given to cultural heritage will naturally vary. You’ll see French villages which are very proud and have such a strong sense of belonging that cultural preservation almost seen as an obligation. This is probably the case in Italy, too. In Anglo-Saxon cultures there has always been a much larger social involvement, something which may have a lot to do with religious values. It must also be said that the situation in Spain is much improved. Since the 1980s, the number of relevant foundations and associations which have sprouted all over the country has been quite significant. There has also been a lot of action in art purchases, “friends of…” foundations; music and theatre companies… All in all, there has certainly been a lot of progress in this field.

Compared to the United Kingdom: what similarities or differences are most apparent?

For us the United Kingdom is a model we will always look up to – the National Trust, that is. The Trust is an organisation with a history which unlike ours goes back a very long way. Nonetheless, with regards to this inherent sense of belonging for the immaterial which I mentioned before, the situation in Spain is fortunately changing for the better and societal participation is on the rise.

Unveiling of a commemorative plaque, Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, Premio Hispania Nostra 2021 @ Juan Jesús Pan

A change which you’ve been able to experience first-hand since you’ve taken the reigns of Hispania Nostra…

Since my arrival we have both grown in numbers and have created a network of four regional delegates. We are all obviously volunteers, myself included. At the moment, we are preparing a series of sessions and volunteers are willingly giving up their free time and contributing with their expertise. The same goes for all the regional delegates because they too spend much of their own free time gathering information for our Heritage Red List, looking for exciting projects for our prizes… for everything, really. What is truly surprising is the truly altruistic spirit of our volunteers – no one ever expects anything in return. We have a highly qualified scientific committee and not even during the pandemic did we stop meeting and working.

Lithica (Menorca) Premio Hispania Nostra 2017 y Premio Europeo de Patrimonio-Premio Europa Nostra 2019 © Teresa Merello de Miguel

Does that mean that everyone is involved in choosing the winning projects?

There are currently three prize categories: so-called positive contributions to landscapes; projects which have a clear social or economic impact (such as a historical house renovated into a hotel or a cinema); and a third for the investigation and diffusion of heritage-related issues. For the European prizes, members voluntarily come forward with proposals of projects which may be eligible for Europa Nostra’s European awards.

The foundation also works towards the preparation and development of the Red and Green Heritage Lists…

Everything that’s on the red list is a priority, but there is also a lot of heritage which isn’t on the list and is also a priority. Sometimes people unfortunately don’t realise we are all volunteers. When I did the first inventories myself, I knew roughly how many sites were yet to be included, but not anymore. Especially because in the current framework a lot of the information is heavily fragmented according to regions. The Red List will probably keep on growing, but fortunately so will the Green List. About 18 to 20% of what was once on the Red List is now on the Green List and I hope that figure keeps on rising.

GREEN LIST・Alquería del Pi Alfafar © Javier Hidalgo Mora

What other activities take up most of your time?

One of the new activities we are now launching seeks to bring together prize-winning projects from each region. What we’ve sometimes seen is that after receiving a prize, the sites are no longer taken care of. Hispania Nostra has to be coherent in our approach to ensure that preservation efforts are sustained in the long term. We want the spirit of the awards to remain even after they have been granted. On another note, we also organise educational sessions on good practices in the field of heritage preservation and we also help out with micropatronage. What we ultimately provide is a platform so that heritage projects have a future. We also edit and publish an annual heritage magazine and have set up an international exhibition which is held all around the world. After all, Spain is the country which has received the most Europa Nostra awards. To celebrate our 40th anniversary we prepared a special exhibition presenting all of the winning heritage projects we have had over the years. It is currently on show in China but we are preparing for the exhibition to be displayed in Europe too: Brussels, the Hague, etc.

MICROPATRONAGE・Iglesia de Santiago Apóstol de Villamorón (Burgos) © Pedro Cobo

After so many awards and with such a large team of volunteers, which do you think is your most pressing project looking forward?

Though yet to be properly defined, I would say our programme to promote education related to cultural heritage is definitely the most important. We really have to focus on two areas. Firstly, we have to help to promote cultural education– a difficult task in itself. Secondly, we have to enhance our heritage’s visibility and accessibility by contacting local and regional administrations, but also national tourism and transport authorities. We have to encourage people to visit our historical and cultural patrimony. In this sense, visibility is essential because people simply take for granted that everyone knows where these places are. Motorways are built, signposts are taken away and turn-offs are not properly indicated. It is often the case that we take on expensive restoration projects but then totally forget about accessibility for the wider public. Visibility and accessibility are in this respect absolutely key.

Which have been the most decisive points of your career up until now? So far you’ve received the Golden Medal for Fine Arts, the National Award for Heritage Conservation and on behalf of Hispania Nostra, the Honorary Medal of the Academica San Fernando…

I first went into conservation because I studied art history. After graduating, I got a job at the Ministry of Education, passed a government concours and was then posted to the Ministry of Tourism. Out of pure coincidence the Ministry for Culture was created in 1976, which led me to the Ministerial Inventory from 1976 up until 1982. A new law was needed to cover the preservation of national heritage, alongside the Academy for Fine Arts – a piece of legislation which had to go beyond ideologies. In 1985 I am then designated Director General for Cultural heritage of the Comunidad Autonoma of Madrid. I’ve never actually done a master’s degree in cultural management – but to all intents and purposes, I probably have! I must say that personally it was a fascinating time. I then moved on to a private foundation before arriving at the Lazaro Galdeano Museum. A truly amazing museum which is still much like it was since its creation back in 1948.

Medal of Honor awarded to Hispania Nostra by Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, enero 2022 © Casa de S.M. el Rey

With decades of history, you must have had a lot of work to do…

It was a project that made me give my all so that the museum’s benefactors were duly acknowledged. I sincerely believe figures such as Lazaro should be publicly recognised, for not only did he donate an extremely important art collection, but he also left behind the funds to maintain it. The institution has indeed been through several crises and yet it has still survived. It was, however, constantly limited by not accepting any external funding other than its own resources.

Despite having donated his collection, his residence and his garden, Lazaro Galdiano is still a largely unknown figure, whereas in the Anglo-Saxon world everyone is very aware of the great philanthropists. It makes me extremely happy to see a project I was so closely involved with still going.

Can you tell us a bit more about this “unknown” philanthropist?

His story is frankly fascinating. Originally from the province of Navarre from the Valle del Baztan, he was to have only one wife (though surprisingly his wife had a total of four husbands). He was the last, as they got married when they were both quite old. She died in 1922 and he in 1948.  His wife, Paula Florido, gives name to Florido Park. She was from Argentina, where she married three men of Spanish origin. First, an Argentinian from the Spanish “Ibarra” family; then a Galician and finally another Spaniard. In his younger days – thanks to family ties – he worked at the Bank of Spain in Barcelona, where he first developed an interest in collecting. He then comes to work in Madrid and must have surely become a very good investor because he manages to buy a house in the expensive Santo Domingo neighbourhood and creates a sort of informal club with guests such as Emilia Pardo Bazan or Unamuno. During this time he also establishes the “La España Moderna” magazine. His investments were so profitable that until relatively recently the foundation was still able to sustain itself independently. At one point he was the second-largest shareholder of Telefonica and the majority shareholder of the renowned Hispano-American Bank. Years later, Paula and Lazaro build the stately home where the Foundation is currently housed. Upon Paula’s death, he moves and lives permanently in the Ritz whilst maintaining all his estate. He spends much of the Spanish Civil War away in Paris and New York where he continues to build his collection.  It also appears to be the case that he had further investment funds in London and New York. Even decades after his death, a representative from a bank in London was to contact me saying that he had a whole portfolio in his name which had been thus far unclaimed.

He was a real character and philanthropist. Is the Foundation still funded through all the estate he left behind?

When he dies he donates all his wealth to the state and Camon Aznar is appointed director of the museum to carry out the first renovations. Enrique Pardo Canales was also director beforeI arrived in 1995. Our aim was to bring the museum back to life. We were theoretically independent financially speaking but then had to take on more staff and expand opening times.

His heirs also had to be given their inheritance for Paula had three sons from her previous marriages. Because his inheritance was proindiviso her children were also entitled to an agreed part of his assets. She came to Spain with them all but they died when they were quite young. Partly inspired by Lazaro’s work, I created a network of collectors’ and philanthropists’ foundations. They are fairly common in other countries and it’s a lovely project which is still very much alive. That was another turning point in my career.

In a way the preservation of cultural heritage can be quite surreal.

Absolutely! There were also quite a few interesting stories when I was the head of inventory at the Ministry of Culture. It was my job to certify all of the items and there was a lot of movement on the black market, particularly when “Erik the Belgian” was around. I would often find myself contacting Interpol to certify that stolen items were in fact the property of the Spanish government, which we then physically had to bring back.

An undoubtedly intense experience…

I have always been extremely passionate about what I do but like with all passions, there is always a hidden psychological cost. In the end, you never achieve as much as you would like to. I have completed many projects over the years, but have left many others aside or sooner than I would have preferred. At the Lazaro Galdiano Museum my hair quite literally began to fall out. I suppose you can only be completely dedicated in such positions…