QAthena wings, Athena for her friends, Minerva for the Romans, is at the root of the word ‘athenaean’, which specifically derives from Athenaeum, temple of Athena. It is still curious that the goddess who gives name to a type of association oriented to the dissemination of knowledge, be it scientific or literary, was simultaneously goddess of war and wisdom, both, look where, leading actresses in the most recent history of the Madrid Athenaeum.
The institution -private, it must be remembered- born in 1820 and that in its moment of maximum splendor came to have more than 8,000 members and to be the scene of conferences of the great protagonists of its time, type Marie Curie either Albert Einstein, It was very (very) very weak every two centuries after its creation, with a monumental debt (it lost 150,000 euros a year), an unfinished work ‘in aeternum’ that kept the building (in the Barrio de las Letras) practically closed. , a each of partners plummeted (they reached around 1,600, when in the 80s they boasted 6,000) and turned into a temple consecrated to the past, curled in on itself, against its own essence (to which in 1835 Cnovas del Castillo It was referred to like this: Our institution is not only about pastime (…) but about high sense and social spirit; work, in short, of progress and civilization).
Nor should we overlook a very visible invisible detail; that by then, 2020!, Athena’s daughters were still conspicuous by their absence in the Athenaeum. In the 187 portraits of illustrious members that adorn its walls could be seen at that time 86 mustaches and only one bun, the one of Emilia Pardo Bazn, first woman admitted as a partner, in 1905.
And then, when it seemed that nothing remained ahead but a slow drowning in its own sauce, came the pandemic. And with it, the desire to do things, and of these, the disembarkation of a group of people, calling themselves Group 1820 and led by the sociologist Luis Arroyo, willing return the club to its time (come on, this one) and to polish him with bronze and prestige alike. What they didn’t count on was that his arrival would unleash a real war between Athens that has lasted until today, with joints where the only thing missing was knives piercing the air; so much bad vibes that in 2022 Arroyo told our colleague from El Mundo Ana del Barrio that he does not understand so much hostility.
Today, and the meeting held on October 11 left subtle evidence of this, it seems that the waters are beginning to flow less turbulently along their channel. The Ateneo is doing well -ha cleaned up accounts, increased the number of members, which now stands at 2,237 (832 of which, 37%, are women), registers totally full in the events which it hosts, and Arroyo’s group takes charge of its management (they won the 2021 elections). But there are still wounds to heal and a gap between old and new partners to be bridged so that the Ateneo rules properly. The one who strives to contribute to sewing two women to which They separate ages and trajectories very different, but unites authentic fervor attends. They represent the anti-ageist, egalitarian spirit and open to society of the intellectual club with the most pedigree, which now claims to also be the sexiest.
Since his proud 80 years, he has had a privileged vision of the Ateneo, where he already came to study – and also flirt, he trusts. Silvia Escobar- in the 60s. In those years, and despite living in full Francoism, the Ateneo seemed to us a place of freedom. In Madrid it was the place where you had to come to to debateto hearto study (your library a magical place to concentrate, perfectly preserved, is the second most important in Spain after the National). There were fewer women than men, of course, but there wasn’t a men’s club atmosphere at all, he tells me in the Cacharrera, the institution’s gathering room (so called because at a certain point in its history it housed a collection of Greek vases disparagingly known as cacharros).
Silvia Escobar’s resume does not fit here, but it points out: she was founding partner and first president of Amnesty International in Spain (from 1976 to 1982), and also ambassador in Special Mission for Human Rights. Today he works as vice president of Helsinki Spain, NGO that deals with teaching human rights at the university level, and in the Athenaeum is vice president of the Ibero-American Section.
It was not until the 80s that Silvia Escobar became a member of the Ateneo. The end of the Franco dictatorship had released the virus of enthusiasm in the world of culture and this large-scale contagion nourished new members to the Ateneo, which experienced renewed splendor during these years. It was a resurgence, Silvia remembers; It became a place open to culture again, and not just to literature, she explains.
However, After the 90s, something disconnected between the Ateneo and society. Something that ended up worrying Silvia Escobar and many other partners. I went councilor of the Central District of Madrid from 1999 to 2003 in the opposition with Fernando Morón. And I remember having made an intervention in a plenary session of the City Council, it would have been 2001, in favor of the Ateneo, because things were already very bad. And I said something like it was a ‘sacred place’ – imagine the adjective I used – and that it couldn’t be left to die.
Silvia was a member of the Governing Board of the Ateneo for only two years, just before the pandemic. I felt comfortable, and I had good friends on the Board. But what seemed terrifying to me were the numbers, the financial disaster. For this reason, he explains, I experienced the arrival of Group 1820 as a moment of hope. A group of new people who came with the idea of cleaning up finances seemed to me, well… As he told me Martin Ennals (general secretary of Amnesty International from 1968 to 1980) on his visit to Madrid at the end of the 70s, ‘money is essential for any organization’ (Money is essential for any organization). That said, she adds conciliatoryly, there are also very valuable people among the opponents of the current junta, is that so… So? Where do the confrontations come from? Well. The thing is that people, to begin with, don’t like changes, they grant diplomacy (of course).
You walk in here and you notice something of that special magic of the Athenaeum, he says. Marta Sanz,first vice president of the institution, work that she carries out altruistically and that she combines with her work as director of the Special Solutions production team in Atresmedia. Why did he get involved in this thing, one that undoubtedly brings magic to his life, but also some ten-fold annoyances? You have to rewind a little to understand it. Until May 11, 2020, the second day of Phase I of the de-escalation after the Covid confinement, when we were finally able to go outside and sit, excited, on a terrace. I went to eat with a friend and it turned out that she was with Luis Arroyo (the current president) and Pepita Marn (first secretary). They told us that they had passed by the Athenaeum, entered it, like two tourists, and had been amazed. Then they began to wonder if something could not be done here.
This is how the Ateneo bug, as she herself calls it, crept into Marta Sanz’s neurons. I didn’t think about it and joined in. We came to be interested and they told us that if we wanted to do something We would become partners. And we did. Afterwards, if we want to participate we will create a grouping. And we did it. Later, when we wanted to change things, they told us to go to the elections. There are two wins.
But some of the former partners did not read the new situation in terms of good vibes… And when Arroyo won the elections in May 2021 with the stated objective of modernizing the institution and starting to talk more about the living than the dead …it got messy. Clashestripping and endless meetings filled with disqualifications (fascists, dictators and even thieves they called them) became the new normality of the Ateneo to the despair of the new managers. What we wanted was to contribute our grain of sand, we never thought ‘we are going to end up on the Board of Directors’, says Marta Sanz. What we were looking for was be part of this, help prevent it from falling into oblivion.
Today the vice president shuns any expression that sounds divisive. Deny that the confrontations of the past are a train crash between generations -In fact, our project has excited many former partners, who are now more active than ever. She is determined to add, and observes with some relief how tensions are softening (I think everyone has already realized that the wolf is not coming…).
Activity has multiplied, venue rentals are going from strength to strength, canteen It has been recovered as a gastronomic space and the number of members now exceeds 2,000 – the four presidents of the Government (living) have become quota members, she says proudly. Scandalized that only one woman was represented in the Pictures of partners, the new manager launched the campaign ‘Women in their place’, thanks to which they are already on the walls, together with Pardo Bazán, Carmen Laforet, Clara Campoamor, Carmen de Burgos, Elena Fortn and Almudena Grandes (and many more on the way). Now it’s time to continue growing, knowing that the occasional shower will fall – but I don’t get discouraged easily, because I’m a Capricorn, Marta Sanz jokes. And she concludes: In any case, what we all agree on here, even with our differences, is that this is a space of freedom, and that the protagonists, The center of everything is the partners. They make the Ateneo. In 1820. And now too. By the way: do you want to become a member?