The Prado and the World

May 24, 2014
Giambattista Tiepolo
Italian 1696–1770, worked in Spain 1762–70
The Immaculate Conception (L’Immacolata Concezione) 1767–69
oil on canvas
281.0 x 155.0 cm 
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P00363)
Spanish Royal Collection
Giambattista Tiepolo Italian 1696–1770, worked in Spain 1762–70 The Immaculate Conception (L’Immacolata Concezione) 1767–69 oil on canvas 281.0 x 155.0 cm Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P00363) Spanish Royal Collection

In 1982 I paid my first visit to the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Spain was still in the process of awakening from the Franco era, which ended with the dictator’s death in 1975, and its museums were poor and neglected. The Prado was a cold, austere place with a stupendous collection. In a single large room one could see all of Goya’s famous ‘black’ paintings. His clothed and naked Majas were there as well, not to mention The Third of May, 1808, his moving portrayal of soldiers executing rebellious citizens. Then there was Velásquez’s Las Meninas, his intricately composed portrait of the Spanish court – a popular choice among artists for the title of the greatest picture ever painted. There was Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthy Delights, and so many Titians one could watch his style evolve over a sixty year period.

Hieronymous Bosch, 'The Garden of Earthy Delights'

Hieronymous Bosch, ‘The Garden of Earthy Delights’

In those days the Prado seemed aloof and self-contained. It had few of the facilities of other museums – there was no restaurant, and the gallery shop was a perfunctory affair. The Prado gave the impression that it didn’t need to draw crowds, being perfectly confident of its own status. It may not have had the most comprehensive collection, but it owned the very best works by the Spanish old masters, and by the Flemish and Italian painters.

The museum’s holdings were assembled by generations of Spanish monarchs, and that proud, regal aspect remains intact after years of extensive modernisations. No matter how many visitors are crowded into its palatial interiors, the Prado always seems spacious – even in the central gallery, where there is a perpetual scrum of tourists gathered in front of Las Meninas.

Museo del Prado in Madrid

Museo del Prado in Madrid

The Prado has long been the Holy Grail for Australian gallery directors eager to secure the international blockbusters that have become an essential part of the local art calendar. This is why Italian Masterpieces from Spain’s Royal Court, Museo del Prado, may be the most eagerly anticipated show the National Gallery of Victoria has hosted for many years.

Since opening to the public in November 1819, the Prado has been not just a gallery, but a fortress. The building, designed by Juan de Villanueva in 1785, was intended as a showcase for the art treasures of the Spanish court. It also made a case for the importance of painters such as Velásquez and Goya that would prove persuasive to the artists of the late 19th century.

As Spain’s most revered cultural icon the Prado was funded almost entirely by the federal government up until the turn of the century. It had neither need nor inclination to raise revenue from exhibitions or tours. The museum might lend the occasional work for a retrospective at the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but if art aficionados wanted to see the collection there was no other option but to visit Madrid. The Australian gallery directors who came asking for shows were politely rebuffed.

This comfortable position began to be eroded in 2001, when the government of José María Aznar decided that the Prado must raise 50 percent of its own operating costs. This came as a shock to an institution that had become accustomed to seeing itself as a unique case among the world’s art museums. The conservatism of the Prado and its management meant it had not kept pace with many of the innovations embraced by its peers. It had been slow to install proper lighting and climate controls. Its conservation facilities were primitive. The gift shop and cafeteria were inadequate. There was little interest in holding temporary exhibitions or providing an education program.

In the 40 year period leading up to the appointment of Miguel Zugaza in 2002, there had been ten directors, as the leadership changed with each new government.

When the budget cuts took effect in 2003 the Prado had to raise half the money it had previously taken for granted. The only benefit was that the institution gained a greater degree of autonomy. This assisted the incoming director in the difficult task of bringing the Prado into the 21st century.

Taking up the directorship at the relatively young age of 38, Zugaza had the physical presence for the job, being strikingly tall and handsome. As a Basque, he was slightly removed from the mainstream of Spanish culture centred on Madrid. He did not share the view that nothing about the museum could ever be changed.

Despite the budget cuts, Zugaza presided over a modernisation of the Prado that in 2007 saw the museum open a new extension designed by celebrated architect, Rafael Moneo, at a reputed cost of €152 million, stumped up by the government. The extension, which had already begun construction when Zugaza arrived, has allowed the museum to increase its hanging capacity by half as much again, and added a range of much-needed facilities. The cold, imposing building of 1981 has become a more welcoming, user-friendly environment.

The extra space has been one of the catalysts for a range of reforms, such as extended opening hours and a broader exhibition progam which includes projects by contemporary artists. Previously, the Prado had been the exclusive domain of the old masters. The new-look museum now attracts some 3 million visitors a year – roughly double the numbers of the mid-1990s. It’s a reward for what cultural commentator, Juan Cruz Ruiz, describes as Zugaza’s “bravery”.

Such boldness has not prevented the Prado feeling the effects of Spain’s ongoing economic crisis. With unemployment running at more than 25 percent, and cuts being made across the board, the museum has seen its annual allocation drop from €22 million in 2010 to €11 million (ie. AUD$16.4 million) in 2013. By contrast, the NGV receives more than AUD $40 million a year from the state government.

The Prado is not the only great museum to suffer from government austerities. The solution that many have pursued is to send their collections around the world to countries prepared to pay the high fees such exhibitions incur. The most enterprising institutions have sought to open outstations in new territories. Here, the Guggenheim has led the way, transforming itself into a global brand under the leadership of Thomas Krens.

“When you are in the missionary business, which we are,” Krens told The Guardian, “you go where the heathens are.” He was referring to the Guggenheim’s Las Vegas branch, opened in 2001. Prior to that, the Guggenheim Foundation had opened its spectacular Frank Gehry-designed museum in Bilbao in October 1997, while Zugaza was running the Museum of Fine Arts in the same city. As well as the long-established museums in New York and Venice, there was a Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin from 1997-2103, which closed when a joint venture with the Deutsche Bank came to an end. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, also designed by Frank Gehry, is currently under construction, with a projected completion date of 2017.

The Louvre will be opening its own branch in Abu Dhabi in December 2015, with a collection that combines works from the western and Arab worlds. The featured architect this time is Jean Nouvel, who has designed a building that resembles a flying saucer.

Leading French museums have been sending exhibitions around the world for years, usually when their main exhibition spaces are being renovated. This was the case with the National Gallery of Australia’s Masterpieces from Paris of 2009-10 which featured works from the Musée d’Orsay. The NGA was able to boast record attendances but didn’t cover costs due to the high fees and costs involved, and a blow-out of the advertising budget.

High fees are not an issue for the National Museum of China, in Beijing, which is becoming a favourite venue for touring shows organised by European museums. Like the United Arab Emirates, China is one of the few regions that made it through the Global Financial Crisis of 2009 with its spending power intact.

It’s no surprise that the outreach strategies museums are employing in an age of globalisation are centred on those nations that are economically rich but culturally poor. After systematically destroying or selling off much of their own cultural heritage throughout the 20th century, the newly-rich Chinese are now intent on having access to the best the world has to offer. The Gulf States too, have reached a point of development in which the billions generated by oil are being used to build first-class cultural facilities.

One might imagine the Prado would be seeking a foothold in the Middle-East or China, but so far the museum has looked elsewhere. Perhaps it is simply a matter of not wanting to tread on the toes of museums that have already made a mark in those regions, but there is also the desire to find a different audience. A landmark travelling exhibition of 66 works was sent to the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, for three months, in 2011. At the end of that year 170 items from the collection of the Hermitage were exhibited at the Prado.

The next touring exhibition of 100 works, titled Portrait of Spain, was sent to Brisbane in July 2012, before travelling on to Houston, Texas. Why Brisbane, of all places? With a population of little more than two million, and a state premier who didn’t even bother turning up to the opening, it seems an unlikely choice over Sydney or Melbourne. Indeed, Australia itself seems improbable, even allowing for the fact that we are wealthy enough to afford such exhibitions. It denotes a degree of confidence in the ability of Australian audiences to appreciate the value of the Prado’s collection – and not just in monetary terms.

The two main reasons seem to be the strategy pursued by Art Exhibitions Australia, the international touring body that sources and co-hosts exhibitions at Australian public galleries; and the personal endorsement of Miguel Zugaza. Where AEA outsmarted their Australian peers who had asked for shows and been turned down, was by working with a well-connected museum consultant, Mahrukh Tarapor. Born in India and educated at Harvard, Tarapor joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983, and would rise to the position of Associate Director of Exhibitions, in which capacity she negotiated loans for some of the Met’s most ambitious exhibitions.

From 2006 to 2009 she was the museum’s Director of International Affairs, expanding relationships beyond Europe, to include the Middle East, Asia and Australia. Since then she has worked as a freelancer, helping to connect one international venue wth another. There can be few individuals so throughly familiar with the inner workings of the Metropolian, the Louvre, the Prado, the National Gallery in London, and a host of smaller museums.

Tarapor was able to open doors for AEA. It was up to director, Carol Henry, and her predecessor, the ageless Bob Edwards, to secure the project. At this stage, AEA was working closely with the Queensland Art Gallery, who had proven to be a more enthusiastic and reliable partner than its counterparts in other states. There is a constant perception among the major galleries that they should be able to pin down major international exhibitions all by themsleves without having to share revenues.

The only problem is that over the past two decades AEA has built up global networks that none of the museums can match. Tony Ellwood, who was then director at the QAG, realised that Brisbane had much to gain by working with AEA rather than setting up obstacles. It was his task to go to Madrid and make the pitch for the Prado exhibition, pleading the QAG’s case as a young, dynamic institution that would provide an excellent showcase for the Spanish masterpieces. Zugaza responded positively, enjoying the idea of working with an up-and-coming museum that was working hard to build audiences.

Now installed as director of the NGV, Ellwood has continued the collaboration with the Italian Masterpieces exhibition. In Brisbane, Portrait of Spain drew a respectable 111,830 visitors, but Melbourne can expect much bigger numbers.

Every gallery director dreams of huge attendance figures, if only to please their political masters. There is, however, a sense in which attendances and revenues are of less importance than the quality of the viewing experience. This is one of the reasons the Prado has sent two out of three travelling exhibitions to Australia rather than following the money trail to China and the Middle East. The choice partly reflects Zugaza’s distaste for the “excessive commercialism” that is infecting the international museums.

While Zugaza may have entrepreneurial flair, he also possesses a stong sense of the dignity of the institution. “The museum is not an amusement park,” he told Art News, “and certainly not a casino.” One suspects he finds something faintly vulgar in the phenomenon of major museums building postmodern art palaces in the gulf states. The money may be there, but is there an audience?

In June 2012 he told a university group that “the dangerous thing would be for the Prado to change its approach for economic reasons.” He stressed the importance of qualitative factors, rather than numbers. “With these factors we draw a line in the sand that prevents us from tarnishing the main mission of this important institution.”

To put this in a local context, when the NGA boasts that Masterpieces from Paris attracted more than 470,000 visitors, it tells us little about the actual quality of the show. It has become a habit to try and dazzle audiences with statistics when the only thing that really counts is the work and the presentation. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney posted attendances of 382,739 for their Harry Potter show of 2011-12, and no-one could make a case for the quality of the work.

To Zugaza and his curators, Miguel Falomir Faus and Andrés Úbeda de los Cobos, it is a matter of honour to put together an outstanding exhibition. Most of the works are drawn from the museum’s permanent display, not simply taken out of storage for the occasion. The selection of 70 paintings and 30 drawings reflects the Spanish Court’s love affair with Italian art, particularly Titian, the so-called “father of the Prado”, who is represented by five paintings. The earliest piece is The Virgin and Child between Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Roch (c.1508), the latest is the allegorical picture, Religion succoured by Spain (c.1572-75).

 

The museum is sending important pieces such as Antonio Correggio’s Noli me tangere (c.1525), and Raphael’s Holy Family with Saint John (c. 1516). There are also major works by Tintoretto, Veronese, Guercino, Lotto, Reni, and Tiepolo – father and sons. Another notable inclusion is The hunt of Atalanta and Meleager (1634-39) – the Prado’s largest painting by Nicolas Poussin, the master French Neo-Classisicist who spent much of his life in Rome.

There is a simple reason why the Prado has such a wealth of Italian masterpieces: it reflects the taste of the Spanish monarchs, who saw Italy as the centre of world art. Titian (c.1488 – 1576) was the undisputed favourite, being official painter to the Emperor Charles V, and his son, Philip II. Other Italians such as Federico Zuccaro and Luca Giordano, would travel to Spain to pursue lucrative commissions on behalf of the Court. The talented Spanish artist, Jusepe de Ribera, chose to live in Naples, where he felt his talents would be better appreciated by Spanish patrons who had a pronounced preference for Italian art.

Melbourne is getting the chance to see these paintings because Miguel Zugaza has followed his instincts in pursuing a relationship with Australia. There are good economic reasons to look elsewhere, but the bottom line for the Spaniards is not an entry on a spreadsheet. We may feel appreciative of the works, but also of the reminder that a museum is not a roadside attraction but a place of complex inspiration.