- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

MADRID — Miguel Zugaza, the recently appointed director of Madrid’s Prado National Museum, has a problem. “The Prado today is more a museum for foreigners than it is for Spaniards,” he observes. “Sixty percent of the museum’s visitors are tourists: Spaniards make up barely 30 percent.”

At a time when U.S. tourism to Europe is down, way down, there are worse problems for a European museum director to have. Last year, more than 1.8 million visitors toured the Prado to see Spain’s most celebrated masters — El Greco, Velazquez and Goya.

Enraptured visitors gazed at Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” — the portrait of the Princess Margarita having her portrait painted — trying to unravel the visual complexity of one of the great masterpieces of Western art.

Mr. Zugaza’s other enviable “problem” is that he is in charge of a huge $320 million Prado restoration and expansion program that, when completed in 2007, will double the size of the museum to 72,000 square yards.

Then there’s the fact that he has taken over one of Europe’s leading museums at age 37, making him the Prado’s youngest director ever, and among the youngest heads of any top European museum.

Mr. Zugaza is the hunk at the Prado — good looking, charming and soft-spoken. Even his credentials are respectable, if not overwhelming. He was formerly director of the Museo de Bellas Artes, the good provincial museum in Bilbao, and before that, deputy director of Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum of contemporary art, home of Picasso’s famous “Guernica.”

The Prado is without question Spain’s most famous tourist spot. Mr. Zugaza wants the tourists to keep coming, but he talks about the importance of “extending the museum’s relationship with the Spanish public. If you think of the Prado as a history of art, there are huge gaps, but it is part of the nation’s cultural heritage,” he says during a recent interview.

“The direct experience of looking at art has no equal,” he continues. “We talk about the public [visiting a museum], but in reality there is no public. There is the reaction of each individual in front of a work of art. Each viewer establishes a special relationship with a work of art.”

The Prado principally houses artworks commissioned or acquired by successive Spanish kings between the 16th and 18th centuries. The royal collection was given to the nation, and eventually housed in the Prado, built for the purpose as a national museum, and completed in 1819.

Mr. Zugaza suggests that Spaniards take the Prado for granted because for decades the setting was gloomy and boring. Also, not enough people realize that the old galleries have recently undergone a major transformation. Natural light has been introduced. Programs are being devised to capture the country’s attention.

To lure more Spaniards, the new director plans more blockbuster exhibitions drawing on the Prado collection and bolstered by art loans from other institutions and major collectors. The Titian exhibit that opened in Madrid last week, and the earlier, hugely successful “Manet and Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting” exhibition now in its closing days at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, were joint initiatives with the Prado.

He calls them “a dry run for next year” when the new Prado extension intended to house such temporary exhibits will be completed. Still to come this year is “Manet at the Prado,” from Oct. 7.

Designed by Spanish modern architect Rafael Moneo, the new extension will officially open with an exhibition of Spanish portraiture from Velazquez to Picasso.

Then in 2007, the Prado hopes to introduce the public to its second extension in what used to be the Spanish Army museum nearby.

The Prado currently shows 10 percent of the works in its permanent collection, the rest being kept in storage. By international standards, this is already a high proportion: the National Gallery in Washington, for example, has about 2 percent of its collection on public display. Once the second extension is completed, even more of the Prado’s art treasures will emerge from the shadows into public view.

Mr. Zugaza’s model for an ideal balance of foreign-to-national visitors is London’s National Gallery, where attendance is a three-way split of one-third London residents, one-third Brits from elsewhere in the country and one-third foreign tourists.

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