Making a More Modern Prado

Negotiating political changes and budget cuts, director Miguel Zugaza has brought Spain’s notoriously old-school treasurehouse into the 21st century

The Spanish economy, as the world knows, is mired in recession, with a collapsed real-estate market, a shaky banking system, and an unemployment rate nearing 30 percent. Every level of government is strapped for cash; austerity measures continue to be implemented across the public sector; and in a nation where nearly all cultural institutions are dependent on government funding, the arts have been particularly hard hit. Some museums are having to deal with 70 percent cuts in their operating budgets.

Not even Madrid’s venerable Prado Museum has emerged unscathed: in recent years the Spanish Ministry of Culture’s contribution to the museum’s €38 million ($51 million) annual budget has been halved, from €22 million ($29 million) in 2010 to €11 million ($14.5 million) in 2013. Yet despite the cuts, the Prado has managed to adapt, obtaining new sources of funding and scaling back some projects while maintaining others. It has achieved record attendance, with nearly 3 million visitors per year. In all, it’s a delicate balancing act for which the museum’s director, Miguel Zugaza, is widely credited.

Director of the Prado Museum Miguel Zugaza in front of the restored painting The Agony in the Garden, ca. 1408, attributed to Colart de Laon ©MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO

Director of the Prado Museum Miguel Zugaza in front of the restored painting The Agony in the Garden, ca. 1408, attributed to Colart de Laon


The 49-year-old Zugaza—tall, disarmingly suave, and overtly proud of his Basque heritage—has presided at the helm of the museum since 2002. During this period, the Prado has experienced physical and administrative changes unparalleled in its 200-year history: it rewrote its administrative statutes in 2003, radically changing its internal operations, and in 2007, added a Rafael Moneo–designed extension that increased its size by 50 percent. It has also added key new departments and modernized its operations, with a development office; expanded press and public relations programs; a well-functioning website; extended opening hours; a world-class conservation studio; and a high-level education program. And, it has introduced modern and contemporary shows to its hallowed exhibition halls.

“I’ve been going to the Prado since 1958, and what Miguel has managed to do would have been unthinkable until only recently,” said professor Jonathan Brown, a Spanish-art specialist at New York University. “Before, it was basically a huge, wonderful warehouse of Western painting with absolutely nothing of what you would expect a museum to provide. I can’t think of any major museum that has reinvented itself to the extent the Prado has.”

Marc Roglán, director of the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a former curator at the Prado, agrees. “The Prado has become a completely different place under Miguel,” according to Roglán. “He’s like a great orchestra director; he knows how to talk to everyone, the politicians, the administrators, the curators, the educators. He gets the best out of all of them—and he gets what he wants, too.”

Even the fact that Zugaza has led the museum for eleven years is an achievement: in the 40 years before his arrival, the museum had ten directors. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art has had only nine in its 140-year history.) Accounting for much of the turnover was the fact that the Prado had been directly dependent on the Spanish Ministry of Culture, and the museum’s directors were replaced whenever the federal government changed hands.

For this reason, few long-term planning initiatives could gain traction, leaving the Prado in a static condition that seemed intrinsic to its institutional DNA. For example, prior to 2003, the museum could not make any independent decisions regarding staff changes or budget allocations without going through torturous bureaucratic procedures. So, while museums around the world had been modernizing their operations and expanding their audiences, the Prado often seemed lost in time—with no public toilets until the 1960s, no air conditioning until the ’70s, no microscopes in the conservation lab until the ’80s, and no temporary exhibition program to speak of until the ’90s.
The 2003 change in administrative statutes established the Prado as an autonomous entity, still funded by the federal government but freed from direct supervision. As a result of his increased autonomy and leverage, Zugaza can now count among his most widely acclaimed achievements the staff he has assembled—in particular, Gabriele Finaldi, deputy director of the museum—and the development of a world-class conservation studio under the aegis of Enrique Quintana, chief of the paintings restoration department, housed in the Moneo extension.

From left: Francisco Pradilla’s Juana la Loca, 1877; Lorenzo Vallés, The Madness of Juana Castile, 1866; Alejandro Ferrant, The Burial of Saint Sebastian, 1877.  Center: Agustin Querol, Sagunto, 1886. ©MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO

From left: Francisco Pradilla’s Juana la Loca, 1877; Lorenzo Vallés, The Madness of Juana Castile, 1866; Alejandro Ferrant, The Burial of Saint Sebastian, 1877. Center: Agustin Querol, Sagunto, 1886.


“I sincerely believe that what is most important for the Prado at this stage is bringing in the best curators, conservators, educators, etc.,” Zugaza says. “By bringing in people like that—which can also mean finding and training them at the museum itself—we enhance and enrich what is already one of the world’s most magnificent art collections.”

“In many ways, Miguel is similar to Philippe de Montebello, whose great strength at the Metropolitan was to identify the appropriate person for a given position and then leave that person a certain autonomy to implement his or her vision,” says George Bisacca, a conservator at the Met who has collaborated with the Prado since the ’80s, restoring works such as Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross (ca. 1435). “The biggest challenge during such modernization is to maintain high academic standards and to coax the public into a higher level of engagement with the works on display rather than be sidetracked by electronic gadgetry and souvenirs in an attempt to attact a wider audience. Miguel understands this risk.”

Given the museum’s straitened financial situation, Zugaza has had to put on hold a plan to incorporate the nearby 17th-century Salón de Reinos palace into the Prado’s constellation of exhibition spaces; the construction of a state-of-the-art storage facility; the public- ation of a glossy magazine; and certain planned large-scale exhibitions, such as a Lucian Freud show. But at the same time, the Prado has not had to lay off any employees—a point Zugaza is at pains to emphasize. It has also been able to maintain one of his most cherished projects, the new research center as well as its annual scholar-in-residence program led by figures such as Jonathan Brown, Salvatore Settis of the Scuola Normale Superiore de Pisa, and Manuela Mena, chief curator of 18th-century painting and Goya at the Prado. Zugaza points out, “Universities train art historians, museums train them to be curators.

“The Prado is not an amusement park, and certainly not a casino,” he says. “We have the great art already—education is what will carry us into the future. We don’t have to modernize everything all the time to get more people into the museum. We do better by having a more informed public, a public that truly appreciates these treasures and returns to appreciate them again and again.”
Art and art museums are a part of Zugaza’s family background. His father, Leopoldo Zugaza, is a well-known Basque cultural figure who cofounded the Photomuseum of Zarautz. Zugaza himself did predoctoral work in art history at Madrid’s Complutense University, specializing in modern and contemporary art, but left to join his family’s cultural-consulting business. In 1994, at age 30, he was named deputy director of the Reina Sofía Museum, and in 1996 he took over as director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbao, where he remained until joining the Prado.

Zugaza is known for his even-handed managerial style and gift for achieving his goals without ruffling feathers. However, on the subject of Guernica (1937), which Picasso willed to the Prado but which is currently housed in the Reina Sofía Museum, he holds a controversial position.
“When you think about the future of the Prado, someday the 20th century will inevitably be incorporated into the collection, just as the 19th century was,” Zugaza says. “And when that happens, it will obviously mean Picasso. In fact, I think Picasso should be here already, as the end of the Prado’s collection. And it will obviously mean Guernica. Sooner or later, Guernica will claim its place within the grand history of art that the Prado Museum tells. Not to mention that it was the artist’s own expressed desire.”

George Stolz is an ARTnews contributing editor and Madrid correspondent.

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