Museum extravaganza in Madrid

Expansion will end the era of 'two faces' - the public collection versus the stockpiled 'stash.'

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Three of Madrid's leading museums are linking arms, in a manner of speaking, to increase their appeal to visitors and tourists. The Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums have each embarked on ambitious renovation and expansion that, along with improved pedestrian access, promise to raise the Spanish capital's cultural profile.

"This is a nationwide project to improve all of Spain's museums," says Marina Chinchilla, deputy director of the body that manages Spain's public museums.

Madrid joins other cities that have created, or are in the process of building, unified museum districts. The Culture Ministry is overseeing the project, which involves three separate architectural firms. The government will contribute 188 million euro (about $245 million) to the project. The city has agreed to create a wide, tree-lined path from the Thyssen to the Prado and the Reina Sofia, which is expected to be completed some time next year. When finished, the Paseo de Arte, or Art Walk, will be located along the Paseo del Prado, part of the city's major north-south artery. It will make the area more pedestrian-friendly.

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Ambitious museum complexes are popping up around the world. The move is toward bigger and better facilities and amenities, including exhibition space, restaurants, theaters, gift and book stores, and offices. Other European sites include Berlin's Museum Island, London's Museum Quarter, and Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum.

In total, the Madrid renovations will add about 700,000 square feet for display space and visitor amenities. Most important, the larger space will enable the museums to display a greater number of works that until now have languished in storage.

The goal, says the government, is to create more space for the collections that had to wait to be displayed as temporary exhibits.

The first stage of the Art Walk launched last June, when the 16-gallery Thyssen Museum enlargement opened with 200 paintings that the Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza and her late husband, Baron Hans Heinrich, had acquired since 1993. Many of the Thyssen paintings unveiled, including works from Fragonard, Corot, and Picasso, have never been part of a permanent exhibition. The new collection unites 17th-century Flemish work with an array of 19th-century North American paintings.

The Prado, Madrid's home to the Old Masters, will expand from the original 1785 building into three additional structures. The Prado opened its doors in 1819 as the Royal Museum of Painting and Sculpture and throughout the century, it absorbed the art belonging to Spanish monarchs who reigned from the 16th to 19th centuries. The major holdings include those of two royal painters, Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya. Of Velázquez's 100 or so works, the Prado holds 50. The museum is also home to many works by Spanish Golden Age painters and boasts numerous works by Greek transplant to Spain, El Greco.

About 1.75 million visitors trek through the Prado each year. Director Miguel Zugaza says the museum estimates this number will increase to 2.5 million once the expansion in complete.

The first phase of the 71 million euro ($93 million) enlargement project involves construction of a modern annex behind the Prado, which will include new galleries and the restored cloister of the adjacent 15th-century Los Jerónimos Church. The new structure will be linked to the original Prado by an underground level that will also include a lecture hall, temporary exhibition galleries, and a cafe.

Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, who designed the Los Angeles cathedral and the enlargement of the Houston Fine Arts Museum, is leading this first phase. The purpose for the annex and the cloister is to liberate space in the original building, especially around the ground floor's central entrance and back apse, both of which have been closed to the public. Visitors now enter and exit through doors on both ends of the building.

"The fundamental idea was to recover the use of Velázquez's Door, which was the original entrance to the museum," says Pedro Elcuaz, an architect on Mr. Moneo's team.

Museumgoers are hoping the expansion will end the era of the Prado's two faces: The permanent collection and the so-called Prado oculto, the Prado's "hidden" stash. According to some estimates, only 5 percent of the museum's works are on display.

"The expansion is very important because the museum only shows a small percentage of its collection and this will allow people to see so much more," says Salvador Salort, a professor of art history at Madrid's Complutense University who is now moving to Dallas to become the curator at the Meadows Museum of Spanish art. "For example, the Prado has the largest collection of 17th-century Italian art outside Italy. Now, hopefully, it will be on display in all of its splendor."

Because the construction is taking place behind the original Prado, the ongoing expansion work does not affect visits to the museum.

Down the street at the Reina Sofia, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró will soon have new neighbors. The mass of steel and scaffolding will soon transform the former 18th-century general hospital into a state-of-the-art complex, including a library capable of holding 250,000 volumes, a restaurant, and a 450-seat auditorium.

French architect Jean Nouvel, who is also working on the Museum of Tribal Art in Paris and the Museum of Art and History in Geneva, is leading the 79 million euro ($103 million) expansion that will add about 290,000 square feet to the 12-year-old museum.

With Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" as the centerpiece, the collection at the Reina Sofia ranges from Impressionism to Pop art. The museum has a catalog of about 10,000 works of art, including those by Juan Gris, Joan Miró, and Antoni Tàpies.

"Guernica," Picasso's 1937 masterpiece that captures the violence of the Spanish Civil War bombing of the Basque town of Gernika, did not appear in Spain until 1981 - the artist would not allow it to be shown in Spain while dictator Francisco Franco was in power.

The Reina Sofia expansion is nearly finished. It celebrated one building's reopening last June with exhibitions by Roy Lichtenstein and Salvador Dalí.

"These projects represent the modernization of the museums," says Fernando Checa, who directed the Prado between 1996 and 2001. "These are not only physical enlargements, but they are also projects that will raise awareness of culture and the arts to the general public."

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