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June 14, 2020

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Intimate viewing of artworks, cash crunch as Prado reopens

A moment of almost total silence contemplating Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” is the rare opportunity offered by Madrid’s Prado museum as it reopened its doors to a handful of visitors last week, three months after it closed due to coronavirus outbreak.

In its vast central gallery bathed in natural daylight, Spain’s biggest museum has put together more than 200 paintings in a new exhibition called “Reunion” that will run until September 13.

Ana Garcia, one of the museum staff tasked with guarding the celebrated painting, said the reopening will offer people a unique opportunity to get close to artworks often crowded out by visitors.

“It’s a luxury to be alone with ‘Las Meninas’,” she said of Velazquez’s 17th-century canvas depicting the young princess Infanta Margarita, with her ladies in waiting (“meninas”), wearing tight corsets and wide-hooped skirts.

The gallery where the painting normally hangs is “the room that is most visited by big groups,” said Garcia, who was wearing a mask and a plastic visor.

With famous museums shuttered across the globe because of the pandemic, the Prado is reopening a month earlier than the Louvre in Paris, along with the city’s two other big museums — the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen.

But as Spain progressively rolls back the mid-March restrictions imposed to slow the virus’ spread, the museum is reopening with a limited capacity of only 1,800 people per day compared to 15,000 on peak days last year, director Miguel Falomir said.

Although the pandemic is now well under control, it has claimed the lives of more than 27,000 people in Spain, including the head of the museum’s finance division.

“We decided to open part of the museum but to distil down our collection, as if we had used an alchemist’s still,” Falomir said. “The Prado is a museum famous for its concentration of masterpieces, so we’ve increased that even more and have managed to extract an exquisite perfume — the best of the best.”

Visitors can spend as long as they wish viewing paintings such as “The Adoration of the Magi,” an oil-on-wood triptych painted by Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch at the end of the 15th century.

And for the first time, the 17th-century canvas of “Saturn Devouring His Son” by Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens is showcased next to Francisco Goya’s version of the same subject painted nearly 200 years later.

Tickets are only available by booking 24 hours in advance, agreeing to a temperature check at the entrance and wearing a mask throughout the entire visit.

Falomir, who has been at the helm of the museum for three years, had previously expressed concerns about how a drop in footfall would impact the 200-year-old museum that last year attracted a record 3.2 million visitors.

“If the crisis that seems to be coming lowers the number of tourists, we will have a problem,” he told El Mundo newspaper in October.

The Prado receives half of its funding from ticket sales, and 70 to 80 percent of its visitors are foreign tourists.

“I was thinking more in terms of an economic crisis,” he said. “Obviously I couldn’t have guessed there would be a health crisis, but I’m sorry my words were in some sense prophetic.”

The epidemic and the resulting closure has cost the Prado around 7 million euros in lost income, but it’s banking on making the most of its permanent collection without relying so much on inter-museum loans.

“I have also said the era of ‘blockbuster exhibitions’ is drawing to a close, and I think this (pandemic) will accelerate that,” Falomir said, adding it would complicate the cross-border movement of artworks.

The cost of putting on big exhibitions by grouping works from different countries “was already going up before the virus hit, and I suppose new insurance clauses will make them even more expensive,” he said.

As a result, he sees big museums trying to make more of their permanent collections. “It will take a while but tourists will once again fill up the museums,” he said.



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