Spain museums adapt to survive budget cuts

Spain's top museums are raising entry prices, opening for longer hours and sending works abroad in touring exhibitions in a scramble for new revenue to offset steep government cuts to their budgets.

Spain's conservative government has slashed spending on culture by nearly 20 percent this year to 722 million euros ($940 million) as part of the steepest budget cuts since the country returned to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

The cuts, aimed at reining in Spain's public deficit, have prompted various survival strategies by state-funded museums such as the Thyssen-Bornemisza, which displays works by artists such as El Greco and Pablo Picasso in an 18th century palace in central Madrid.

"We have to maximise the museum's capacity to generate revenue and therefore what we have to do is get more visitors and ensure consumption increases," Evelio Acevedo, a former banking executive who was appointed a year ago as the museum's managing director, told AFP.

The Prado, Spain's leading art museum, will receive 30 percent less state funding this year. The Reina Sofia, home to Picasso's 20th century masterpiece "Guernica", will get 25 percent less and the Thyssen-Bornemisza 33 percent less.

The cuts, combined with the loss of the Thyssen-Bornemisza's two main corporate sponsors last year, have put the museum "in a very complicated financial situation" but the success of its temporary visiting exhibitions last year helped it weather the storm, Acevedo said.

A three-month exhibition of paintings by US artist Edward Hopper drew 322,421 visitors to the Thyssen-Bornemisza, making it the most viewed temporary exhibition in the museum's 20-year history.

The museum's strategy is to stage shows by popular painters like Hopper that are sure to draw art lovers alongside shows that appeal to people who do not usually go to art museums, such as an exhibition of jewellery from the Cartier Collection that wrapped up last month.

Among the items on display were the jewels Princess Grace of Monaco wore for her official wedding photographs in 1956 and a ruby and diamond necklace that once belonged to film star Elizabeth Taylor.

Charlotte Casiraghi, Grace's granddaughter, attended a star-studded gala dinner at the museum in October to inaugurate the exhibition which drew widespread coverage in Spain's glossy celebrity magazines, helping to attract visitors.

"It went really well. It has been an interesting experiment because it stepped out from the field of painting. This attracts visitors who traditionally don't come," said Acevedo.

The Cartier exhibition, which wrapped up on February 17, drew 101,531 visitors, helping to boost the museum's overall visitor numbers last year to a record 1,255,281.

In other efforts to keep the visitors coming, the museum will later this month launch a new cafe terrace that is open to non-visitors.

It already rents out its lobby and other rooms after hours for receptions at a cost of up to 50,000 euros.

In January the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum started opening its doors to visitors on Mondays, following the example of the nearby Prado which in January 2012 also began opening seven days a week.

Last month the Prado -- the home of masterpieces by Francisco Goya and Diego Velazquez which received some 2.8 million visitors last year, about the same number as in 2011 -- raised its entry price by two euros to 14 euros, its third hike in less than two years.

Sending works abroad is another strategy for increasing revenue.

A 14-week exhibition of over 100 works from the Prado's collection which explores the evolution of Spanish painting from the 16th century will wrap up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas on March 31.

The show "Portraits of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado" received 112,000 visitors when it was staged for the first time last year at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Australia.

Prado director Miguel Zugaza said the institution would always be guided by cultural, not financial, criteria when loaning its works -- a sensitive issue for museums charged with defending cultural heritage.

"In no case will we go to the market to offer exhibitions to the highest bidder," he told reporters during a presentation of the Texas exhibition in Madrid in December.

Museums have also stepped up their hunt for private donors.

The number of individual members of the Foundation of Friends of the Prado more than doubled to 22,831 last year from 9,132 in 2010.

Members receive free entry to the museum and access to private events in exchange for yearly donations of up to 3,000 euros.

The foundation provided the museum with just over one million euros last year.

"The foundation is important because it constitutes a wide base of support for the museum and we want it to become wider and wider," said its spokeswoman Gemma Rosua.

The Reina Sofia museum inaugurated its own non-profit foundation in November last year to help raise donations. Its patrons include several wealthy Latin American and Spanish entrepreneurs.

But since Spain does not have a longstanding tradition of private sponsorship of the arts and few tax incentives for donors like those which exist in Britain and the United States, raising money is not easy, said the Reina Sofia's director Manuel Borja-Villel.

"It is another culture, there are other laws. It is another world," he told AFP.

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