The "lost opportunity" of public museums that once again bet everything on the "blockbuster" model

A "clearly questionable" model. This is how Pepe Serra defined two and a half years ago, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the path to success that public museums had taken. The director of the National Museum of Catalonia (MNAC) is one of those responsible for the future of these cultural institutions, but he was not the only one who raised his voice against a commercial drift that overflowed the ticket offices and put the machinery to the limit . The sale of tickets is the first source of income for a museum: the Prado Museum collected 22.6 million euros at the box office in 2019 and 3.2 million visitors, both historical figures. That means that almost 8,900 people visited the museum daily (on Holy Saturday, 14,333). Until that year, the Prado contributed 73% to its annual budget and subsidies, the rest. For Miguel Falomir, director of the Prado, the ideal is for the State to reach 40% and reduce the need to mount blockbusters.

In full confinement, with the museums closed, there was no museum director who did not express relief at what seemed to be the end of the race for audiences with large exhibitions of very high cost and short duration, designed to attract the public in a timely manner. The paradigm of this model were the temporary ones dedicated to El Bosco (Prado, 2016) and Dalí (Reina Sofía, 2013). Those responsible who had fed the rain of tourists changed sidewalks and assured that the tourist museums "would suffer to rediscover their purest soul, far from commercial and material interests", as Miguel Zugaza assured. The specialist and curator of the National Museums of Berlin, María López-Fanjul, warned that at that time we were experiencing the end of the tyranny of record numbers of visitors, "in favor of a museum experience focused on the well-being of the public".

"It has been a missed opportunity," Pepe Serra sums up and settles, almost three years later. "We have not dared to think. We have lacked courage. There is too much caution and not much daring. And if we want to be socially legitimized, we will not achieve it by turning the rooms into a blockbuster show. Museums cannot depend on cruise ships arriving, because a The museum does not depend on tourism. We have lost the opportunity to debate it and the Administrations do not want to debate it either because they come out badly", laments Serra.

Julia Pagel is the Secretary General of the Network of European Museum Organizations (NEMO), an organization that acts as an umbrella for more than 30,000 museums in Europe. During the health crisis they closely monitored the situation of these institutions. Pagel believes that museums "have understood that their successful museum is as vulnerable as our society." They have passed a pandemic but are going through others, she indicates, such as "the dangers that threaten democracy, the growing social gap, the climate crisis or exponential technological development." That is why Pagel believes that they need new information processing and decision-making techniques, new financing models and new internal roles. "Without acquiring new skills it will not be possible to respond to global challenges," she stresses.

In her reflections she is hopeful and offers a very different perspective from the drift that Spanish museums have followed. She is convinced that they have understood that in order to remain relevant in the future, they must review their operations, their tasks and their mission. "Museums are more than just cultural spaces: they are meeting places that provide public spaces in increasingly commercialized cities or in regions with poor infrastructure," she says. This description does not coincide with the path taken by Spanish museums to get out of the crisis.

During COVID-19 they showed that they can be places of learning, health and social support, now museums "must not forget learning". In fact, they were "more innovative and resilient than we thought and than they themselves thought." In addition, "they have learned that they can make a difference in contemporary social changes." And he points out one of the fundamental lessons that seems to have been completely erased in Spain: "With the reduction of tourists in their facilities, I think that museums understood that their nearby communities are the backbone of their existence. In fact, our survey COVID-19 showed that the local community has played an essential role in museums, which is why I think there will be fewer temporary exhibitions, but more ways to engage with them."

The Spanish reality does not coincide with Julia Pagel's analysis. The new normality has given way to the old and the museums have run to the positions they reneged on during confinement. High-cost temporary exhibitions are back, pushed by the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Pablo Picasso. Once again they go hunting and capturing the platoons of tourists prior to the health crisis and, for the moment, they cannot find them.

The Reina Sofía Museum confirms this projection. In 2019 temporary spending was 3.8 million euros (and 16 exhibitions). In 2020 and 2021 the investment was two million euros (with 7 and 9 temporary respectively). In 2022 the expense has risen to three million euros and eleven exhibitions. It will be the same number of exhibitions that are inaugurated in 2023, but with a planned budget that will grow to 4.5 million euros. Transport has increased its cost, insurance too. Going back to the previous model seems to be the worst idea for the sustainability of public institutions.

Director Manuel Borja-Villel believes that the health crisis "has undoubtedly marked a before and after in the visibility of fundamental questions about our modes of existence." For the director, the post-covid time is characterized by being a moment in which "different models come into tension". That is why Borja-Villel believes that these institutions are going through "a foundational reconfiguration of the conception and work of museums". Although he clarifies that "it is not a question of denying or abandoning the exhibitions but of profoundly reconfiguring the processes that constitute them", he explains.

In Borja-Villel's opinion, the program of exhibitions and activities organized by the museum today "shows that the model installed in the success of audiences and big names is being replaced by a more anonymous and participatory task in which care and affection are fundamental, questioning the devices themselves". The director of the Reina Sofía Museum gives the exhibitions of Alejandra Riera or Maquinaciones as an example. "At the Reina Sofía Museum we are committed to the model of collaboration and social participation, with new scenarios in which representations and ways of doing and feeling are challenged," he says.

However, in October the Reina Sofía Museum will present Picasso 1906: the great transformation, a controversial exhibition based on the discoveries that the painter from Malaga made in the summer of that year in the Pyrenees (in Gosol) on Romanesque and Iberian art, essential in the change that led him to paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).

For the same Picasso splendor, the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum proposes Picasso and Chanel, which will cost a million euros for "special transport" and almost 200,000 euros for assembly. It is the first blockbuster that will arrive this season at the museum managed by Carmen Cervera and directed by Guillermo Solana. In fact, the Thyssen is the public institution that is allocating the most money to temporary exhibitions. It has not waited for 2023 to break the barrier of four million euros: in 2022 it will spend 4,066,516, they indicate from the museum.

The public institution, managed by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, receives an annual non-refundable amount from the State, depending on the expenses generated. No other public museum has this prebend. In 2013, the Court of Accounts demanded from the Ministry of Culture greater control of the expenditure of this museum and to introduce "control mechanisms on the amount of the endowable deficit".

After the curious look at Picasso and fashion, there will be an exhibition that Solana has longed for since 2013, the one dedicated to the painter Lucian Freud (1922-2011). That year it was the Prado Museum that was supposed to mount this blockbuster, but it announced that it could not bear the cost of its transportation and assembly due to the economic recession. Then the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao kept it. Now, with skyrocketing inflation and the war in Ukraine, the Thyssen will open another retrospective on Freud in February and will pay almost 800,000 euros for the "special" transportation of the 60 works. Before it will open its doors at the National Gallery in London. Until the end of October they will not have the forecast of spending on temporary exhibitions for 2023, which could exceed 4.5 million euros.

These figures contrast with those managed by Pepe Serra at the MNAC: in 2019 they invested 1.2 million in temporary exhibitions; in 2020, €400,000; in 2021, 1.7 million euros; and in 2022, 1.3 million euros. For its part, the Prado Museum has contained spending in 2022 at 2.4 million euros. In 2019 they were 4.3 million euros and in the years of the health crisis they spent 2 million euros (in 2020) and 2.2 million euros (in 2021). The expenditure forecast for 2023 is not closed but an item of one million euros has already been designated to organize the packaging and transport of the works that will form part of Guido Reni and the Spain of the Golden Age from March. transport, another 270,000 euros must be added to pay for assembly and disassembly.

The utopia posed by reflecting on the exhausted museum models and looking at the samples through research rather than through spectacularity barely lasted the months of confinement. Sustainability sinks below these numbers of spending on temporary exhibitions, despite having been exalted in the new definition of museum approved by ICOM. Two years ago Pilar Fatás, director of the National Museum of Altamira, told us that sustainability is a term contrary to mass cultural consumerism. This idea has not caught on in the Spanish reference institutions. "We have changed and programmed a lot since the collection, we have reduced the formats and we are more sustainable," says Pepe Serra. If Spanish society tightens its spending belt, if the maintenance of museums has skyrocketed, as this newspaper already advancedWhat will museums do to keep up with society?

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