Works by Goya or Velazquez at first seem a million miles from the vocabulary that abounds – ‘market position’, ‘public/private partnerships’ and ‘sectors’ – yet, as the speakers explain, these terms are becoming fundamental to preserve and develop the role of a museum in modern times. For Baan, the key is the provision of authenticity. “We are keepers of the past; the world is changing very fast,” he says. “How can we give values to the younger generation? Libraries will change totally; you won’t need to go to a library to read a book. But if you want to see the Mona Lisa, to experience authenticity, you have to go to the Louvre.”
Gabriele Finaldi, Tom Chivers and Laszlo Baan. Photo: Jeff Wiseman
Gabriele Finaldi, who previously worked for London’s National Gallery, joined the Prado in 2002. “We deal with how we interpret the past at the present time,” he adds. “In the old days we said that people visited twice – once with dad, and once with sons and daughters – but by creating rich exhibitions, we create the sensation that unless you visit often you’re missing out on important things.” Despite the recent financial upheavals, he believes that the museum’s founding ideals from the 1820s remain the same: preserving identity, engaging the public, education and the diffusion of knowledge.
A current challenge is marketing a museum’s valuable and important work, and presenting a case to politicians, public sponsors and companies for assistance with development and progress. The timescale of European politics, however, makes planning for the future a rocky path. “Politics is a short-term job,” says Baan. “Every four years politicians have to win an election, and it’s not easy if you can’t give them short-term benefits.”
Part of the hardship being faced, as Finaldi points out, is that museums and the service they provide are “difficult to quantify in financial terms.” It’s much easier for culture to become a priority in times of plenty, but to lose its priority when money is harder to come by. When he joined the Prado, the museum was two-thirds publicly funded, and one-third privately. Now, the situation is vice-versa. “It’s a significant shift,” he says. “We’re in a transitional phase.” In fact, the Prado’s annual accounts would be released a few days after the discussion, and would highlight problems.
As an example of the importance of art in a time of crisis, he draws on the story of London’s National Gallery in 1941, when the city was under the strategic bombing of the Blitz. “All the Gallery pictures were removed to a slate mine in Wales,” he explains, “but there was a public outcry. People were saying ‘we need our pictures’, and so Kenneth Clark, the Gallery director, accepts the cultural necessity and arranges that one picture is brought to London each month.” Every night the picture was taken to safe storage; but it satisfied the public demand and suggests that even in the worst of times cultural desires need to be nourished.
Potential can be found in the right strategy, particularly in mixed public/private partnerships, of which British museums have been at the vanguard. “As state funding has rolled back, private funding remains stable, with a small number of large benefactors rather than a large number of small ones. The model of a State-owned and State-funded museum is finished in this part of Europe,” says Finaldi. “In Spain, it’s going to be a mixed model. We’re in a period of cuts… but we have to argue that we are contributing to the net benefit from tourism and to the economy.” He also emphasizes the museum’s prestige, conservation work and research, the necessity to continue to offer times for free entry, as well as the art of diplomacy. “At the British Museum, they recently held a conference with Iranian specialists – two countries with political tension can come together to examine a millennial history that unites them both.”
Both speakers put their money on a bright future. “We have to be optimistic,” concludes Baan, and Finaldi agrees by verbally painting an enviable scene in the Prado. “We can exploit the virtual world, and we can also be exploited by it, but we can make the case for standing in front of Velazquez’ masterpiece ‘Las Meninas’ as the sun goes down, and say that it’s a unique place to visit.”