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Prado president
Eduardo Serra

The Prado in Madrid

Ousted Prado director
Fernando Checa

New Prado director
Miguel Zugaza

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

The Reina Sofia National Museum in Madrid

Spain's National Sculpture Museum
Upheaval at the Prado
by Ysabel de la Rosa

In his three years as president of the Prado's ruling body Patronato, former defense minister Eduardo Serra has converted the 182-year-old museum into a well-publicized conflict zone and earned a reputation for being more minister of offense than defense. The Patronato is a 30-member advisory body, which functions somewhat like a board of directors with significant approval authority in acquisitions, renovations and expansions, and other matters. The Patronato president is appointed by the Spanish president; in this case, José María Aznar.

Believing the Prado to be behind the modern-museum times, Serra issued a call for modernization when he came on board in 1999. According to Serra, modernization meant more visitors, a minimum of 32-percent private or self-generated funding, and more control of operations by the Patronato, specifically the Patronato's president. All of this sounded reasonable until, as Goya once predicted, the dream of reason produced its monsters.

The first "monster" started innocently enough as a consulting job. Serra hired a consulting firm to conduct a study and produce a written evaluation with recommendations for modernization. Museum insiders say that Serra gave the firm instructions on what to write in the report, a report which Serra then used as the basis for a proposed law granting special powers to the Patronato and its president while minimizing the museum director's authority and executive powers.

The art community responded quickly with protest from all corners, the strongest objections coming from the Socialist Party. President Aznar postponed the law's presentation for three months and agreed to a "dialogue" with key cultural figures from the ruling party, the Partido Popular, and the Socialist Party. The dialogue never occurred. The statute will soon come to Congress for discussion and a vote.

Meanwhile, back at the museum, Serra established direct working relationships with curators and scheduled meetings to approve and fund art acquisitions. He also spoke at seminars and press conferences, representing the Prado. This might be considered admirable, except for the fact that Serra neglected to either inform or include museum director Fernando Checa in these "official" Prado activities. Then, in November of 2001, after giving Checa 24 hours' notice, Serra moved into the director's office and moved Checa out.

At this point, Checa had not been fired or officially asked to resign, but continued working in his job quite literally outside the museum.

Battle-weary, Checa tendered his resignation on Nov. 27, 2001. Minister Castillo formally accepted the resignation a week later, after having assured the press the day before that "all these differences can be worked out if we just stay calm."

Serra immediately began his search for the "ideal director." (Some sources say the search began well before Checa's resignation.) Serra first looked to Miguel Zugaza, the 37-year-old head of Bilbao's Museum of Fine Arts.

Five years ago, Bilbao's Museo de Bellas Artes risked being overshadowed by the grand Gugg. Zugaza, a Basque native with a Ph.D. in art history and two years' experience as assistant director of the Reina Sofia Museum, was hired to revitalize the 80-year-old museum, oversee its $19-million expansion, and spice up its traveling exhibitions. The expansion was completed last November, and the praise given Zugaza for a job well-done was unanimous.

Serra offered Zugaza the Prado job, but Zugaza turned it down.

Serra then met with 56-year-old Jesús Urrea, former Italian painting curator for the Prado and director of Spain's National Sculpture Museum in Valladolid. Urrea appeared to be an equally strong candidate, and one with more curatorial and management experience on his resume. A Ph.D. art historian and professor, Urrea is currently overseeing the National Sculpture Museum's long-needed $43-million remodeling and restoration. Serra offered the job to Urrea, and he indicated to the press that he would accept.

Then Zugaza changed his mind. After saying on Dec. 12 that he would stay in Bilbao, on Dec. 13, he announced he would go to the Prado after all, sending shock waves through the Basque cultural community. Serra's offer to Urrea was suddenly null and void. Urrea was suddenly unavailable for comment.

Why did Zugaza say no the first time? Since the Prado is a museum-goer's dream and a museum director's nightmare, reasons are many. The Prado's current $56-million expansion project, although approved and underway, is a source of great controversy and conflict. The 407-member staff is famous for its infighting and territorial skirmishes. Eighty-nine of those staff members are tenured and untouchable. The director's every move takes place under government eyes. (Checa's predecessor as director, Alfonso Pérez Sánchez, was forced to resign because he signed a politically incorrect petition against U.S. bombing in Iraq, for example.)

On a personal level, Checa was one of Zugaza's professors and served on Zugaza's museum board. To his credit, Zugaza had serious reservations about replacing his senior professor and advisor under what were at best very awkward conditions. And, then there was money. Checa's annual salary was approximately $58,000. Zugaza's Bilbao salary was in the $90,000s.

What led Zugaza to say yes? An increase in pay.

And so, Zugaza is now the youngest and highest-paid director in the history of the Prado.

Checa will return to his post as professor of art history at Madrid's Complutense University, and Urrea will continue as director of the National Sculpture Museum. Serra told the press he's looking forward to working with someone "who understands how to work with the Patronato."

"I'd like to not have to be so occupied with the museum's operations," he said.

Nevertheless, he still has his new office on the Prado's top floor, just in case.

YSABEL DE LA ROSA is an artist and writer living in Spain.