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Culture : Artistic 'Heart of Spain' Is Scheduled for Surgery : At 176 years old, the Prado museum is showing its age. It needs roof repairs, more space and a general updating. But not everyone wants to spend the money.

May 16, 1995|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Culture Ministry proposals, approved by the Cortes, or Parliament, earlier this year, would effectively double the museum's space at a cost of about $150 million by linking the Villanueva palace to three sites behind it--probably by underground passage.

One is the existing gallery of 19th-Century art in the Cason del Buen Retiro, a former royal ballroom that is already a disconnected part of the museum.

The second is a building across the street that houses the Army Museum. The army has accepted an offer from the city of Madrid to relocate its treasures to an old barracks.

The third piece of the Prado puzzle will incorporate the cloisters of neighboring San Jeronimo church, which were damaged during the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th Century and never repaired.

The official story is that modernizing the Prado is so important that it transcends partisan politics. Maybe, but it so happens that the Culture Ministry, which runs the Prado, is an arm of the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers' Party national government, while the Madrid city government is conservative.

In addition, not everybody is convinced that it is worthwhile to spend a lot of money to expand the museum. The Prado, critic Pedro Miguel Lamet says, is less important to Spaniards than civic fiestas, the bulls, the world of bars and soccer.

"Madrilenos don't go to El Prado. If I was minister of culture I'd spend the money raising the quality of television," said Lamet, a Jesuit priest and columnist for the newspaper Diario 16.

A competition to design an expanded Prado was announced in February on the basis of a 22-page briefing paper and technical documents. Architects from around the world are now mulling specifications, but renewal is still a long way off.

Luzon, whose academic specialty is exploring links between myth and history in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, is the Prado's fourth director in as many years. One left over his opposition to the Persian Gulf War, in which Spain played a minor role. Another left after he allowed advertisements for chairs to be photographed in Prado galleries. The third was claimed by the leaky roof.

Luzon himself probably will have returned to archeology before the first spade of earth is turned. Even so, he said he is confident that the Prado "will be whatever the next century demands it to be."

"Museums are institutions that evolve in the context of their times. They adapt to political and ideological situations," he said.

Today, the Prado has 450 employees; in 1904 it had nine workers. Back then, Luzon said, a few highly educated people dropped by, often on Sunday mornings en route to somewhere else: One composer recounting his Sunday wrote to a mistress that at the Prado the Raphael was as sublime as ever, but the bulls, alas, had degenerated at the nearby Plaza de Toros.

"For the first time, we are now receiving a society that has had access to culture," Luzon said. "So we will build a new museum."

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