Museums paint grim picture as crisis bites

Spain's top museums are bumping up entry prices, staying open for longer and sending artworks abroad as they scramble for new revenue to offset the effects of government cuts to their budgets.

Museums paint grim picture as crisis bites
Chinese painter Guo Zhongzheng works on his copy of Titian's 'The emperor Charles V at Muchlberg' at the Prado in January. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

The Prado will receive 30 percent less in state funding this year, the Reina Sofia has seen its budget slashed by 25 percent, and funds for the Thyssen-Bornemisza are a full third lower.

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 in 40 years.

The cuts have frustrated Spain´s museum bosses.

"I think the cuts to museums are a strategic error," said Miguel Zugaza, director of the Prado, which raised its general admission price from €12 to €14 on February 8th.

"These institutions have shown a rare vitality and breaking this dynamic is a mistake," Zugaza told El Confidencial.

He added: "Beyond our educational role, we also have a huge economic responsibility. I don't know how we will come out of all this, but I think in terms of managing cultural assets, Spain has to play the leading role in Europe."

The man at the helm of the Prado said temporary exhibits would bear the brunt of the cuts as these ate up a large part of the budget.

But Zugaza dismissed the idea of "renting out" collections and talked instead about exchanges between museums.

Meanwhile, over the road at the Thyssen-Bornemisza, the museum's management are dealing with the budget cuts by developing  various survival strategies.

"We have to maximize 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 media outlet AFP.

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.

Museum suppliers are feeling the cuts too.

"Our bills are being paid late, especially in the case of regional institutions," Alejandro López, CEO of Stendhal told The Local.

Stendhal provides services including audio guides and ticketing solutions to many of Spain's museums.

López said that despite the crisis, visitor numbers at Spain's museums were rising very slightly. He said less locals were coming, but an increase in the numbers of foreign visitors was offsetting this. 

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Spain’s scrap cathedral: A monk’s 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion

About 20 km east of Madrid, in the small town of Mejorada del Campo, stands a building that testifies to a former monk's lifetime of devotion to the Catholic faith. Paul Burge explores the Don Justo Cathedral, a religious edifice like no other.

Spain's scrap cathedral: A monk's 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion
Don Justo's Cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid. Photos: Paul Burge

The structure has been built by 95-year-old former monk, Don Justo Gallego Martinez, using nothing but recycled, scavenged and donated materials giving the building chaotic, eclectic and perplexing, if not impressive style.

Don Justo pictured here at the age of 73 in August 1999. Archive photo: AFP

Visitors are free to explore, stepping over bags of cement, buckets and tools which are strewn across the two-floor monument. Downstairs there is a shrine to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Chillingly Don Justo has already also dug his own grave in the basement, where he will finally be laid to rest at the heart of his labour of faith and devotion.

Don Justo, as he is known, is 95 years old. The cathedral still needs at least ten years' work, years that its creator simply doesn’t have. Yet, such is his devotion that he still works on its construction every day, except on Sundays of course. You may catch a glimpse of him in his dusty blue overalls, white shirt and trademark red beret. But as the notices pinned to the wall advise, he is not open to speaking to members of the public.

What inspired Don Justo to build it?

After eight years in a Trappist order at Soria‘s Santa Maria de la Huerta monastery, Don Justo Gallego Martinez was ordered to leave, for fear of infecting the other monks with tuberculosis that he had been diagnosed with.

When his mother died in 1963 and bequeathed to him a large plot of land, including an olive grove in the center of the town, Gallego had an idea. If he would never again be allowed to enter a Catholic church as an ordained member of the faith, then he would express his devotion in a magnificent way. He would build his own church. In fact he would build his own Cathedral from scratch and make a shrine to “Our Lady of the Pillar”, or Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

The future of the cathedral

Set amongst monotonous 1960s apartment blocks, the frame of the huge structure, with its 50-meter-tall dome modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome, towers over the town of Mejorada del Campo. Like the cathedrals of old, it will not reach completion during Don Justo’s lifetime.

What will happen to the building after Gallego’s death remains an open question and its future is uncertain. No one has yet stepped up to take over the project, nor is his cathedral recognized by the Catholic Church. What is more, Don Justo never applied for planning permission to build the cathedral and the structure does not conform to any building regulations.

There are rumous that it could be pulled down after Don Justo passes away but there is a concerted campaign to preserve it.

How to get there

Catedral de Justo is located in Mejorada del Campo, a small town just 20km from Madrid. To get there, there are two public buses from the centre: Avenida de América (line 282) and Conde de Casal (line 341). 

The bus stop in Mejorada del Campo is called Calle de Arquitecto Antoni Gaudí and is located right in front of the cathedral. However, going by car is a better option, so you can continue your day-trip to Alcalá de Heneres, Cervantes’ hometown, which is about half an hour away.

Listen to the When in Spain podcast episode for an audio tour around the cathedral with Paul Burge. HERE

Paul Burge is a former BBC journalist who moved from Oxford, UK to Madrid in 2013 where he now hosts the highly entertaining When in Spain a weekly podcast show about life in Madrid and beyond.  Follow Paul's observations and advice about living in Spain on FacebookInstagram, Twitter and his new YouTube channel.