Of the world’s great art museums, Madrid’s Prado has been the one to wait longest for its face-lift. The bulk of the museum’s world-class collection has remained in storage while only a fraction has been on view in the elegant but inadequate 1819-vintage galleries of Juan de Villanueva, the architect for whom the main structure of the Prado is named. Although it is the most-visited tourist destination in Spain, its patrons over the years have been stymied by erratic opening hours and frustrated by the lack of amenities that they take for granted at other museums of the Prado’s stature.
A gleaming new addition by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo has changed all of that. Like I. M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, Moneo’s steel-and-glass wedge thrusts the Prado dynamically into the twenty-first century. With the opening of the newly expanded Prado, the institution doubles its exhibition space to a total of 16,000 square meters. The flow of visitors into the museum morphs from the familiar north-south axis to a perpendicular route, beginning inside a new reception hall at the west “Velázquez” entrance and continuing eastward toward the green space of the Retiro Park beyond the museum, where the building connects with the once-sleepy cloister of the Jerónimos Church beyond. In between are a 400-seat auditorium, temporary exhibition spaces, a new library, expanded museum shops and restaurants, and state-of-the-art conservation studios.
The new Prado also boasts a re-hang of the collection that may initially cause some head-scratching among long-time visitors. Only 2000 of the almost 9000 art works in the collection were previously on view, so curators will have to think long and hard about how to fit those erstwhile hidden gems into the context of masterpieces by El Greco, Zúrbaran, Goya, Bosch, and Caravaggio.
The Prado’s expansion is part of an even larger plan in Madrid, the “Paseo del Arte,” intended to link the museum with the nearby Reina Sofia (recently upgraded by French architect Jean Nouvel) and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza across the street.
Will Shank, formerly Chief Conservator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the winner of the 2005 Rome Prize in Conservation, writes about culture for various publications, including London’s The Art Newspaper.