At Prado, Spanish PM plays it cool on art patronage

Rajoy declined to divulge when his government might deliver its long-promised law to boost private-sector arts spending

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gives his speech in the Prado Museum on Tuesday to mark the donation of a group of medieval works by collector José Luis Várez Fisa.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gives his speech in the Prado Museum on Tuesday to mark the donation of a group of medieval works by collector José Luis Várez Fisa.CRISTÓBAL MANUEL

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's first official visit to the Prado Museum since taking office turned out to be a disappointment for many in Spain's cultural sector on Tuesday.

The occasion, the donation of a unique collection of medieval works by the Várez Fisa family, merited the extra attention that his presence and words at the Madrid institution brought. But the Popular Party (PP) leader only proffered a timid boost to a sector anxious for the arrival of a patronage law to boost private-sector spending in the cultural sphere by improving tax breaks to patrons of the arts. The party has been promising the legislation since it was in opposition but, a year after taking power, has yet to deliver.

"The patronage law breaks the prejudice that reduces a country's culture to the public budget," Rajoy told the Prado audience, more numerous and more dolled up than usual, and comprising patrons, restorers, mayors, ex-ministers, academics and bodyguards, as well as culture secretary José María Lassalle and Education, Culture and Sports Minister José Ignacio Wert.

The latter, in an interview with EL PAÍS over the Christmas period, had promised that the law would arrive in the current legislature. But Rajoy -- the first prime minister to have sat on the board of the Prado, during his period as education and culture minister in the Aznar government -- was less precise.

The Várez Fisa family has donated a unique collection of medieval art

"Patrons should not expect anything in exchange," he said, adding that "generosity does not just depend on economic incentives" -- a statement that seemed to be a wink to the Finance Ministry, which also has a role to play in the drafting of any future patronage law.

No questions were permitted from the reporters present, who might have wanted to bombard the prime minister's abstract sentences with some more concrete facts. Nor were journalists allowed into the drinks party held after the signing over of the artworks.

But the event did, at least, provide Prado Museum director Miguel Zugaza with the chance to issue a warning: "At a moment such as this one, budgetary reality places into doubt the ability of public efforts to sustain this fundamental pillar of our culture, among other institutions," he said, in polite reference to the 30-percent drop in the funding allocated to the gallery by the Culture Ministry.

The donation from the 84-year-old José Luis Várez Fisa, who attended the event in a wheelchair, would not completely fit with the model the government is currently considering.

A collector and former Prado chief who donated a medieval painting of St Christopher in 1970, Várez Fisa will not receive money or tax exemptions for handing over the works, which experts estimate could fetch 12 to 15 million euros on the market. Instead the businessman will have a room in the museum named after him -- in the new Villanueva palace extension designed by Rafael Moneo.

The practice is not a common one but there are a few previous examples. The collectors Pedro Fernández Durán and Pablo Bosch have both received this honor in the past. Their names were read out at Tuesday's ceremony, alongside those of other celebrated Prado patrons, including Ramón Errazu and Catalan politician Francesc Cambó, whose daughter was in attendance.

The donated paintings, tableaux, sculptures and wood panels fill a key gap in the museum's collection. They include fundamental pieces of medieval art from Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia, a fact that prompted Rajoy to launch an undisguised plea for the unity of Spain. "Those who want to reduce the nation to what is Castilian should admire the plurality of the artistic contributions of the different crowns," he said.

None of these schools are well represented in the museum. Prado associate director Gabriele Ginaldi went further by considering that from now on the great narrative of the Spanish monarchies was complete thanks to Jaume Serra's Virgen de Tobed, the only donated piece on display yesterday in the Prado's rooms devoted to Spanish paintings from the Romanesque to the Renaissance period -- the deal with Várez Fisa is to look at hanging the rest of the collection within a year. In the bottom left-hand corner of the work, Serra painted a portrait of Henry of Trastámara (1334-1379), the first King of Castile and León from the House of Trastámara, like Titian painted Charles V or Velázquez did Philip IV.