2017-06-02 15:32:03
Spanish Treasures Overlooked in New York Find Love in Madrid

MADRID — The treasures of the Hispanic Society of America — works by Goya, Velázquez and El Greco, among other masters — are not a popular tourist draw at the group’s Beaux-Arts museum in Washington Heights.

But through Sept. 10, the haughty portrait of the Duchess of Alba by Goya and 200 other works from the century-old Hispanic Society are finally receiving blockbuster recognition from thousands of visitors to the Prado Museum here — along with royal accolades, an international prize and souvenir folding fans.

For more than a century, the Hispanic Society’s landmark museum and library on West 155th Street in Manhattan has offered free entrance to its world-class collection of Spanish art. But last year it struggled to draw crowds, with more than 19,000 visitors. That meager total was smashed in the debut week of its Madrid exhibition, “Treasures From the Hispanic Society of America,” which has attracted more than 150,000 spectators since April 4.

Among the first to pay tribute were the former King Juan Carlos and his wife, Sofía. Their appearance at the opening of the exhibition marked the royal recognition of the society, which has the largest collection of Spanish art and manuscripts outside Spain. Then in May, the New York museum received the Princess of Asturias award for international cooperation — a Spanish prize ordinarily reserved for high-profile institutions like the International Red Cross.

The newfound attention is all rather dizzying for an institution that five years ago raised money by auctioning off a gold coin collection and exhibited paintings that sometimes outnumbered visitors on the hot days without air-conditioning.

“When some of the society employees saw the exhibition for the first time, some of them started to cry,” said Miguel Falomir, the new director of the Prado and a curator of the show. “They felt such emotion to see their objects on display in a way they had never seen before.”

Essentially, the society now occupies a museum within a museum in the Prado, which considered the collection so important that it ceded three floors of its new Jerónimos wing to show more than 200 works from New York. By the end of the show, Mr. Falomir said, the total number of visitors to the exhibition is expected to reach 400,000.

The society is determined to exploit the traveling exhibition to raise its own profile, along with a $16 million makeover of its New York building under the guidance of Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and chairman of the society’s board of trustees. He is leading the drive to renovate the museum and also to give it an international footprint by expanding its five-member board to 20, with new trustees from Mexico and Europe.

In January, the society closed the building for two years of lighting renovations, roof replacement, installation of air-conditioning and development of 3,000 square feet for temporary exhibitions. Part of the funding is coming from the City of New York, and the society still needs to raise about $13 million.

“We get about 25,000 people a year now, and that’s ridiculous,” Mr. de Montebello said. “We should be getting 100,000.” He added: “We have three great paintings by Velázquez. It’s an extraordinary collection, but the difficulty is that the museum is at 155th and Broadway. Manhattanites are extraordinarily provincial, and they need more incentive to come.”

Madrid got the first look at silks and religious robes that have rarely surfaced in the New York museum, because of lighting issues that could cause fragile textiles to deteriorate. Some 60 percent of the objects are making a public debut for the first time in Spain, including two vivid polychrome wood busts of Saint Martha and Mary Magdalene and an intricate Mexican map from 1584.

Goya’s 1797 oil portrait of the Duchess of Alba has also emerged from six months of restoration at the Prado, which used a relining process to attach a new canvas to the back of the existing one. The restoration has revealed a faint red sheen in the Spanish beauty’s black lace dress, a portrait that provoked gossip that Goya was in love with his muse.

The Prado has restored four other paintings for the Hispanic Society as part of the agreement to send the exhibition to Madrid. Other institutions like the Picasso Museum in Paris have also used traveling exhibitions to pay for renovations while closed.

But in this case the Madrid museum is funding the shipping expenses and standard exhibition costs — a project sponsored by the foundation for the Spanish bank BBVA, which contributed 625,000 euros, or roughly $700,000. In addition, the Prado produced a video about the society that is on YouTube.

The narrative centers on Archer Milton Huntington, a philanthropist and stepson of a wealthy 19th-century railroad magnate, Collis P. Huntington. As a boy, Archer became fascinated with Spain and ultimately amassed a collection of 18,000 works with the ambition to “make a poem of a museum.” In 1904, Huntington founded the Hispanic Society museum and reference library, which at its peak in 1909 had more than 168,000 visitors.

Mitchell Codding, executive director of the society and a curator of the traveling exhibition, said that in Madrid the museum can finally show off the breadth of Huntington’s collection, which spans 4,000 years.

The show and its catalog were produced in about a year, benefiting from close personal relations between top officials at both institutions, according to José Pedro Pérez-Llorca, the chairman of the board for the Prado, where Mr. de Montebello is an honorary board member. The society hopes to send the exhibition to Mexico City and within the United States to cities with large Hispanic populations.

The Albuquerque Museum is scheduled to host the exhibit from November 2018 through March 2019. “New Mexico is financially one of the poorest states in the United States, but we are culturally rich in diversity, historic heritage, and culture,” said Andrew Connors, the museum’s curator there. “We hope this exhibition will allow New Mexicans to celebrate world cultures.”

Mr. Connors has already identified a sculpture in the show that could be a local favorite: the funerary monument of the ancestor of a duke who gave his name in 1706 to Albuquerque.