"Obviously visitor numbers are an indicator of how well a museum is doing"

José Lebrero in the courtyard at the Picasso museum in Malaga.
José Lebrero in the courtyard at the Picasso museum in Malaga. / Salvador Salas
  • José Lebrero, artistic director of the Museo Picasso Málaga, looks back over the 15 years of the museum's existence and explains that the aim is for it to continue to grow

The belltower in the neighbouring San Agustín church marks the passing of time and tells us we have spent more than an hour in conversation with the artistic director of the Museo Picasso Málaga, José Lebrero, in the patio of the cafeteria there. Lebrero has been in the post for more than half of the 15 years since the museum opened and his experience makes him the ideal person to reflect upon the past, present and future of this cultural institution.

The first question has to be: how do you see the 15 years of the Picasso museum's existence?

Those who took the decision and had the ambition to make a Picasso museum possible in Malaga undoubtedly had a view of how its future would evolve. I imagine that with so much work involved they were very concerned with the present, though, because creating this space, building this museum, opening it, must have taken a tremendous amount of energy and effort. Nobody could have been sure that 15 years later Malaga would be as identified with the Picasso museum as it is, that Picasso would become, I think for the good but sometimes also for the bad, a sign of the city's identity. They couldn't have known that the inauguration would result in Malaga becoming known nationally as the city of museums. This is all good news. The city has been transformed. Maybe in the short or medium term we could imagine it without some museums, but imagining it without a Museum of Malaga or a Picasso Museum would be unthinkable.

You mentioned other museums. When the MPM opened, there was really only the CAC in Malaga but things are very different now. Do you think the museum should change its role because of that?

Those of us in the world of museums and culture know that things are happening very quickly nowadays, processes are shorter. We know that a book can be written and within a year an unknown author can be a star. We know that economic factors govern part of the art world, and in a cruel way too, sometimes. We know we always have to be thinking about who the public are, what do the people who visit this type of museum want. History is being re-read and people are reacting. We know that today the Picasso Museum in Malaga is what it is, but tomorrow it will have to be something else.

What should it be?

I would like it to be a museum involved in the digital world. I think it would be a complicated challenge, but a very interesting one: to be able to translate the values of Picasso's work and the values of his time, from the late 19th century to the 1970s, and transmit those aesthetic values, and also some ethical values, to younger generations in a way they find attractive. It doesn't seem enough to me, although it is necessary and our raison d'être, to hang some pictures in a gallery. If we want to be part of the contemporaneity we see around us, we have to be aware that sometimes those pictures on a wall might not attract a 17-year-old from Morocco or Helsinki as much as an interpretation that we could give of those values, those contents and those forms. It is a challenge, but it is also a necessity.

With regard to young people and the need to attract their attention, is that why the museum has featured contemporary art under your management?

The term 'contemporary' is a slippery one. What do we mean by contemporary? The Picasso Museum in Malaga at this time does not, as I understand it, have the priority function of highlighting what the best creators of the world are doing in response to the major questions of today. It is not a way of making a type of Contemporary Art Centre mark 2, as maybe some people may believe, think or not understand. It is a way of remembering that Pablo Picasso was very important for Jackson Pollock, a way of contrasting the masculinity of Pablo Picasso's work with the femininity of the work of Louise Bourgeois, a way of understanding why an artist like Andy Warhol was not particularly interested in Pablo Picasso, and that it was a sign that times were changing in the USA. All this is to do with a willingness to understand artistic work in a more anthropological way.

The museum presented the Andy Warhol exhibition, which ended recently, as the most ambitious in its history but it attracted less than half the number of visitors as in Barcelona and Madrid. Why was that, do you think?

They are three very different cities and the behaviour of visitors, or tourists, differs. We don't denigrate the term 'tourist' here, as it seems some places do... that's not us. We are delighted...

Why do you believe some museums are not keen on tourism?

I believe they don't really understand the function they need to develop, nor do they properly understand what the term 'tourist' means. A tourist isn't just a young man who comes to a European country to get drunk and throw up in the streets; 'tourist' also means something like those British romantics, or the travels of Matisse and Duchamp. I don't think it's the right way to understand tourism. Are we going to give the industry an ugly reputation? It shows a lack of reflection about handling a topic like tourism, especially among cultural institutions. Those who do not recognise that their work as cultural mediators is going to be more legitimised if more people visit the places where they are, have a rather particularistic view, shall we say, of the question.

So do you consider the number of visitors to be a good indication of how well a museum is doing?

Of course it is. Many people will go to one place, but not to another which is very similar. Let's analyse it. Why do fewer people go to see contemporary art? Why are more people going to see modern art? What are the museums offering? What tools do we provide people with? I believe we have to avoid maximalist statements, including demagogical ones in these matters. We have to be pleased that many people want to come, otherwise there is a danger to society, a danger of becoming slaves and victims of the banalisation and commercialisation of culture. That is what is happening to us. I believe we have lost the thread...

We'll come back to the numbers for Warhol later, but to continue along these lines, as the director of a museum in the historic centre of Malaga, do you share the view that the oldest part of the city is being turned into a theme park for tourists?

As the Museo Picasso Málaga we try to comply with our mission and mandate to be a rigorous cultural institution. What happens outside the museum is something that affects us as citizens. If the area deteriorates, becomes gentrified, becomes cheap in a banal way, if it is populated by speculators who are only interested in short term benefit, putting pressure on the tourists who come, we don't like that. Obviously we are not going to like it, whether we are residents or tourists. The danger in this city is exactly that, it is clearly evident. The danger lies in the wild feeding of a tourism bubble in which everything seems to be going well, but nobody can testify to the sustainability of the model. Maybe the city has been finding all that out, but let's talk about it. By listening and talking, maybe we can find ways of stopping the process of deterioration which is affecting the historic city centre.

Speaking of tourism, how many visitors to the MPM live in Malaga?

Fewer than 20 per cent of the total. It is not an optimal figure; our ambition has always been for as many people as possible to know the museum. We are working on a project to reach outside the city and into the province more. It is also true that on one hand the number of passers-by who visit a museum is increasing, but the number of residents who do so is not. There are indications that this is to do with the ability to surprise people, to offer them something different.

Is that why the presentation of the collection has changed?

Indeed, and as well as the temporary exhibitions, the cultural activities too.

Under the agreement with the foundation created by Picasso's heirs, the collection changes every three years. Doesn't that model make the museum a sort of Picasso family franchise?

No... I don't believe so. A franchise museum would have to close if there were a mother museum which took that decision. It seems unthinkable to me that the MPM would close because somebody just decided it should. Also, the Picasso museum has its own collection.

Let's go back to what we were saying about the Warhol exhibition. Why didn't more people come and see it at the Picasso Museum?

It comes down to figures. For example, the population of the three cities, Barcelona, Madrid and Malaga differs. Another factor is the type of visitors to these cities and the institutions which have hosted the exhibition. They are all different.

Is Malaga more international?

Malaga has fewer residents. We have a very large number of people who visit us from elsewhere. The main reason people come to the MPM is to see the work of Picasso. Long may that continue.

Given that interest, have you thought about creating a single-ticket system as other museums in the world are doing?

I hope I don't see that happen. I'm not in favour of it. I believe diversification is a positive thing. Not everyone is able to pay for everything. If we are in need of income, we should be more imaginative than that. There are other ways. I believe in diversified models.

You say you hope you won't see that happen.

Nothing is eternal.

I say that because your contract has a year to run.

I believe the museum works well and it isn't something we have considered. We are working on the programme for the next few years.

It isn't on the table?

No. Not at present. We have other priorities.

What are they?

To continue growing in quality and quantity. The museum is able to generate income. It has shown that it can grow and I believe it can do so even more, and qualitatively. What's important, I believe, is that it grows but grows well. We need to develop a critical spirit with regard to the institution itself. Being so pleased with yourself can lead to internal routines which result in a certain intellectual desertification. That can be avoided through growth.