Robin Usher July 21, 2012
Gallery director Tony Ellwood.
QUEENSLAND Art Gallery director Tony Ellwood has left the best till last. Three days before he finishes to return south as head of the National Gallery of Victoria, he opened Portrait of Spain, Australia's first exhibition from Madrid's Prado National Museum yesterday.
''I am very proud of this,'' he says. ''In terms of history collections it is in the top two or three shows ever to come to Australia. It was not conceived as my last show in Brisbane, but I am happy with the way everything has turned out.''
It includes 100 works, among them some that have never before left Spain. Such Spanish masters as Velazquez, Ribera and Goya are included, as well works by Titian, Rubens and El Greco. It is Queensland's first old-masters exhibition.
It is a tribute to what Ellwood has achieved in six years in Brisbane that the show is set to become an important tourist attraction for Queensland.
Queensland Arts Minister Ros Bates called it the most important exhibition seen in Australia in the past decade.
The previous six shows at the gallery had attracted 960,000 visitors and generated nearly $54 million. ''They have confirmed that cultural tourism has a big part to play in our overall strategy,'' she says.
Earlier gallery exhibitions focused on Andy Warhol, Matisse and works from Paris' Pompidou Centre, another Australian first. The gallery was Australia's most visited in 2010 when it attracted 1.8 million.
It took Ellwood three years of negotiations to organise the Spanish show, co-ordinating ''an army of sponsors and many tiers of government''. He says Spain is the forgotten partner in European art history because it is not represented in Australian permanent collections. But Spain was the first global empire, stretching at its peak from the Netherlands and Flanders to southern Italy, the Americas and the Philippines.
''Art in 17th century Spain was quite remarkable and we asked that the show include a still life component to demonstrate the work is up there with the better-known paintings from the Dutch golden period.''
The show is a culmination of the blockbuster strategies that Ellwood has refined during his Queensland stay. ''People coming to our shows expect the complete package,'' he says.
For the Prado exhibition this includes Spanish food and wine, Spanish-designed furniture and fabrics and two film programs, including a comprehensive Pedro Almodovar retrospective. Spanish guitar music is even piped into the bathrooms.
The exhibition takes up 70 per cent of the buildings and galleries have been redesigned to reflect the size and colours of those in Madrid. ''The art is leveraged to further people's awareness of Spanish culture,'' he says. ''We explore elements around Spanish history that informs the art works.''
Portrait of Spain is at the Queensland Art Gallery until November 4.
Robin Usher travelled to Brisbane courtesy of QAG.