MÁLAGA, Spain — For the past 15 years, Málaga, the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, has pushed to promote its connection to the great painter, as part of its efforts to turn itself into an arts center.
Now, the cultural ambitions of this southern Spanish city are taking on a new dimension, spearheaded by its longstanding mayor, who persuaded two prestigious museums to add here their first overseas offshoots: the Pompidou Center from Paris and the State Russian Museum from Saint Petersburg.
The Málaga branch of the Russian Museum was to be inaugurated on Wednesday, three days before the opening of the so-called Pop-Up Pompidou.
The city hall of Málaga predicts that during the coming year about 250,000 people will visit the Pompidou offshoot and 150,000 its new Russian museum.
The museum projects owe much to Málaga’s conservative mayor, Francisco de la Torre, who has been in office since 2000 and is hoping to win another mandate in May, when Spain holds municipal elections. Known to many as a beach and cruise-ship destination, Málaga already added two major institutions in 2003: a Picasso museum and a Center of Contemporary Art housed in a former wholesale food market.
In 2011, the mayor convinced Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza to move part of her collection — mostly 19th-century Spanish paintings — to a former palace here, within walking distance of the Picasso museum.
Francisco de la Torre, the mayor of Málaga. Credit Carlos Criado Gómez/Ayuntamiento de Málaga
The State Russian Museum’s site is housed in a former tobacco factory that is already home to an automobile museum. The Russian museum — which has no connection to Saint Petersburg’s flagship museum, the Hermitage — has sent 100 works on permanent loan, including “Portrait of Catherine II” by Dmitry Levitsky, “Mirror” by Marc Chagall and “Head” by Kazimir Malevich.
The Pompidou’s outpost is the museum’s first foray outside France. (In 2010, the Pompidou opened its first French satellite, in Metz. ) The museum’s agreement with Málaga lasts five years, after which the French museum said it would look elsewhere.
It will occupy a cube-shaped building along the port, offering visitors a blend of temporary exhibitions, music and dance performances, underpinned by a collection of about 90 works drawn from the Pompidou’s permanent collection, one of the world’s largest of contemporary art, including Picasso’s “Le chapeau à fleurs” and works by Francis Bacon, Frida Kahlo and Fernand Léger.
Given the size of the museum’s entire collection, “I believe it’s better to display it rather than keep 98 percent of it in storage,” said Alain Seban, the president of the Pompidou Center, in an email interview. “It gives more visibility to the institution, generates revenues instead of costs, and provides us with the leverage to develop a world network of temporary outposts.”
The challenge for Málaga, however, is precisely to ensure that the city also generates revenue, rather than costs, as a result of hosting foreign museums. About 495,000 people visited the Contemporary Art Center last year, but it relies on municipal subsidies to put together 16 temporary shows a year — and it doesn’t charge an entrance fee. A similar subsidized financial model applies to La Térmica, a cultural center that opened in 2013 in a building that was once a military hospital.
“One of the cancers of Spain is that culture is seen as a public good that can’t somehow generate real revenues and be turned into a profit center,” said Salomón Castiel, the director of La Térmica.
Málaga has earmarked a 2015 budget of €4.2 million, or $4.6 million, to cover the costs of the Pompidou and €3.7 million for the Russian museum, which include the payment of fees to both museums, as well as insurance costs. Part of that cost is due to be offset by corporate sponsorship deals, as well as entrance ticket revenues for both museums. The city hall currently has €600 million of debt.
Still, the authorities in Málaga predict that the two museums will give a major lift to its tourism sector, even if not as radical as the transformative impact that the opening of the Guggenheim museum in 1997 has had on the Basque city of Bilbao. Málaga, a city of 570,000 inhabitants, had 3.5 million visitors last year.
The entrance to the building housing the Málaga branch of the State Russian Museum. Credit Carlos Criado Gómez/Ayuntamiento de Málaga
Spain emerged in late 2013 from a long recession, but the country continues to struggle under a mountain of culture-related debt, after the bursting of its construction bubble in 2008 left it littered with under-used or half-finished museums and arts centers. Some of these oversize investments have recently prompted corruption investigations, including in Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city. In January, the former director of Valencia’s opera house was briefly detained by Spanish police, as part of an investigation into financial irregularities there.
“I don’t have any reason to think that we will run into the same problems as Valencia,” said Mr. de la Torre, Málaga’s mayor, during an interview held in the offices of the Contemporary Art Center. “Our projects are now based on a different model to the one that plunged Spain into crisis,” he said, explaining that the city now relies mostly on existing rather than purpose-built architecture.
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Still, during Mr. de la Torre’s time in office, Málaga has suffered some financial setbacks: Its soccer club briefly challenged the best teams in Europe, following an investment by a member of the royal family of Qatar. When the Qatari funding dried up, however, the club found itself in a precarious financial situation, forced to sell star players to stay afloat. The city also recently scrapped a €100 million project to build a concert auditorium. “We realized it was no longer the right time to build such an auditorium,” said Mr. de la Torre.
The construction of what is now the Pompidou cube was part of an overhaul of the city’s port that began in 2004 — long before Málaga knew that the Pompidou Center or any other museum might want to use such a building. It was designed by L35, a Spanish architecture firm.
“Rather than a museum, it could have become a library or a theater, but what mattered to me was to set aside in the port at least some space for non-commercial usage,” the mayor said.
With the two museums, “Málaga will now join the select group of cities that offers a complete art itinerary, from the seventeenth century to the truly contemporary,” said Fernando Francés, the director of the Contemporary Art Center.
Mr. de la Torre’s ambition to transform Málaga from a tourist destination into a cultural hub has run into some opposition, however.
Levitsky’s portrait of Catherine II, one of the works on loan from the State Russian Museum. Credit State Russian Museum
Alberto Garzón the national leader of Spain’s United Left party, said that the mayor’s cultural investments amounted to “real wastage” for an indebted city that should instead focus on adding social housing and other infrastructure needed by local residents.
Mr. Garzón, who represents Málaga as a member of the Spanish Parliament, added: “This is an attempt to rebuild Málaga through culture when Málaga has no real cultural tradition.”
Still, Mr. Seban, the president of the Pompidou, insisted cities and museums these days adjusted their artistic ambitions to budgetary constraints.
“In the past, creating a museum started with building flagship architecture, working preferably with a Pritzker Prize winner, and this involved huge investments and lofty operating costs, and therefore a fairly high risk of ending up with a white elephant,” he said. “In Málaga, the approach we’re taking is just the opposite: we’re working within an existing venue and together with our partner to prepare what will follow, after we leave and move to a different location.”
Vladimir Gusev, the director of the Russian State Museum, said its Málaga branch should help “broaden the horizons of Europeans concerning Russian culture and, first of all, painterly art.”
Málaga’s initial agreement with the Russian museum runs for 10 years, with the possibility of renewal. “We have no plans for an ever-spiraling race of foreign branches — it’s unrealistic and impossible,” said Mr. Gusev, in an email interview.
In contrast, the Pompidou is planning to hold to its five-year agreement with Málaga. The center is negotiating with some undisclosed cities in Asia and Latin America about adding more offshoots, Mr. Seban said.
Still, Mr. de la Torre, Málaga’s mayor, wants to highlight Málaga’s head-start rather than worry about other cities sharing the Pompidou brand. “The Pompidou can of course export itself elsewhere, but for now these are only projects, while we’re the ones that are being added to the map,” he said.
By RAPHAEL MINDER