Hermitage Museum proposal divides Barcelona authorities

Barcelona’s frequently agonised debates over how to market itself to tourists have taken another twist, after the city council rejected a scheme to open a branch of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum in its port area.

The port authority, which owns the site of the proposed museum, gave the green light but the council has objected on the grounds of location and fears the scheme will provide little value to local residents.

The council, whose consent is needed for the project to go ahead, has previously said it will not consider the scheme unless its scope is increased to incorporate a wider range of cultural institutions.

On Friday, a last-minute offer to involve the city’s Liceu opera house was dismissed by the deputy mayor Janet Sanz, who told a press conference that authorities would now start the approval process from the beginning again, after being presented with what amounted to a “new proposal”.

The Hermitage scheme was proposed in 2016 by the investment fund Varia, which has an 80% stake, and Cultural Development Barcelona, a business run by the Russian businessman Valery Yarolaski and the Catalan architect Ujo Pallarès. The investors hired the Pritzker prize-winning architect Toyo Ito to design the museum.

The city’s opposition to the project seems at odds with its stated aim of rebranding Barcelona as a cultural destination. It launched its post-pandemic campaign earlier this month with the slogan “Barcelona as never before”.

At the launch Marian Muro, the head of the city’s tourist office, said “perhaps Barcelona doesn’t want everyone to come, but rather those who appreciate our values and idiosyncrasies”.

The campaign is aimed at Spanish and European visitors and seeks to attract what it calls “quality tourism”, seen as code for older, more sedate tourists rather than crowds of stag and hen party participants.

The council commissioned four reports on the viability of the Hermitage project and concluded it would put too much demand on public transport and add to traffic passing through the already busy Barceloneta neighbourhood. The city has proposed alternative locations but the promoters continue to insist on the port site.

“Projects have to adapt themselves to the city and not the other way round,” said Sanz, who has long asserted that the project is incompatible with the port neighbourhood.

There was also a question mark over the €53m (£45m) museum’s financial viability. Earlier this year Sanz raised doubts over forecasts from the project’s backers that it would attract 850,000 visitors in its first year and 1.5 million a year after that.

Josep Ramoneda, the former director of the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, dismissed the scheme as “a typical franchise based on a series of exhibitions of works in the Hermitage but with no singular purpose as a museum”.

Barcelona is home to more than 80 museums ranging from the Museu Picasso and Fundació Joan Miró to establishments dedicated to chocolate, cannabis, perfume and dentistry.

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