Spaniards see red over cost of UN's 'Sistine Chapel'


WHEN KING Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia - accompanied by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and other dignitaries - unveiled a dramatic work of art in the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva this week, they also unleashed a row over costs and use of aid and development funds.

Few doubt the artistic merits of the 1,400 square metre domed ceiling in the human rights hall which the Majorca artist Miquel Barceló has turned into a dramatic cave dripping in multicoloured blobs of paint and stalactites which has been described as the Sistine Chapel of the 21st century.

But they do question the use of the millions of euro that Spain's donation to the UN will cost the Spanish taxpayer and particularly the €500,000 siphoned off from Spain's aid and development funds.

Spain pledged to fund 50 per cent of the final project, promoted by foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, in 2005.

He established and presided over an artistic foundation (ONART) made up of 15 companies and cultural figures to cover the remainder.

They watched helplessly as deadlines passed and the budget skyrocketed to its final cost of €20 million, leaving the government around €4 million out of pocket.

Mr Moratinos defended the ambitious project and criticised those who attacked it.

"Art has no price. Only fools confuse value and price," he said defensively.

"This project is the new way of doing diplomacy and foreign policy."

Spain's leading avant-garde artist Miquel Barceló won the commission - and the €6 million fee - to decorate the human rights and alliance of civilisations room.

Last year he embarked on his ambitious project, which required some 35,000kgs of paint sprayed on to the ceiling to drip off and form into hardened stalactites.

Some liken it to a prehistoric cave, others to an underwater coral reef which changes in appearance with every step and from every angle.

Many of the 700 guests at the launch ceremony yesterday believed they had witnessed the unveiling of a great masterpiece.

Miguel Zugaza, director of the Prado Museum enthused: "It is the greatest Spanish public and cultural project we have seen for many decades."

"Rather than the Sistine Chapel, the dome has more in common with other marvellous chapels like those of Manet or Rothko, but above all it is a 21st century Altamira cave," said Mr Zugaza yesterday.