Doreen Carvajal (The New York Times)
MADRID – Manolo Osuna lacks a formal art education, but he has spent years roaming the galleries of the Prado Museum as a guard and leader of a seven-person moving brigade that hefts national treasures by Spanish masters like Velázquez and Goya around the building.
With that homegrown background, Osuna, 56, has emerged from an invisible role at the museum to become an unlikely art critic in an Instagram video series that has become a hit.
The videos, shot with a cellphone and selfie stick, have attracted a growing international following of up to nearly 100,000 daily viewers, who are fascinated by the slow-paced, decidedly un-Hollywood view of the museum, where a truly special experience is watching paint dry.
Every weekday, in the low hum of voices before Spain’s national museum opens, curatorial superstars and uniformed guards in red scarves are given a precious 10 minutes to talk.
They focus on the works that are their familiar neighbors: The flirty 19th-century aristocrat in pale green satin and pearls, or the Virgin Mary swooning below a crucified Christ.
For many fans, to listen to the videos has become a routine breakfast ritual, in which art specialists share equal play with the men and women who guard the galleries, restore Goya paintings or analyze medieval pigments in the museum’s lab.
About 50,000 people watched the Prado’s director, Miguel Falomir Faus, discuss a mythological Renaissance painting by Titian, but slightly more listened to Osuna highlight a favorite portrait by Spanish Baroque painter Jusepe de Ribera of a ragged Greek philosopher with a toothless grin and grimy fingernails. (“He’s like a peasant,” he explained. “Ribera’s characters are people from the street.”)
The attention to unsung employees is something of a rarity for international museums, where demoralized lower-tier staff members in recent years have banded together to form online support networks, share salary information and conduct annual surveys to gauge concerns.
“It’s great that the Prado is celebrating employees this way. It’s a model for other museums,” said Abi Godfrey, a duty manager at the Holburne Museum in Bath, England.
In 2017, she helped found an online network called F.O.H. Museums, dedicated to “front of house” employees who work directly with visitors. “Those defined as back of house were more likely to say they felt valued, which contrasts greatly with the front of the house,” she said.
The creator of the Prado’s Instagram series is Javier Sainz de los Terreros, 37, who never appears on camera but whose soft, anonymous voice guides viewers through the galleries.
In a recent interview, Sainz de los Terreros conceded that his camera work had sometimes been shaky since his stabilizer broke. But the casual, unstaged nature, he said, is part of the charm.
If he misses a morning, he gets inquiries about his health from viewers. One visitor left an envelope at the museum addressed to “The Instagram Director,” with an appreciation gift. (It was a key chain of St. Teresa.)
“You surprise me with your knowledge and creativity,” an Instagram user wrote on March 9, commenting on a video for International Women’s Day that featured female staff members discussing a 19th-century woman’s self-portrait.
Beginning in 2019, Sainz de los Terreros started filming works in the museum without dialogue, and each of the videos appeared on Instagram for just 24 hours. But viewers clamored for more, and so he created the longer, more detailed series of permanent videos now on view.
The videos often feature the unhurried, deliberate work of employees such as Elisa Mora, a restoration expert who has been at the Prado for 37 years and is just beginning to contemplate the renovation of a Goya portrait of the Countess of Chinchón purchased by the Prado in 2000 from descendants of the countess.
Standing beside the portrait in a cluttered studio, she pointed out old patchwork repairs on the back of the painting and explained an X-ray that revealed that Goya had actually painted the face of a man, which he erased by covering it over with the silvery folds of the woman’s dress.
How long will it take to refurbish? Perhaps seven or more months, she said.
More than 99,000 people watched Mora’s video on Instagram and 260,000 on Facebook, and many comments praised the quick lesson in the makeover process.
Most of the videos are in Spanish without subtitles, but the museum is working on an alliance with the American Friends of the Prado Museum to create videos in English.
About 30 percent of viewers are from Spain. The rest are spread internationally, with Italy and the United States ranked behind Spain. Museums in Málaga and Venice have sought the Prado’s advice about creating their own live Instagram videos, according to Sainz de los Terreros.
Osuna, who has figured in a few videos, said he was pleased with the positive reaction from visitors from Mexico and South America and viewers who are unable to visit the museum in person.
He was unaware that more than 50,000 people had watched him introduce his favorite Ribera portrait, which he started studying more than 15 years ago when he joined the Prado.
In conversations, he calls its philosopher subject his “compañero” – friend – and said he felt a special bond to the smiling man because of his hands, worn by years of labor.
“The beautiful thing is that people have learned about jobs that we do that they didn’t know anything about,” said Osuna, who is sometimes recognized in the museum by his Instagram fans. “And they learned about our challenges and our difficulties.”