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Turmoil at baroness's art museum as top staff quit

Less than a month ago, it was all glitter and kissing at Málaga's new Thyssen museum, with actor Antonio Banderas master of ceremonies at the opening day festivities.

The Baroness Carmen Thyssen, an ex-Spanish beauty queen who encouraged her late industrialist husband to sell one of the world's most prestigious private collections to the Spanish state, had decided to create a new Andalusian branch of Madrid's famed Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. It would showcase her 19th-century masterpieces, including works by Spanish artists Sorrolla, Fortuny and Zuloaga. The city of Málaga bought and restored a 16th-century mansion to house them all. Locals rejoiced at the tourist traffic to come.

But three weeks later, the fiesta mood has died and the new museum finds itself immersed in an internal row over its management. The museum director, María López, and a board member, Tomàs Llorens, former chief curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, resigned this week in protest over what they consider to be unprofessional meddling by the Málaga mayor and the baroness herself in the museum's artistic affairs. Their main gripe: the appointment of the mayor's right-hand man of 10 years as "managing director" of the new institution. This new manager, Javier Ferrer, lacked art world experience but was granted power over the museum's artistic programs, they complained.

In his letter of resignation, Mr Llorens charged that the political appointment violated Spanish rules for professional museum practice and accused the museum of "relegating historical and artistic questions to a secondary plane".

In his letter he wrote: "This managerial position was appointed privately and without a selection process to a person who lacks experience in the management of either museums or artistic institutions, and whose professional occupation in recent years has been exclusively political." He added that the appointment has sparked "a serious internal conflict" at the museum.

The former director, Ms López, said she was leaving "out of dignity." She was especially miffed when the new manager fired the museum's publicist without explanation.

The turmoil at the Málaga museum is the latest drama involving the ever-smiling baroness, who seems to thrive on controversy. She once tied herself to a tree to protest a city against a plan to tear up part of a leafy boulevard outside her Madrid collection.

Her family life is also peppered with conflict, including a legal battle with her son and heir, Borja Thyssen, related to his inheritance, and DNA tests to confirm paternity of her grandchild.

The baroness has tried to put a friendly spin on the recent saga and has denied any hint of wrongdoing beyond an unpopular managerial decision. She says the director resigned because she couldn't adjust to life in Málaga, although she did not specify which conditions were the most arduous – the artificial sand at the beach, the high-caloric fried fish, or Banderas's recent inaugural speech at the city's Holy Week celebration.

She downplayed the resignation of Mr Llorens, the mastermind of more than a decade of creative temporary exhibits at the original Thyssen in Madrid. He was only a temporary advisor, she said, adding that she hopes to "stay friends" with her former chief curator.

"In any case, the collection is mine, and I do with it what I want," she told the newspaper El País. "I am president of the board and the mayor is the vice president. Excuses aren't necessary. There are tons of great professionals in this country who will want to come to the museum."