Italian Art Museums Are Leading the Way

Second Temple of Hera, c. 450 B.C. (Paestum Archaeological Site. Photo courtesy of Paestum and Velia Archaelogical Park.)

Meanwhile, American museums turn political and keep the public out.


saw an Italian curator friend for lunch on Friday. He told me that most Italian museums outside Lombardy, hit hard by COVID-19, opened in the beginning of June after a shutdown of about ten weeks. No one rushed to reopen to minimize losses in revenue from tourists. The Chinese coronavirus had already killed tourism for the year. Rather, they opened when the Italian government said it was safe and they were ready.

Museum staff used the shutdown to implement the reasonable health protocols needed to welcome people back: frequent hand-sanitizer stations, masks, glass barriers for ticket-takers, and temperature checks. There’s nothing more that they, or any museum anywhere, can do. Museums are public places, not hospitals.

Italians respect and value their cultural heritage, too. For them, art and good design are like food. Deny it, and their souls starve. Opening their museums was a priority.

I told my friend how some museums in America still hadn’t opened after going-on-six-months. He was astonished. We talked about the venerable Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, still inexplicably shut.

“Kansas City,” he said. Italians love The Wizard of Oz, so they know where Kansas is, if not Missouri. “How’s the COVID there?” “Not much,” I said.

“Six months . . . What are they doing . . . building a bubble around the place? How much does the director make? Is he still getting paid?”

“A lot,” I said. “And yes.” Italian museums directors top out at $200,000, for the biggest museums. American directors sometimes make over a million.

“Madonna,” he gasped. That means “holy sh**.”

I told him American museum directors were constantly crying to the art-starved public about how much work they were doing “to prepare,” as if acquiring hand sanitizer and plexiglass shields for the admissions desk take as much time as building St. Peter’s. They’re also putting silly directional arrows telling people where to go in the galleries so they don’t bump into one another while they’re looking at art.

It’s impossible to explain the reasoning behind gallery directional arrows to Italians, but I tried. A forced trail in an art gallery is anathema to any Italian art lover. “Una cosa da puritani,” I said. Some Americans are just really bossy. It’s all kept everyone busy as Barberini bees, I added, so they simply stayed shut.

“Bel lavoro,” which means “nice work if you can get it.”

The top brass at many American museums have indeed grown accustomed to lockdown luxury, zooming here and there between the latest on Netflix, trying new recipes, and tanning time, unless you live in California, where the beaches were closed for months. Oh, and reading How to Be an Antiracist. Praise the Lord for direct deposit!

The leadership at the still-shut Nelson-Atkins hasn’t exactly spent all its time at the very fun Dolly Parton Stampede in Branson. The director emerged to “stand with Black Lives Matter.” He also tossed Kansas City cops from museum property when they needed it as a staging area as those “mostly peaceful protestors” tried to trash Country Club Plaza. The director said, of the cops at the museum, “It’s exactly the opposite of what we stand for.”

No comment from him on the six black-on-black murders in Kansas City the weekend of August 8, or the 100 other black-on-black murders since the beginning of the year. Those lives? Non la moda di oggi — unless a cop’s implicated, it’s a yawn.

Other than diving into politics, the city’s biggest and best civic museum keeps the public out — you know, the public it’s supposed to serve. “We miss you,” the director proclaims in a video. And send us money for our Museum Recovery Fund. Recovery from what? A sleep hangover?

The stay-at-home stragglers like the Nelson-Atkins are finally opening in a couple of weeks.

View of a Pitti Palace ceiling, Florence, Italy. (Joshua Earle/Unsplash)

Italian museums tend to deal with serious business rather than vanity causes. Their biggest challenge isn’t how long they can keep the doors shut. It’s governance. It’s who runs the show. American museums seem to want to jump into politics. Italian museums want to get out of it.

Museums in Italy, owned and controlled by the state, have been infested with politics and sclerotic because of it. For years, museum red tape in Italy ran as long as the Via Flaminia. Around 2014, this and money shortages, long, disorganized lines, bad security, decaying buildings, intellectual stagnation, zero technology, and next-to-zero visitor services reached a point of crisis, not operatic crisis because those aren’t real, but a point where a sense of embarrassment, missed opportunity, and danger were deeply felt.

Museum attendance in Italy was low. Curators felt that their duties were limited to caring for art. Directors thought that their role was like that of a courtier: dealing with political muckety-mucks and refereeing fights among the staff. There was little sense that the museums served the public. Nothing good could happen, most believed, unless museums were freed from politics and given more autonomy.

The fact was, Italian museums needed to do more for the public, at a time when American museums seemed to want to do less.

In 2015, the Italian culture minister, the museum system’s boss, acted — and acted radically. Dario Franceschini pushed about 20 museum directors, all Italian and all old-timers, into retirement. He replaced them with foreigners, mostly Germans, Brits, and Americans. Almost all had worked in American or British museums, which have modern standards in all areas Italian museums didn’t.

Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius were outsiders — from Spain — and they went to Rome to fix things. This time, Rome reached to Minneapolis, Bonn, Vienna, and Chicago.

It was museological electric-shock therapy. Foreigners went to museums ranging in size from the Uffizi, the Accademia in Venice, and the Capodimonte in Naples to the museum at Paestum, the Brera in Milan, and the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. All the museums were distinguished. They included the Accademia in Florence, the funky sculpture museum that owns Michelangelo’s David. It’s one of Italy’s top tourist attractions.

The initiative allowed directors to manage their own budgets. They could raise money on their own. They could organize exhibitions and, more important, make loans without government permission. The Italian culture ministry created a battle in 2018 over Italian loans to the Leonardo retrospective at the Louvre, which I covered. Museums were allowed to establish their own boards with some independence from the government.

Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa, 1545–54. Bronze, exterior. (Galleria Uffizi. Photo courtesy of the Galleria Uffizi.)

Trauma ensued on multiple levels, and after five years it’s still a developing story. Franceschini was part of a Socialist government that collapsed in 2016. A new culture minister from another party, the Five Star Movement, tried to fire the new directors. There had already been lawsuits starting in 2016 challenging the appointments on residency grounds — the foreign directors were ineligible because they weren’t Italians. Duh — wasn’t that the point? These lawsuits failed.

Alberto Bonisoli, the new culture minister, then wouldn’t renew foreign directors’ contracts. He said the jobs should go to Italians, but what he really meant was that the old-boy, incestuous era of museum mismanagement was fine with him. He wanted to keep high culture political. Museums mean patronage. They occupy the best real estate in town. Not that Italians would ever liquidate their national collections, but art, as was the case in the Leonardo show, became a political cudgel in disputes with the French, having nothing to do with art.

Bonisoli almost won. He so destabilized the museum world that some of the new directors left. Earlier this year, though, the Five Star coalition collapsed. The Socialists returned to power, as did Franceschini, who is again the culture minister. He’s still committed to reforming Italian museums, what he called “a battlefront in the war against provincialism,” and he and some of the foreign directors he appointed are signing contracts to stay. He’s reversed all of Bonisoli’s U-turns. This is a good thing.

Titiano Vecelli, called Titian (1490–1576), Danae, 1544–45. Oil on canvas. (Museo di Capodimonte. Photo courtesy of the museum.)

About 20 museums are experimenting with outside directors. It’s a work in progress for many, but I’ve seen and read about lots of new ideas. The Capodimonte treasures exhibition I reviewed a few weeks ago at the Kimbell in Fort Worth came from Sylvain Bellenger’s museum in Naples. They lent their best things. He’s French, but I knew him when he was a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He believes in collaborating with American museums. The Capodimonte made a bundle, and I think the Kimbell paid to clean the art in the show so it looked its best.

Bellanger has spoken about technology, especially high-quality digital imaging that lets online viewers see objects in detail. In his own scholarship, he’s learned a lot through microscopic looking, but the art has to be digitized. Until the past few years, museum technology in Italy dated to the days of Nero. This is changing.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, active 1278–1311, Rucellai Madonna, c. 1285 (Galleria Uffizi, Florence/Public domain/via Wikimedia)

Earlier this year, Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi, put a shocking new idea on the table: repatriating religious art from the museums to its initial, intended home, in churches open to the public. He has spoken about returning Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna to Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The church is already open to the public and has good security. Giotto painted it for a specific spot there, considering the lighting and sight lines. It’s meant to promote worship. Let’s see if this happens, but I’m not against it.

Schmidt came from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. We were both curators at the same time. He established a timed ticket system for the Uffizi — not exciting, but it reduces lines. The Uffizi lent generously to the Raphael exhibition I reviewed earlier this month. One of its curators helped organize the show.

Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Paestum archaeological site since 2015 (Photo courtesy of Paestum and Velia Archaeological Site)

The Uffizi and the Capodimonte are big art museums, but not all the museums served by new, foreign directors are big, in the city, or even focused on art. Gabriel Zuchtriegel is now in his second five-year term as director of the Paestum Archaeological Park, which preserves and interprets three well-preserved Doric temples from 550 b.c. to 450 b.c. He’s a young German archaeologist. During his time there, he’s done a snazzy website, exhibitions, and fundraising drives, among them an Adopt-a-Block Friends program — that is, adopt a block of a Paestum temple. In breaking news, Zuchtriegel told me when I spoke to him that he’s just become an Italian citizen, so he’s no longer considered a foreigner. He’s delighted.

Paestum is near Naples and is, to me, as moving as Pompeii, without the crowds. The temples are in beautiful condition, for 2,500-year-old buildings, and I love the hefty, austere Doric order. Zuchtriegel is an academic and sees Paestum’s potential for research. He wants to make it better known, too, for tourists and connoisseurs, since donors won’t support a place if no one comes and it has no visibility.

The website has what it calls a transparency page. American museums sometimes have pages with the names of the staff and trustees but almost never with the director’s contact information. But transparency is one of the goals for Italian museums, many of which would rather experience a Vesuvius-style blast than a blast of fresh air and sunlight in how they do business.

At some point, I’ll do an institutional profile on the Brera Picture Gallery. Its director, James Bradburne, is one of the foreign directors appointed in 2015, though he’d already been director of the Palazzo Strozzi, a private museum in Florence that mostly does exhibitions. Bradburne is British. I’ve always thought he was one of the most experimental, exciting museum directors anywhere.

He is more an anthropologist than an art historian and has applied to the Brera a style of learning and teaching similar to the Montessori method. The Brera collection is mostly religious art confiscated from churches and monasteries when Napoleon ran through northern Italy. It’s a focused, unusual collection. Lots of saints, Jesuses, and Madonnas, in a secular world.

Interior of the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan (Photo: James O’Mara. Courtesy of the Pinacoteca di Brera.)

Bradburne reinstalled the galleries to emphasize coziness and comfort. With cobalt and burgundy wall colors, they’re dramatic and inviting. The gallery interpretation isn’t pushy. Some objects have labels written by curators, others by writers, scientists, actors, priests, or doctors. Under his leadership, the Brera’s not a didactic place. It’s an accessible, emotional place.

The Brera, Uffizi, Capodimonte, and other reforming Italian museums are doing fundraising through friends’ groups, corporate sponsorships, and events. Since the Brera’s in Milan, Italy’s fashion capital, there’s more emphasis on style, even glitz, than, say, at the Paestum archeological site. Bradburne, for instance, hired the fashion house Trussardi to design snappy new uniforms for the guards.

He compares a museum to a park — there’s no test to get in, and everyone brings his or her own goals. So the Brera promotes self-discovery. For a museum with mostly religious art, there’s no preaching allowed, of any kind. There’s no set path, architectural or narrative, telling the visitor where to go. Bradburne’s institutional background before the Palazzo Strozzi was in science museums, so there’s an immersive component to his approach that I’m curious to see.

In any event, he’s given the sleepy Brera a salubrious shake, which was Franceschini’s objective when he hired foreigners to manage a chunk of Italy’s heritage. For all the controversy his hiring and restructure scheme caused, it affects only 20 museums out of hundreds in Italy. If Italy’s government stabilizes for a bit, he might expand his reforms. Right now, at least five of the 20 new directors have left, and left frustrated and angry.

Il lupo perde il pelo ma non il vizio. A leopard can’t change its spots. It’s from the Book of Jeremiah, and the Italians use it liberally to describe the intransigence that’s in their DNA. I think that over time Franceschini’s reforms are inevitable, though. The U.K. modernized its museum system starting in the 1980s, the French around 2000, and Spain starting with the Prado a little later.

This isn’t only about websites and fundraising. It’s about accountability, freedom from politics, and service to the public. With Italians moving in the right direction, it’s sad to see American museums, in love with their lockdowns, giving the public what the ancient Romans would call the “digitus impudicus,” the middle . . . digit.

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