Thinking of applying for an Italian museum job? Don't
British-Canadian director of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence may be the next victim of local power games
By Anna Somers Cocks and Laura Lombardi. Museums, Issue 259, July-August 2014
Published online: 15 July 2014
For 15 years at least, Italian politicians and cultural commentators have been complaining that Italy’s museums are backward compared with those in the US and UK: often grubby, sometimes careless with their collections, badly labelled, unimaginatively displayed, with negligible attempts at outreach, they are, with very few exceptions, incapable of attracting a large and wide public.
Every now and again they appoint a foreigner, such as James Bradburne, in the hope of getting a bit of that magical know-how, and then they get rid of him or her in humiliating, destructive and unprofessional ways that in the UK or US would be inconceivable.
There are three reasons why this happens. The first is that museums are seen as political pawns, to be played with as part of local power games. The second is that there is a widespread belief that one should be able to make money directly out of museums and exhibitions, and the third is the misconception that Italian museums are lagging because they are run by scholars and that their substitution by managers would solve all the problems.
The reality, though, is that no fully functioning museums make a profit, almost no exhibitions do so, and not a single art museum in the UK or US is run by a managerial figure. The director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a specialist in tapestries, the director of the Tate is a contemporary art expert; even the J. Paul Getty Trust, a huge cultural complex with a $4.2bn endowment, has appointed an art historian as its third president and chief executive after two who were administrators.
These directors hold the power, while managerial figures of a lower rank assist them. The boards are not there to meddle in executive matters but to guarantee the security of the collections, approve major expenditure, raise money, give advice and generally support the director.
Local politics could undo Bradburne’s good works
The big names of the Florentine art world are rallying in support of James Bradburne, the British-Canadian museum director who has been at the helm of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi since 2006. But Bradburne’s mandate has been renewed only until May 2015, and the foundation’s board has, without telling him, engaged the London-based headhunters Saxton Bampfylde to look for other candidates.
Bradburne has been unanimously credited with creating the Strozzi’s reputation as one of the city’s most vibrant cultural institutions, as well as restoring its curatorial and scholarly credibility. The Strozzi is also now known for its impeccable object-handling and security record—essential for an institution that does not have a permanent collection. Bradburne has turned the palazzo, previously often closed and always gloomy, into a hub of Florentine life.
“I wanted the foundation to achieve two things,” says Bradburne: “To bring international exhibitions and events to Florence, and give back the palazzo to the city.”
The nature of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi is experimental for the Italian museum system. Its board is composed of the city government, the chamber of commerce and its private founding members. This has sometimes proved to be the foundation’s weakness, however. In the current financial climate, numbers and statistics count too much, and some of the Strozzi’s highest quality exhibitions have not attracted the number of visitors expected.
The main problem is that the average tourist does not come to Florence to see temporary exhibitions, unlike other cities such as Bologna, where a recent exhibition of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, around 1665, drew 342,000 visitors, compared with the 95,000 who came to see “The Springtime of the Renaissance” at the Strozzi last year.
On the other hand, the latter exhibition was considered of such quality that it was taken on by the Louvre, where it was a huge success, and another exhibition later this year, on large-scale bronzes, is also being exported, to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Palazzo Strozzi has generated €16m a year in expenditure, and the wider economic impact of its activities in the surrounding territory is calculated at €30m in 2013. In 2011 the three factors that guaranteed the foundation’s success were put at risk: its public-private governance; the three-year sponsorship deals guaranteed by the private founding members; and the 50:50 split between public and private funding. “In the past eight years, the foundation has never gone over budget except in 2013 when funds from the Provincial government were slashed,” Bradburne says.
“The Provincial government has pulled out, while the founding private members have reduced their contributions by around €1.1m since 2006, so there is less overall with which to make exhibitions. Nevertheless, the “Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino” show (until 20 July) and “Picasso and Spanish Modernity”, which opens on 20 September, will generate more that €3m in ticket sales and sponsorship deals,” says Bradburne, who hopes that the financial conditions with which the foundation launched will be reinstated.
The economist Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, the president of the foundation, says: “We [he and Bradburne] started this together and created something unique in Italy. I think the city is grateful, and whatever the board’s future choice may be will follow the line that has been established”. The publisher Mario Cura, a member of the city’s chamber of commerce, says: “Bradburne has brought with him an Anglo-Saxon spirit and way of doing things that has opened up Palazzo Strozzi. It’s not for me to decide what the foundation should do, but if he leaves, then the institution will need to be run in a similar manner.”
Cold comfort here for Bradburne, then. On the other hand, Cristina Acidini, the superintendent for Florence’s cultural heritage, says: “Bradburne has put all his energy, creativity, experience and a vast network of contacts into the foundation, and has attracted important sponsors. He’s the only one in Florence who brings exhibitions up to an international standard. Perhaps his independence from the political landscape rubs some people up the wrong way—I hope he doesn’t become a victim of local system [of I rub your back if you rub mine].”
Leonardo Ferragamo, one of the founding private members, concurs: “Bradburne’s work has been simply extraordinary—a perfect mix of creativity, passion and professionalism.”
Meanwhile, the new mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, talks about establishing links between some of the city’s institutions in the way pioneered by Bradburne. “We are trying to see whether we can build a private-public network, composed of the Fortezza da Basso, Palazzo dei Congressi, the new Teatro dell’Opera and the Stazione Leopolda (if we manage to buy this). It would be a fundamental step towards creating a foundation that could straddle different sectors, and the contribution by Palazzo Strozzi would be invaluable.”
Three recent Italian case histories
The directorship of Turin’s Museo Egizio
In 2005 the Egyptologist Eleni Vassilika, a US-UK citizen, was appointed director of the Museo Egizio in Turin when it changed status from being a State body to a trustee museum, the first of its kind in Italy. Its very large board, representing local government and the bank foundations who were partially financing it, disagreed about whether they wanted a scholar-director or not, the compromise being to appoint Vassilika for a two-year contract, then a pair of one-year contracts, an impossibly short time for any director to implement any radical changes. They undermined her yet more by reconfirming her only a month or two before the end of each contract. The chairman of the board, Alain Elkann, a member of the influential Agnelli family, intervened in the management on an almost daily basis. She was also subject to vexatious limitations, such as having to ask permission from the disgruntled state officials, the superintendency whenever she needed to move an exhibit; she often had to wait weeks for a reply. But from being a dirty, badly labelled museum with deplorable environmental care for the collections and fewer than 300,000 visitors a year, Vassilika turned the museum into an institution that lived up to international curatorial standards and attracted 540,000 visitors a year. Despite this, after a change in the chairmanship of the board, in 2013 she was told that she had to take part in an open competition for her job. It was then given to Christian Greco, an Italian Egyptologist at Leiden University. Vassilika has gone on to be the curatorial director of the National Trust, which is in effect the directorship of the largest diffuse museum in the UK.
The chairmanship of the Venice civic museums
In 2010 the outgoing mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, appointed David Landau to be president of the board of its important civic museums. Landau, who lives in Venice, is Israeli-born but educated in Italy, co-author of the key book on Italian Renaissance prints, a highly successful entrepreneur, former trustee of London's National Gallery and then chairman of its subsidiary commercial company, so he was uniquely well qualified for this position. Three months later the succeeding mayor, Giorgio Orsoni (who resigned last month after being arrested for accepting illegal party contributions) sacked him by sending the local police to serve him notice. Landau’s sin: to have looked too closely into decades of poor administration and tried to stop an exhibitions policy that consisted essentially in renting out the galleries to whomever could pay the fees. Despite this slap in the face, he and his wife have gone on to give the city Le Stanze del Vetro, its only dedicated space for exhibitions of 20th-century and contemporary glass, which they finance entirely themselves.
The directorship of Turin’s Castello di Rivoli museum of contemporary art
In this case, local politics managed to make a mockery of an international consultation process, waste the time of those interviewed for the job and mess up the leadership of a museum that had acquired an international reputation, reducing it to local significance. The retirement of Ida Gianelli, the very able director of this museum, ended a creative partnership with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, her deputy, who had been appointed the curator of the 2012 Documenta. Christov-Bakargiev stayed on in 2009 to run the search for a new director, asking numerous figures such as Nicholas Serota of the Tate and Udo Kittelmann, the director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, to propose candidates. A number, both Italian and foreign, were interviewed, and Jens Hoffmann, then the director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, was chosen. But Gianni Oliva, the head of cultural affairs for the regional government of Piedmont, which provided €4m a year for the Castello di Rivoli, insisted that his protegé, the director of the Turin fair Artissima, Andrea Bellini (who had not been nominated by the expert advisers), should be appointed. The board announced a dual directorship, but Hoffmann withdrew, saying that the terms of the job had changed from those advertised. Beatrice Merz, the head of the local Fondazione Merz, took his place and remains acting director, although her contract ran out at the end of 2012; Andrea Bellini left in June 2012. An attempt in 2013 to find a new director failed due “to a lack international candidates”, as the appointment board explained. Christov-Bakargiev, now one the world's most distinguished curators, said: “The Castello di Rivoli board never suggested I join the board or remain connected to the museum in any way. Had they done so, I might have considered putting in for the directorship myself”.
CORRECTION: In the July-August 2014 edition, the article "Thinking of applying for an Italian museum job? Don't" wrongly stated that Andrea Bellini, former co-director of the Castello di Rivoli museum in Turin, had not been proposed as a potential candidate by any of the expert advisors. This is not true, and we apologise.
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