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Now is the time for an Italian-American museum exchange programme

With Italy’s historic reform of its museums’ leadership at risk in the courts, what we need is a more collaboration not less

By Brian Allen

One of the most consequential art news stories of 2015 was the appointment by the Italian Ministry of Culture of 20 new museum directors leading institutions as large as the Uffizi in Florence and Capodimonte in Naples to smaller places like the Paestum Archaeological Park and National Gallery of the Marche in Urbino. When the appointment process started, the Ministry of Culture was clear that its search would embrace foreign candidates who could bring a more international understanding of museum fundraising, approaches to marketing, digital engagement, education, organisation of travelling loan shows, and public programming. And the ministry made good on its word. The goal was to jolt the Italian museum world from its sclerotic ways with both new blood and new perspectives. Specifically, the government felt that museums needed to modernise their ways and raise more of their own money in return for more autonomy from central authorities in Rome.

This historic reform was put at risk last month, when five of the museum directors were temporarily ousted from their positions by a controversial Italian court ruling. That decision was recently suspended but a public hearing on the case is due to be held on 26 October. The reluctance of Italian courts to sink the wave of modernising in Italian museums is a very good thing. It's the perfect time for collaboration across borders for the benefit of American and Italian art lovers.

In the late 1990s, the French museum system underwent a similar change under the leadership of Francoise Cachin, the head of the French national museum department. Cachin specifically targeted France's superb but overlooked and stagnant regional museums. The museum world in France focused almost exclusively on Paris museums while great regional museums in Lille, Bordeaux, Rouen, Toulouse, Montpellier, and elsewhere mouldered. Dilapidated infrastructure and entrenched staffs didn't help.

A key ingredient was a new organisation called the French Regional and American Museum Exchange, or Frame. This exchange was a collaboration of about ten American regional museums, among them Cleveland, Dallas, Minneapolis, the Clark Art Institute, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and the San Francisco county museum system, and ten regional French museums. These included the splendid fine arts museums in Lille, Rouen, Montpellier, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and other cities. It was run by the Impressionism scholar Richard Brettell and chaired by Cachin and Elizabeth Rohatyn, a great philanthropist, whose husband, Felix, was the American ambassador to France. This high-powered leadership reflected the central government's commitment to the enterprise.

I was a curator at the Clark then and, over the years, worked with my French and American colleagues on half a dozen shows planned together by Frame museums and traveling both to France and America. American museums get great shows and access to wonderful collections. French museums get American expertise. Enhanced cultural tourism was certainly a French goal since a vibrant regional museum system drew visitors toward great mid-sized French cities. I think my French colleagues learned much from us as we learned from them.

I would suggest a similar consortium of Italian and American museums. Frame consciously excluded museums in New York, Washington, and Chicago. Almost all the museums with new directors are outside of Rome. Whether this collaboration involves one-on-one pairings or larger number of players, the opportunities are enormous. I am a big believer in collection sharing and suppose a good, starting collaboration would include American museums whose permanent collections are underrepresented in Italy and vice versa.

I know the Clark best from my years there. It knows the benefits of Frame, has a long history of international collaborations, and has a focused collection of 19th-century French, British, and American art not normally seen in Italy. The Pinacoteca di Brera, with its great Old Masters, would seem a logical pairing given its similar scale and its new director, James Bradburne, who did many self-organised traveling loan shows when he led the Strozzi Palace. The new directors of the Uffizi and the Capodimonte were, respectively, long-time curators at Minneapolis and Cleveland, two of Frame's most active members.

When I was director of the Addison Gallery, we sent an American highlights show to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The show was one of the best-attended summer shows in Italy and taught me that there exists a tremendous hunger for American art there, whether it is historical or contemporary. Major regional American museums also have great collections of Asian, Near Eastern, Native American, African, and Latin American art not often seen in Italy.

There are logical foundations like the Terra Foundation to ask for start up funds. But a consortium is a no-brainier, and there is no time like the present to organise one when the spirit of change in the Italian museum world needs bolstering. Certainly there are American museum directors and curators willing to start a conversation with their Italian counterparts.

Brian Allen was the director of the museum division of the New-York Historical Society, director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, and curator of American art and director of collections and exhibitions at the Clark Art Institute.