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Why Italy’s museums need this shake-up

And why this major overhaul of the country’s state museums can still go very wrong due to vested interests and bureaucracy

by Ermanno Rivetti  |  3 July 2015
Why Italy’s museums need this shake-up
Bernini's The Rape of Proserpina (1622) in Galleria Borghese
In the 18 months since he took office, the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi’s impact on domestic politics has been marked by his charismatic and sometimes forceful leadership style; the Italian media have nicknamed him “il rottamatore” (the scrapper). While he attempts to put Italy’s education system and employment law through radical reforms, his minister of culture, Dario Franceschini, is doing the same with the country’s beleaguered museums, famous for the strength of their collections but bogged down by outdated management and labyrinthine bureaucratic practices.

In January this year, the ministry of culture announced an international competition to find energetic new manager-directors for 20 of the country’s most important state museums, ranging from household names such as the Uffizi (Florence), the Accademia (Venice) and the Galleria Borghese (Rome) to less well-known institutions such as the Palazzo Reale (Genoa) and the Galleria Estense (Modena). The successful candidates were meant to be announced in July but have been delayed until the end of August.

The culture ministry looks abroad
For the first time ever, foreign candidates have been invited to apply, and fluency in business management, rather than Italian, is the main requirement. What’s more, museums are to have a great deal more autonomy, including the power to fundraise independently and invest the proceeds back into the institution. Officially there have been 1,200 Italian applications and 80 foreign ones (although some candidates may have applied for multiple positions).

For a country where museums have traditionally been run by Italian academics more interested in scholarship than merchandising, and whose purse strings and policy have been controlled by the ministry in Rome, this is an enormous change. Despite Italy’s vast cultural heritage, public funding for the country’s institutions and archaeological sites has fallen from €2.7bn in 2001 to around €1.6bn last year, according to figures from the ministry of culture.

In Italy, opposition to the reforms has been fierce. Existing museum directors have found themselves forced to reapply for their own jobs (some have and some have not) and scores of other employees from the ministry of culture are facing the uncertainty that comes with such a major overhaul. Concerns have also been raised about the remaining 4,000 or so of the country’s museums, which are being reorganised into regional groups with a combined ticketing system, but which some say may become marginalised in favour of the main group of 20.

Many of those in favour of this specific plan are also identifying flaws and inconsistencies that have yet to be addressed by the authorities. “Foreigners will soon find out that ‘autonomy’ is a relative term because existing links with the ministry will remain and, naturally, new directors won’t have the power to hire and fire and they will end up clashing with the complex labour unions that are typical of this country,” says Davide Gasparotto, the senior curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, previously the director of the Galleria Estense, Modena.

“It’s a positive step forward,” says Vicente Todolì, the artistic director of Milan’s HangarBicocca, “but for museums to be totally independent they also need independent boards of trustees”. So far the ministry of culture has given little indication as to how these boards will be formed. If the new director’s hands are bound by the same red tape as their predecessors, and if all that actually changes is the person in charge, then this initiative could turn into nothing more than a hollow reshuffle, which the most sceptical opposers believe will consolidate rather than relax the ministry’s hold on the system.

A museum professional who asked not to be named questions the entire initiative: is the ministry really going to hand over Italy’s most important museums to foreign directors? The salaries, which have been increased to around €80,000 to €150,000, might entice some European professionals, but they pale in comparison to top US museum directors’ earnings.

Keeping scholarship alive
“If the rules really change, and I hope they do, the new directors, whether foreign or not, will have an easier time than we did,” says Cristina Acidini, the much admired former head of Florence’s state museums, whose post has been scrapped as part of the reforms.

James Bradburne, the former head of Florence’s Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, one of the few, if not the only, example of a successful Italian museum run independently following the US/UK management model, sums up what many supporters of the reform think. “There is no question that Italian museums need improving, but it can’t be a just a case of putting people with MBAs in charge,” he says, adding: “Some of the past directors were already highly qualified—Cristina Acidini could run the British Museum tomorrow if needed.”

The fact that the ministry’s call for applicants was advertised in the Economist in January seems to indicate that the government is seeking candidates with business expertise, rather than art scholars. Another museum professional who asked not to be named points to the danger of taking art historians out of the equation: “All the people [in Italy] I’ve ever encountered on the curatorial side, including museum directors, are seriously committed scholars and I’ve seen no equivalent phenomenon anywhere else, especially compared to the UK or US, where the higher up you go the further you get from scholarship.”

Bradburne says: “At the bottom of this is the fact that Italy is a steward of around 80% of Europe’s cultural heritage—it’s the source of Western culture.” The number of applications is proof that there are enough professionals out there who want to give it a try, but the real challenge is not choosing the candidates, it is making sure the system is flexible enough to allow them to do their jobs properly.

The big 20
First tier
Galleria Borghese, Rome
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome
Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
Museo di Capodimonte, Naples
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
Reggia di Caserta, Caserta
Second tier
Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence
Galleria Estense, Modena
Gallerie Nazionali d’arte Antica, Rome
Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino
Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia
Museo Archeologico Nazionale
di Napoli, Naples
Museo Archeologico Nazionale
di Paestum
Museo Archeologico Nazionale
di Reggio Calabria
Museo Nazionale Archeologico
di Taranto
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Palazzo Ducale, Mantua
Palazzo Reale, Genoa
Polo Reale di Torino, Turin

Ermanno Rivetti, with additional reporting from Il Giornale dell’Arte

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