Friday, October 17, 2014

Top International Museum Directors Meet in Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Palazzo Ducale - Sala dello Scrutinio
(Venice, Italy) The directors of some of the most prestigious museums in the world met at Palazzo Ducale, the former headquarters of the Venetian Republic, on Monday, October 13, 2014 to compare notes about how they ran their institutions -- how they are funded, where their focus lies, and the responsibilities of museums in today's changing world -- in a conference entitled, CULTURAL HERITAGE: INTERNATIONAL EXCELLENCE AND THE CHALLENGE FOR ITALY. All agreed that museums belonged to the people, places where visitors come looking for answers. In addition to our own Gabriella Belli, the Director of the Fondazione Musei Civici here in Venice, present were Michail Piotrovskij, Director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia; Martin Roth, Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, UK; Gabriele Finaldi, Associate Director of the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain, and Paolo Baratta, the President of Fondazione La Biennale in Venice. It was fascinating to learn how museums are organized in different parts of the world, and how tangled the bureaucracy can become.

Up from Rome was Dario Franceschini, the Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage himself, who recently changed a bunch of laws about how State museums in Italy are run -- for example, they are now free the first Sunday of each month; the major museums are open until 10:00PM on Friday nights; you can now take photos; people over 65 now must pay; there are new tax credits, and more.

State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Museums around the world have acquired their treasures by different means. Russian Empress Catherine the Great laid the foundation for the State Hermitage Museum, purchasing a huge amount of Western European works of art in 1764, seeking to bridge the gap between Russia and the West. The Victoria & Albert Museum had its origins in the first World Expo, "The Great Exhibition of 1851" in London, an idea of Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria. The beginnings of Prado in Madrid were due to Queen Maria Isabel's passion for art; she died in 1818, a year before Museo Nacianal del Prado opened. And when it comes to Italy... well, Italy was not even a united kingdom until 1861, and Venice itself was not annexed into the Kingdom of Italy until 1866, and add to that the Vatican... so Italy, as usual, is complicated. 

Back in the days when I wrote for the International Herald Tribune's Italian supplement, Italy Daily, about 15 years ago, I had to navigate between the different museums and cultural centers here in Venice, and sometimes it was baffling. Back then, each museum had its own bureaucracy, and just finding the person who had the power to streamline my mission was a labyrinth. However, in 2008, a foundation was created called Fondazione Musei Civici with just one founding member, the Comune of Venice, which has made an unbelievable difference in the ability of the immense artistic wealth of Venice to become more accessible.

Gabriella Belli, Director Museo Civici in Venice
According to their site: "The Foundation manages and promotes a museum system that is detailed, complex, but rich and financially sound; it enjoys total administrative and managerial independence – under the control of the Steering Commitee – thus allowing operational and planning agility, considerable transparent entrepreneurial motivation, an efficient and rational corporate structure, and the ability to unite and recruit resources."

I think Gabriella Belli, the Director of the Musei Civici, is terrific. She seems to be everywhere all the time, with an energy that is indefatigable. Venice has a whopping 11 civic museums, each with their own unique treasures and personalities: the Palazzo Ducale, the Correr, Ca' Pesaro, Palazzo Mocenigo, Palazzo Fortuny, Ca' Rezzonico, the Clock Tower, Carlo Goldoni's House, the Natural History Museum, the Glass Museum on Murano, and the Lace Museum on Burano. Overseeing all those institutions takes an enormous effort, and Belli does it with grace and efficiency. In addition, Venice has private foundations and museums with its own collections, as well as museums run by the State and the Church, and after a period of adjustment, most of the cultural institutions in the city now have a genuine spirit of cooperation and comradeship.

The conference opened with greetings from Walter Hartsarich, the President of the Fondazione Musei Civici. He spoke about how it was a crucial time for cultural heritage in Italy, and how courage was necessary to meet the new pace, and new needs. Next up was Vittorio Zappalorto, who was appointed Special Commissioner to Venice after our mayor was arrested for corruption. Zappalorto said that now that the division of labor between the comune, province, region and state is clear, there are no more excuses to perform badly, and that Venice wants to provide an example to the world for sustainable tourism.

Doge's Palace - Venice
Gabriella Belli said that Venice is really different from any other city. Its very beauty is caused by its frailty. There are more than 500,000 works of art in its collection, a huge concentration in a small area. Belli said that they wanted to get away from the approach that exhibitions are the same for years -- Venice's visitors are visitors of the world, and they compare Venice to museums all over the world. Venice now has the capability to change its headline exhibitions quickly, and has reorganized the permanent collections. Belli stressed that the Civic Museums belonged to Venetians; that it was their heritage, and they were encouraging more visits from residents in Venice and the mainland.

The Winter Palace - State Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
Michail Piotrovskij, the Director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in Russia spoke next. Venice is the new headquarters for "Ermitage Italy" located right in Piazza San Marco, the result of a cultural exchange between State Hermitage and Italy. Piotrovskij said he was glad they were in Venice. He said, "We are in St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great. We are not in the center of Europe, but we are part of European culture."

We should remember that St. Petersburg was the imperial capital from 1713-1728 and again from 1732-1918, created by Peter the Great beginning in 1703 on barren marshland (much like Venice) to integrate Russia into Western Europe and seize a Baltic port, his "Window on the West." So, for more than 200 years St. Petersburg was the capital of Russia, until the communist revolution. Then, the  Bolsheviks, lead by Vladimir Lenin, stormed the Winter Palace -- which is now part of the State Hermitage Museum -- during the October Revolution of 1917, moved the capital to Moscow, and changed the name of the city to Leningrad after Lenin's death in 1924. It was not until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 that Leningrad changed back to St. Petersburg, which is still recognized as the cultural capital of Russia.

Piotrovskij said he was concerned that there was a new Iron Curtain being erected between Russia and other countries. He said that museums need to be defended from conflicts, and they were building bridges even if all other bridges are destroyed. They have a good relationship with Venice, and he wished that the UK and France would follow suit -- that we needed to maintain bridges of friendship. He said, "The government tells me, 'You can't live in a museum.'" Piotrovskij replied, "Better to live in a museum than a shipyard." He said he loved living in a museum. "Living in a museum is beautiful."

Museo Nacional del Prado - Madrid, Spain
The Museo Nacional de Prado is Spain's national art museum, and has spent the last 15 years in transformation, expanding its structure and the number of employees, according to Gabriele Finaldi, the Associate Director. In the early half of the 1990s it was the "Inferno of Europe," and now is a sleeping lion ready to wake up. It contains the royal collection -- Titian's works purchased by the Spanish crown are housed there, in addition to the finest collection of Spanish art on the planet. In the mid 1990s it changed its legal status; all its officers became direct employees, and it now can participate in business, similar to the Bank of Spain. Finaldi said that 60% of foreigners visit the permanent collection as opposed to 40% locals, whereas a temporary exhibit attracts 60% locals and 40% foreigners. He said it is also a contemporary museum. "Goya was still alive when his work was put into the museum."

Victoria & Albert Museum - London, UK
Martin Roth, the Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, declared, "I believe in museums." He said a museum is never the same, and changes with the culture and politics. He said the V&A was a brilliant idea by Prince Albert, an ongoing World's Fair, and that a museum is an open institution for everyone; it belongs to us all -- from the taxi drivers, to the Queen, to the green grocer. Since the UK has had such a huge influx of refugees, they have created exhibits to reflect those cultures -- "If you are a refugee, come to the V&A." He said their Board of Trustees is completely independent, and he didn't like the US system where you buy yourself onto the Board. He said he had a friend in the US who was going to retire from a Board because it was "too dangerous." Roth said, "It's not supposed to be that way!" He said the V&A was a local museum for a global audience, and that it attacted a lot of young people who came just to hang out. All museums in the UK are free. He said, "A museum is never a business, but you can run it business-like."

La Biennale - Venice, Italy
Paolo Baratta, the President of La Biennale, Venice's Contemporary Art Festival, said "No monarch left me a legacy." He said that Italy's history was completely different. Italy was once composed of many city-states, and the various monarchs collected art. When the small states fell, there was widespread pillage. Unlike the V& A and the Hermitage, which were aimed at creating museums, in Italy, the goal was to keep the objects safe.The government appointed superintendents who had prefecture-like powers. They protected assets owned by third parties, and the focus was on the monetary value of the work.

The Venice Biennale was the first Biennale in the world, created by a group of farsighted thinkers in 1893. There are now 157 Biennales worldwide. The focus is on research and discovery, and the relationship with the past -- to read the present with historical depth. Baratta calls La Biennale a "Wind Machine," a machine of desire whose primary urge is to give form to the curtain that has been thrown over us. The focus is not on the monetary value of the work, but on cultural research.

Dario Franceschini at Palazzo Ducale, Venice
Dario Franceschini is the Minister of Cultural Heritage under Italy's newest, and youngest, Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, who is set on making sweeping changes to a country wracked with corruption and stifled by bureaucracy. Former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was forced to resign over numerous scandals in 2011; his Minister of Culture, Giancarlo Galan, was just sentenced yesterday, October 16, to 34 months in prison and a €2.6 million fine for charges of corruption linked to MOSES, Venice's flood barrier.

Franceschini said there needs to be a central role for culture, which, at the present, does not exist. He said there must be a common European identity that can only take place through culture. He said we must build a union, an institute for dialogue, when politics can't talk and borders are difficult. He said we must convince the decision makers that investment in creative institutions can overcome the crisis. Art collections are closely linked to territory, and investments need to be made in their unique nature.

He said we should adopt sustainable tourism, and that we are temporary owners of a heritage that belongs to humanity. He said that before businesses had no incentives to invest in art and museums -- now they do.

The conference continued all afternoon with speakers on the local level. Pierpaolo Forte, the President of the Museum of Contemporary Art Donnaregina in Madre, Naples summed it up: "We are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants. There is a danger to worship our history more than our future."


As it has throughout the centuries, Europe needs to stand firmly and courageously on its rich cultural heritage as the foundation in moving toward the future. The future is now.

Beni Culturali: le eccellenze internazionali e la scommessa italiana
Venice, Palazzo Ducale
Sala dello Scrutinio
Monday, October 13, 2014

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. The directors of some of the most prestigious museums in the world met at Palazzo Ducale, the former headquarters of the Venetian Republic, on Monday, October 13, 2014 to compare notes about how they ran their institutions -- how they are funded, where their focus lies, and the responsibilities of museums in today's changing world

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