BY Barbara Casavecchia in Opinion | 12 FEB 21

Reasons to Be Optimistic: How Italy’s Art institutions Arose from the Pandemic

A country which was once the epicentre of COVID-19 has seen its art scene flourish thanks to the museumscommunity-driven response to the crisis

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Opinion | 12 FEB 21

One year on from Italy’s first wave of COVID-19 infections, frieze contributing editor Barbara Casavecchia spoke with museum curators and directors in northern Italy to discuss how the country’s cultural institutions responded to the crisis.

‘We are now where you will be in a few days,’ wrote novelist Francesca Melandri in a piece for the Guardian newspaper in late March 2020. Her moving ‘letter from your future’ coincided with the beginning of the first pandemic wave in Italy. One year on, her words can be repeated – only this time with a more optimistic resonance.

Jessica Stockholder, ‘Cut a rug a round square’, 2021, exhibition view, Officine Grandi Riparazioni, Turin. Courtesy: Officine Grandi Riparazioni, Turin

As of last week, Italian museums, foundations and galleries were finally permitted to start reopening their doors post-lockdown. So, what lessons can be learned from their responses to the crisis? Driven to drastically rethink how to engage with their audiences, some cultural institutions resorted to acts of care. In the spring of 2020, for instance, Officine Grandi Riparazioni (OGR) in Turin offered its monumental industrial spaces to the city to build a COVID hospital, which was set up in record time and operated on site for 100 days. When the venue was reopened as an exhibition space in autumn 2020, OGR changed its ticketing policy to grant free access to all visitors and expand safe public space. Artist Jessica Stockholder, who curated the current exhibition Cut a rug a round square’, stated: ‘I hope that this space now provides an opportunity for those who pass through to take pleasure in flights of fancy, and to value their own agency as they take in the extraordinary range of world building encompassed by the artworks.’ On a similar note, Castello di Rivoli announced in January that it had volunteered as venue for the vaccination campaign, while its director, Carolyn-Christov Bakargiev, launched ‘Digital PTSD’, an online programme of talks and artworks that, over the coming months, will explore ‘the traumatic consequences of the sudden increase in virtual activities.

L'Arte Cura (Art Helps) campaign by Castello di Rivoli and the City of Rivoli, 2021. Courtesy: Castello di Rivoli

Back in March 2020, Bergamo’s small but energetic Galleria Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAMeC) – directed by Lorenzo Giusti – found itself at the epicentre of the pandemic’s deadliest region in Europe. It responded by becoming the voice of the area. Fuelled by the joint energies of Giusti, journalist Leonardo Merlini and press consultant Lara Facco, the museum initiated Radio GAMeC – a series of Instagram Live conversations involving artists, curators, politicians, doctors, designers, scientists, musicians, writers and athletes – to raise money for a local hospital in urgent need of supplies. In these videos, hosts and guests, united in grief, addressed the unspeakable horror of the situation, while also sharing ideas for community engagement. ‘After one week, it was clear that Radio GAMeC had a special meaning for the city. We immediately realized that we had to cross-pollinate our little art world with others and expand the areas where different communities could intersect,’ says Giusti. During the summer, the museum’s courtyard hosted open-air events – conversations, plays, concerts – which were broadcast live. In autumn 2020, Radio GAMeC teamed up with Radio Popolare (one of the oldest independent, listener-supported radio stations in Italy) to tour different areas of the province of Bergamo, broadcasting from a camper van. By adopting this hybrid form of information dissemination and entertainment, the museum has reached new audiences. Sixty-six episodes of Radio GAMeC are currently featured in the group show ‘Ti Bergamo’ (a clever pun reading as: I Love Bergamo), which retraces the city’s past year through its collective projects. New live episodes of Radio GAMeC will be hosted on Clubhouse, while plans for the creation of a permanent webradio are under way.

Radio GAMeC in Arnosto. 2020. Courtesy: GAMeC, Bergamo

The Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna chose a different strategy for engaging with its local community. Under the name Nuovo Forno del Pane (New Bread Oven), it opened – with all due safety measures in place – its ground floor, visible from the street, to a group of young artists and writers, selected via open call. By endowing them with grants and working areas, the institution was able to continue incubating new projects while supporting those who generate them. ‘In the first instance, this model envisages a shift from the idea of the museum as an exhibition institution to one that is instead productive,’ explained director Lorenzo Balbi. On February 28, the project will come to an end with a closing even involving all the participants, the acquisition of six artworks and the publication of a journal. ‘But the project leaves behind many other traces,’ says curator Caterina Molteni. ‘We have learned a lot from living and thinking together – none of which would have been possible if the city had not reimagined and supported the production of culture.’

Allison Grimaldi Donahue' s studio at Nuovo Forno del Pane, 2020, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna. Courtesy: Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna photograph: Valentina Cafarotti and Federico Landi

Another significant legacy of 2020 was the launch of Art Workers Italia (AWI), a coalition striving ‘towards a systemic change supporting an egalitarian future for all marginalized identities in respect to gender, ethnicity, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, age and nationality. AWI is not an artistic or curatorial project – rather, it is a non-hierarchical and collective undertaking.’ Let’s think of it as another letter from a truly caring future. 

Main image: Bergamo, Italy, November, 2015. Courtesy and photograph: Davide Seddio / Getty Images

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.