BY Ana Vukadin in Opinion | 27 OCT 22

What’s Behind the Boom in Rome’s Artist-Run Spaces?

How spontaneous, informal networks are transforming the art scene of the eternal city

BY Ana Vukadin in Opinion | 27 OCT 22

Last October, Damiana Leoni, the co-founder of Galleria Lorcan O’Neill and now Art Basel VIP representative for Italy, published the beautifully designed, 352-page hardbound book Vera. The result of an impressive feat undertaken during the pandemic, the publication traced the burgeoning contemporary art scene in Rome and shone much-needed light on the young artists setting up shared studios and experimental project spaces in still-affordable parts of the city.

Vera, 2021, produced by Damiana Leoni and edited by Emma Rosi

When Vera hit the stands last winter, the Italian press treated this boom in contemporary art as a sudden, unexpected phenomenon. The story, of course, is more complex than that. What’s undeniable, however, is that the COVID-19 pandemic was a major catalyst. ‘Visiting artists’ studios wasn’t common before lockdown – art historians, collectors, they just wouldn’t do it,’ explains Dionigi Mattia Gagliardi, who co-founded the art and neuroscience collective Numero Cromatico in 2011. Unlike museums and art foundations, which were forced to close in 2020 due to the pandemic, studios were still allowed to operate, which pushed many art professionals, including Leoni, to uncover the art scene in their hometown – long ignored by the city’s institutions in favour of internationally recognized Italian artists or artists from abroad.

Ritratto di Numero Cromatico. Photo: Salvatore Nuzzi for Vera

Vera brought together more established art spaces – including Castro Projects (2018), Numero Cromatico and Spazio In Situ (2016) – whose longevity has been fuelled by clear identities and missions, with much newer ones, such as Spaziomensa and Ombrelloni Art Space. Arguably, Leoni’s enthusiasm, vision and credentials played a part in giving cohesion and inspiration to some of these fledgeling locations. Spaziomensa, for instance, started out informally when a group of five artists and two theorists organized a well-visited exhibition in September 2020. ‘The feedback we received propelled us to set up an actual space,’ says Sebastiano Bottaro. The group started with a bang, organizing a number of exhibitions which attracted hundreds of visitors, but its unsustainable funding model – which is largely reliant on voluntary labour – and lack of coherent identity has caused programming to be paused until next year.

Exterior view of Spaziomensa. Photograph: Eleonora Cerri Pecorella for Vera

As the two longest-running spaces, Numero Cromatico and Spazio In Situ are often credited as the driving force behind many of the more recent artists’ initiatives. In 2019–20, Numero Cromatico – winner of ArtVerona’s 2019 prize for best independent space – hosted ‘Messinscèna’, a pivotal series of ten solo exhibitions that presented a snapshot of the emerging art scene in Rome. It was a magnet for the local artists, many of whom went on the start their own spaces. The similarly well-organized Spazio In Situ was led until this August by Swiss-born artist Christophe Constantin. ‘When I graduated from Rome University of Fine Arts, it was either we open something ourselves, or I go back to Switzerland,’ Constantin tells me, pointing to the crippling lack of opportunity which awaits art-school graduates in Rome, where they are not even offered the graduation exhibition common in the rest of Europe. ‘We created a space that was the total opposite of the academy, which had few workshops with limited materials and no communal space.’

Spazio In Situ's exhibition space. Photograph: Eleonora Cerri Pecorella for Vera

To the west of Spazio In Situ, Post Ex, co-founded by eight artists, including Lulù Nuti and Luca Grimaldi, is first and foremost a shared, self-refurbished studio space where camaraderie and spontaneity foster an environment of creativity and networking. During the pandemic, Post Ex teamed up with curator Giuliana Benassi on ‘Post-Turismo’, a series of group shows held in empty Airbnb apartments in Rome at the beginning of the year. ‘The self-organizing element is really tied to the absence of a market here,’ explains Nuti. ‘Ultimately, it means there’s more freedom for your projects.’

Post Ex in front of their space in Ritratto, 2021. Photograph: Niccolò Berretta

In Trastevere, Goldsmiths graduate Gaia Di Lorenzo’s space Castro hosts five emerging artists a year alongside a rich programme of free, curator-led activities in a city still lacking when it comes to contemporary artistic discourse. Incredibly, Castro was the first space in Italy to introduce crits – the infamously painful group sessions in which a student’s work-in-progress is dissected – which Di Lorenzo imported from London: ‘Some had a crit and never came back! But others said the experience was so horrible that they wanted to return to prove they could do better.’ Some of the artists who attended went on to start Porto Simpatica – Rome’s newest artist-run space – and are now offering their own crit sessions.

Gaia Di Lorenzo, 2021. Photograph: Salvatore Nuzzi for Vera

A year on, what emerges is a story of resilience in the face of a city whose indifference to its young artists has led them to embrace alternative ways of existing and promoting their work. While some spaces are more successful than others, a number of artists have benefitted from this informal network: Spaziomensa’s Gaia Bobò is curator in residence at this year’s Rome Quadriennale; Post Ex participated in their first ArtVerona art fair; Numero Cromatico recently presented ‘Superstimolo’ at MAXXI; while Porto Simpatica’s young artists collaborate regularly with the oft-cloistered students from foreign academies. ‘Things are slowly changing,’ says Di Lorenzo. ‘But the question remains: is this a spark that will fizzle out or will it start a fire?’

Main image: Post Ex in front of their space in Ritratto, 2021. Photograph: Niccolò Berretta

Ana Vukadin is a writer, translator and editor who lives in Jesi, Italy.