Many Institutions, Few Artists: The business of Contemporary Art in Italy

by Salvatore COMINU and  Walter SANTAGATA

As in all worlds of art and culture, even in contemporary art there are two conflicting policies at work: conservation and production of new works of art. Whereas conservation means to safeguard the historical heritage of a country, its most immediate expression being the “museum-ization ” of art, i.e. the entrusting of art to the sacredness of a museum, production means to create new works of art. Conservation is a backward- looking policy dealing with the preservation of the past; production is instead a forward-looking policy interested in the future and in the development of new works of art. Conservation relies on legal and institutional instruments, such as regulations and laws, whereas production is a policy consisting of many different steps: selection of artists, creation and production of works of art, distribution, modes of consumption.

In Italy, over the last few decades, there has been a momentous shift towards conservation policies, to the detriment of cultural production. This imbalance has also affected contemporary art. To simplify matters, one can say that we have moved from a scene populated by many artists and few contemporary art institutions to one characterized by the presence of a multitude of institutions and public agencies dedicated to the arts. This is particularly evident today, so much so that there seems to be few young, internationally acclaimed Italian artists around, but a lot of new contemporary art museums, new bank foundations and new private foundations operating in the art field.

It looks like a sort of paradoxical, perverse cycle, where the production capacity is opposed to the institutional capacity of conservation and production. Policies are made to achieve specific goals, of course. Therefore, if production were clearly set as a national priority, it would be possible to achieve excellent results. In this sense, in order to have a policy aimed at promoting contemporary art, it is necessary to have a clear idea of the initial settings. In this respect, Turin is a good, emblematic example of the overall Italian context. Due to “historical” factors (relevance of recent art movements, presence of great collectors, intellectual climate, etc) and to the investments made earlier than in other major Italian cities, Turin has always played a leading role in the domestic contemporary art scene, and it is still a good observation point for examining, on a small scale, and in an almost experimental environment, the major trends emerging on a national level. The following comments, although based on the observation of a specific urban area, can therefore be extended to the whole country.

In the last 15 or 20 years, the Turinese (and Italian) system has gone through a profound change. Until the 80s, getting into the art field depended on the local relationship between artists, gallery directors, curators and collectors: it was possible “to conquer the world” starting from proximity relationships. However, the changes occurred on a global scale in the last two decades have deeply affected the local art scene.

First of all, the range of actions performed by the various players has changed. In the ten or fifteen years before the 2008 crisis, global changes have caused a concentration of functions in the world capitals of contemporary art. The market is increasingly influenced by the trends set by international exhibitions and by the preferences of a closed group of cultural intermediaries of world fame. Collectors mainly turn to major exhibitions and internationally reputed galleries. Conversely, gallery directors have long been operating in a mixed market, domestic and foreign. Even artists (as well as curators and critics), in most cases, have an international education.

Contrary to what happened with the international avant-gardes of the 20th century, an internationally shared understanding of the arts no longer exists. In this context, the market is increasingly driven by marketing and networking activities.

Along with the art galleries, in Italy there is a second circuit promoted or supported by almost exclusively public funds or bank foundations. Collective exhibitions, Biennials, local initiatives seem to be created with the aim of compensating for the difficulty of promoting new artists. Practices of self-organization and independent art centers are not adequately developed in Italy (even though there are a few cases of independent organizations, such as Via Farini and Care of in Milan and Diogene in Turin).

The last two decades have been characterized by strong institutional investments in structures dedicated to contemporary art, according to an urban marketing perspective. Turin was the first city to devote huge resources to implement and renovate museums and exhibition centers. The most renowned is the Castle of Rivoli, the first contemporary art museum in Italy, which has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. The Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery, the oldest civic museum in Italy, collects over 45,000 works. Among the most important institutions, there are two private foundations: Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, set up in Turin in 2002, and Fondazione Merz, founded in 2005, which holds the collection of works by Mario Merz. In 2008, the PAV Living Art Park, an exhibition center dedicated to art, nature and biotechnologies, was also created. Outside Turin, another important institution is Cittadellarte Fondazione Pistoletto, promoted by Michelangelo Pistoletto, and based in Biella. The program of activities that Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Torino is going to promote in the next few years also includes Officine Grandi Riparazioni delle Ferrovie dello Stato (Carriage Repair Workshop), a multipurpose cultural center. Another international crucial institution in Turin is Fiera Artissima, which is now in its 17th edition. Since 1999, this exhibition has increasingly focused on contemporary art, so much so that it is currently rated among the most important international art exhibitions, excluding the unparalleled Art Basel and Frieze Art Fair. There is also a number of important public art initiatives promoted by local administrations, such as Luci di Artista, an exhibition set up in 1998, and the project Works for the City Rail Link, an open-air collection exploring the great urban changes occurring in the city. Along with these exhibitions, the New Commitments project, promoted by a. Titolo Association, is part of a suburban renovation program, while the MAU Urban Art Museum focuses on art as a factor of urban regeneration in a working-class neighborhood. In this respect, Turin was a forerunner, but in the last ten years the exhibition centers dedicated to contemporary art have spread all over the country: the MAXXI Museum in Rome, designed by Zaha Hadid, and the new project for a contemporary art museum in Milan by Daniel Libeskind are bound to change the hierarchies in a scene dominated by other important centers, such the museums of Rovereto (Mart), Bolzano (Ar/ge Kunst) and Naples (Madre, currently in serious financial straits).

In spite of this seeming dynamic scenario, compared with the 60s and 70s, Italy can boast fewer internationally acclaimed artists today. Whereas in the 20th Century there was a large number of acknowledged names, such as Fontana, Burri, Manzoni, the Arte Povera group (Pistoletto, Merz, Boetti, Penone, etc) and the Transavantgarde, which were appreciated and courted by museum directors and great collectors from all over the world, today the international classifications made by “Kunstkompass”, “Cream 3” or “Art Now” point out a marginal presence of Italian artists in the contemporary art scene, with the sole exception of Maurizio Cattelan, Monica Bonvicini, Vanessa Beecroft and a few others. This does not mean that the art scene is stagnant. Artists such as Christian Frosi, Diego Perrone, Roberto Cuoghi, Masbedo, Patrick Tuttofuoco and others are starting to achieve international recognition. In Turin, Lara Favaretto, Marzia Migliora, Monica Carocci, the Botto & Bruno duo, Luisa Rabbia, Elisa Sighicelli, Paolo Grassino, have gained a certain notoriety, not only in local contexts. The problem of the new Italian art lies in specific faults of the Italian system and in the absence of an institutional setting able to support national productions. The phenomenon of collections funded by private companies is marginal, because Italian entrepreneurs are not very willing to invest in cultural projects, although a new typology of collectors – former bank foundations – have gained an important role in the art field: in Turin, the CRT Foundation has its own collection of modern and contemporary art, which is entrusted to the two contemporary art museums of the city on a loan-per-use basis.

It is still too early to get a picture of the Italian art of the first decade of the 21st century, but it is nevertheless possible to state that, compared with the previous years, there is a greater presence of institutions and a fewer number of prominent artists. These observations are particularly interesting in a phase of reduction in the public resources devoted to the cultural sector, both on a national and local level, also due to the serious financial difficulties of many local administrations. Such being the case, there are different perspectives of policy emerging from this context. In a first scenario, institutions, despite themselves, would no longer be supporting the art production (due to the lack of “raw material” or by choice), focusing on key projects that allow them to keep playing a notable role. In this case, the risk is that most of the “cultural workshops” remain public. A second scenario implies a change in the perspective and a more balanced provision of funding for the production of art. This strategy should be based on three pillars. First, it should promote the internationalization of the art scene, fostering the participation in events, exhibitions, international networks and creating opportunities for meeting. Secondly, it should support self-organized, non-profit spaces, which in the last few years seem to have become more numerous. Lastly, it should support quality-training projects able to favor a better integration in the international art scene.

About the Author


Walter Santagata, Professor of Economy of Culture at the University of Turin, is the author of many essays published in international journals. Among his books are: White Paper on Creativity: Towards an Italian Model of Development (downloadable at (Università Bocconi Editore, 2009), Intanglible Heritage of Humanity: The cultural significance of the Neopolitan crèche (2008), The Culture Factory (Springer, 2009), La ModeUne économie de la Créativité et du patrimoine (La Documentation Française, Paris, 2005) and Indagine sull’arte contemporanea italiana nel mondo (DARC, 2005 SKIRA, Milano).