Fabio Cavallucci (Santa Sofia di Romagna, 1961) was the Director of Trento’s Civic Gallery of Contemporary Art between 2001 and 2008. Between 2006 and 2008 he coordinated the event Manifesta 7. European Biennial of Contemporary Art, which took place in Trentino Alto Adige in 2008. In 2010 he was appointed Director of the Contemporary Art Centre, Castle Ujazdowsky in Warsaw. He has been directing Prato’s Luigi Pecci Contemporary Art Centre since 2014.
In the following interview, Cavallucci offers his considerations, presuppositions and hopes constituting the basis for the first Italian Contemporary Art Forum (25 – 27 September 2015 in Prato, Tuscany, Italy), organized by the Pecci Centre and whose program will soon be available on-line on the dedicated website, www.forumartecontemporanea.it
A conversation with the Director of the Pecci Centre in Prato (Italy) on the Italian Contemporary Art Forum
Michela Alessandrini: Fabio Cavallucci, please tell us who you are.
Fabio Cavallucci: Hello, I’m Fabio Cavallucci and I was born in Santa Sofia di Romagna in 1961. I have been working in several places in Italy: I was the Director of Trento’s Civic Gallery, I have curated an edition of Carrara’s Biennial and I opened a private museum in Bergamo. In recent years, I was in Poland working as Director of Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art, Zamek Ujazdowsky. By working abroad for four years with merely occasional contacts with Italy, I had the chance to see my country with new eyes. Quite honestly, the image I saw was that of a defeated army after a great battle. The people were the same, but one was missing a leg, another an arm, yet another lost an eye and all of them were even more disheartened. It reminded me, it reminds me of the Italian army following the battle of Caporetto.
Analysing the Italian situation with a more pragmatic stance, one actually has to admit that the recent years brought about a gradual débâcle that led us to close museums and institutions and lose international acceptance.
We saw this at the latest Venice Biennial, where, although playing a home game, we had two deceased artists – Fabio Mauri and Pino Pascali – and two Italian artists – Monica Bonvicini and Rosa Barba – who are rightly considered as mainly German, due to their artistic development mainly taking place there. All this led me to think that we should do something about it.
Nowadays I am the Director of the Luigi Pecci Contemporary Art Centre – the reason that brought me back to Italy – a prestigious museum that has carried out relevant initiatives in the past and is now closed due to its enlargement. Currently, a new building is being built while renovating the old one. During such closure, we are working in view of a grand reopening next year and thanks to this we can consider a larger, extended approach. We have to be honest: if I were the Director of a museum with running events and a continuously developing activity, this thing would have never been born.
MA: So, let’s talk about this thing: it’s the Italian Contemporary Art Forum, which will take in place in Prato’s Luigi Pecci Contemporary Art Centre in September.
FC: It will not actually take place in the Centre because the latter is, as I said, being rebuilt, but in some areas in the city of Prato. The Forum will also give us the chance to get in touch with the city and revitalize it, to get into its historic centre. The initiative arises out of the sense of dismay that I found in Italian art after coming back. I believe the whole Italian art system acknowledges it, there is nothing to discover. We are living through a phase of stagnation and exertion, of great difficulties. And what do you do in these cases? You try to look within yourself to find out what the problems are, without blinkers or burying your head in the sand: you have to analyse the issues and find a solution.
Therefore, the goal of the Italian contemporary Art Forum is to involve all contemporary art operators, museum directors, the AMACI (Association of Italian Museums of Contemporary Art), curators, art dealers, collectors, promoters, art critics, journalists, artists… the latter are extremely important yet often forgotten in meetings of this sort. They are the main players, as art wouldn’t exist without them; thus, it makes sense for them to play – at least partly – the leading role when reconsidering and revising what the Italian art system wants to be. Our purpose is to involve anyone willing to take part in this debate. It will be developed around working tables, each of which will be addressing individual problems. The subject matters will also include the creative ones, because we must acknowledge that one of the problems is the actual quality of downright art production. It would be dumb to think that Italians are very good but simply not acknowledged. If the world over does not recognize them, there must be a creativity problem that obviously cannot be blamed only on the quality of the artists. On the contrary, the problem is that the system doesn’t help them in developing their qualities nor in accepting the international challenge. This means that there is a problem in terms of both artistic quality and strategies, the latter being most evident.
There is no strategy whatsoever in Italy. We are all working alone, independently one from the other, trying to do the best we can and often succeeding, but there’s no cohesion, no common directions that will allow achieving actual results together.
MA: A wide overview on the situation. I would like to delve deeper, to see the potentials and the defects – or limits – of such a scene, exactly by talking of all the players you mentioned, which are extremely important for the economy of art.
FC: I am not alone in organizing this large Forum. Besides the staff of the Pecci Centre, who is working operationally, I’m working on contents with other people. This event’s promoter committee includes Cesare Pietroiusti, Pierluigi Sacco, Ilaria Bonacossa and Anna Daneri. It’s a small committee of people that were willing to organize this event with me to analyse the themes, develop them and allocate the various coordinators. Each discussion table will have a specific coordinator whose task will be that of inviting the best possible people to discuss each individual theme.
If you ask me what my point of views are I’ll tell you, but they might not be the same ones of the Forum. And with this respect, my Polish experience is important once again. I will mention two things that happened in Poland shortly before and shortly after my arrival. The first one is surprising: the citizen’s association Obywatele Kultury, which means “citizens for culture”, collected thousands of signatures for a petition convincing Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who should have stood for election again, to sign the Pact for Culture. The Pact for Culture was signed in 2011. This pact includes several items, but the most important one is the one that aims at raising the culture budget from 0,48% to 1%. Let’s remember that we are talking of years of very deep crisis.
While directing the Centre, I saw the ministerial budget increase year by year. What was surprising was that – while entering this situation – I discovered that everything had been organized by four or five people who would meet after work to organize such an endeavour, among whom Beata Chmiel, then the Director of the Zachęta and now the Vice-Director of the Film Institute.
The second example I’d like to mention is this one: in 2012, artists focused on the problem of pensions. It is a shared problem all over the world: the system does not allow artists to have a normal retirement pension, regardless of the fact that they sell their works or not. In Poland it came to a point where artists decided to pose this issue as a general social problem and they went on strike. This meant that for a whole day, every art institution in Poland was closed. Think of the surprise, the impact on the media. A closure day for all contemporary art centres and museums all over Poland created a turmoil that obviously reached the TV news in the evening. It was talked about for three days and the minister was being interviewed and having problems, he was cornered. Maybe not so much has actually changed on this issue, but the way it was addressed with respect to politics was completely different from what we are used to in Italy. Politics should, if it wants, welcome point of views coming from the intellectual world.
Unfortunately, in Italy the intellectual world has collapsed; actually, I don’t think there is one worth talking about. There is no longer such a thing. It’s not even a group any more, at best it becomes a mechanism of politics where one takes off one’s hat in front of the politician on call. But intellectuals should impose a direction for research, some points of view.
One of the main points that I am hoping to achieve through the Forum is a definite separation between culture and politics. To a large extent, the weakness of Italian art is directly or indirectly connected with the lack of such a separation, which is also the reason for a sort of censorship or self-censorship that comes up in every artist, even if he or she may not realize it.
It is no coincidence that the best European art of the Nineties came from Poland and Great Britain. Great Britain did not exist from an art standpoint before then. It was born artistically in the late Eighties/early Nineties with the Young British Artists, who were looking at real problems in the face, talking about taboos while perhaps managing to create a little havoc. In Poland, Polish critical art had a function and mechanisms similar to those of the Young British Artists. In both nations, contemporary art was subsequently developed also from an institutional standpoint and came of age. The Tate Modern was established after the Young British Artist but also thanks to them, and somehow became their home. It came to a point where the need to give a space to the great British art production that was conquering the world was perceived collectively. Such things happen also because there are strategies; there are formulas that lay beneath the spreading of creativity. The separation between politics and culture, which typifies the British system, is one of the elements that could revive contemporary art also in Italy.
MA: I’d like to know more about the structure you chose for the Forum, which uses tables. Tables will be spaces somehow available to a few persons; therefore they will make for an intimacy that the conference format, for instance, would not grant. Thus, I was wondering what sort of people you specifically invited to the tables and which points you will be addressing, as you were mentioning earlier on that each table will be facing a specific subject.
FC: On one side, tables allow having a certain number of people specifically identified to discuss each single theme; on the other hand, they leave wide possibilities of registration to the general public willing to attend. If this should be an occasion to take a stance and accept collective responsibility, it is obvious that the general public should be able to attend. As for issues, there are a great many. Issues concerning training, starting from artistic education in schools; but we also have the issue of art education in academies, which are for the most part dating back to the Cretaceous, in Italy… The Italian academies’ structure and working method seem precisely aimed at making sure that no artists are developed. This is something we can easily notice by comparing our academies with any other similar institution in any other country. Here, there is no chance of producing artists… luckily, art is not constrained by such mechanisms and artists emerge by contrast or by opposition from said academies.
Then we have the problems connected with the promotion of artists in Italy, which also call into question galleries and museum directors. What are Italian galleries actually doing with Italian artists? If we take a look at the lists of artists dealt with by the most important galleries, we find Italian artists too, but then those same galleries organize no events relating to their work. Italian artists are always the last ones in the queue.
But I understand this: galleries have to sell, and an important international name works better in Basel or Frieze; but if such promotional work is not undertaken by galleries and museums, the result is that Italian artists are not known and do not work. On my part, I accept my responsibilities, because I was the Director of the Trento Civic Gallery but I didn’t organize many large shows by Italian artists. Obviously, a museum director must also attract a certain part of the general public. Attracting the general public means using and inviting certain names, who are not necessarily Italian. This has to be discussed too, trying to find possible solutions.
Finally, it should be noted that there are no tools whatsoever to promote Italian art abroad. When Italian Culture Centres have a particularly keen director, he or she might now and then invite in its seat a friend to create an art show, but these are events that no one sees and this is not the way to promote art. This will be another subject of discussion at the Forum, and some directors will be invited. It should be also noted that Italian Culture Centres mainly work with literature and poetry.
Any minimally evolved country has effective promotional tools: the Pro Helvetia in Switzerland, the British Council in Great Britain, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland, and the Mondriaan Fonds in the Netherlands. The role of these organizations is to involve important curators and international biennial directors, thanks to whom they can show and promote the artistic scenery of the country they represent in their foreign seat. They also should finance their artists’ travels when they are invited to important art shows or biennials, maybe with just a few thousand Euro. For instance, the curator of the Gwangju Biennial – while he works with the highest honesty and transparency – will inevitably turn to those artists that may be supported in their production and travel expenses by these national promotional institutions.
A look at the scenery of Swiss artists is impressive, if one considers the size of Switzerland: Fischli/Weiss, Thomas Hirschhorn, Pipilotti Rist, Urs Fischer, Ugo Rondinone, Valentin Carron, etc. It’s a significant amount of artist, all of them at a great level of importance and recognition. Why? Thanks to the existence of an institution called Pro Helvetia, which helps them from the moment they are born as artists to when they come of age and grow old. We can’t do this: we don’t have such funds and such structures, especially because Italy is forced to invest a large part of the ministerial funds for culture on conservation. Italy has this advantage/disadvantage: such a large historical heritage is an advantage on one hand, but on the other hand inevitably hinders our chances to develop contemporary initiatives.
Finally, during the Forum we will discuss the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennial. Somebody should explain to me why Italy should let a minister – as a good person he might be, he certainly isn’t an expert – decide who the curator of the Italian Pavilion should be. Quite simply, it’s ludicrous.
MA: So, I understand it will be an occasion to talk about this missing Italian system…
FC: Indeed, it will be the occasion to gather energies and for all of us to be a little more involved and responsible the day after, ready to put more energy in everything we do.
I believe that the recent years were characterized by a sort of weariness. But we have to jump to our feet, we must start to move. We are not stupid. I am convinced that the Italian cultural qualities are still among the most important in the world. We have very strong educational and cultural traditions. Undoubtedly, we have very strong foundations on which we should begin to stand, straighten and place a lot of energy. The energy which so often we do not use due to lack of confidence, also means work, seriousness, detailed knowledge… it means leaving behind a sort of superficiality. I’m sure the energy is still there. We must absolutely wake it up once again and bring it forward to reanimate a new cultural dimension that should allow this country to come back to the world.
MA: See you in Prato in September, then!
FC: Will you be there too?
FC: Excellent, see you in Prato, then!
Translated in English by Fulvio Giglio