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Italian photography collection in crisis

Appeal to save the world’s oldest picture agency

Inside the Museo Nazionale Alinari della Fotografia in Florence

The world’s oldest photographic agency Fratelli Alinari, founded in Florence in 1852, is in danger of closing. On 22 November 2013, the Italian website, whose remit is to safeguard the country’s cultural heritage, launched an appeal to help save it.

The appeal, signed by photographers, artists and academics—among them Gianni Berengo Gardin, Giovanna Calvenzi, Ester Coen, Mario Cresci, Mimmo Jodice, Bruno Toscano, and Roberta Valtorta—expresses concern that “the crisis threatening the management of Fratelli Alinari could lead to the dispersal of part of the collection, and to its transfer to individuals and organisations [in Italy] and abroad”.

The alarm was first sounded in an article published on 7 November 2013 in L’Espresso news magazine, entitled “Let’s save Alinari and an Italy that no longer exists” by Alessandro Agostinelli. The article listed the problems faced by the “biggest and most famous photo archive in Europe”: “a huge deficit, an almost non-existent working activity, tax and bank debts, a large loan with Unicredit and a bond loan of €2.5m ($3.4m) due for repayment”.

These claims were largely denied by Claudio De Polo Saibanti, Alinari’s director. His response to the article made reference to Alinari 24 Ore, the company founded in 2007 to market and develop Alinari’s collection of images, which ceased business activity in June 2013. “It was not a success, partly because of the national and global economic crisis, which prevented us from developing our digital image collection into an attractive offer,” De Polo said. “From 1983 to 2013 Alinari increased its photographic collection from 200,000 plates to more than five million photographs. And the buyback value of the property alone fully covers the total of all the debts, which are therefore under control.”

De Polo also defended the Museo Nazionale Alinari della Fotografia in Florence, which, “during seven years of activity, has produced more than 30 exhibitions, over a third of which were created exclusively with material from our collection, and which subsequently travelled to other parts of Italy and abroad.”

Under De Polo’s directorship, Alinari acquired the collections of many rival agencies, including Anderson, Brogi and Zannier. It also manages photographic rights for a number of organisations including the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Activities and Tourism. Now, international experts have estimated the value of the Alinari archive to be around €140m ($190.3m).

The appeal asks that the government intervene to safeguard the entire photographic archive and prevent its transferral to individuals or private collections. De Polo says, however, that “the appraisal and securing of assets do not represent practical help of any kind to a business, either economically, financially, or in terms of its development. We would welcome practical offers of financial support, that would enable us to safeguard the collection”.

This crisis follows the recent cases of the closure of the Fondazione Forma photographic exhibition space and the difficulties faced by the Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea (MuFoCo), both in Milan. An online appeal in support of MuFoCo described as “the only public Italian museum dedicated to photography”, representing “two million images, 28 photographic collections and more than 600 Italian and international photographers, and a library of 20,000 books and magazines”, calls for support from institutions, financial contributions and a more suitable exhibition space.

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