Shock appointment of anti-modernist to Venice Biennale
Critics include Whitney Biennial curator Francesco Bonami who says Italy "deserves Sgarbi" because of its antipathy towards contemporary art
By Alessandro Martini and Gareth Harris. News, Issue 211, March 2010
Published online: 24 February 2010
london. The appointment of Vittorio Sgarbi, the celebrity art critic and polemicist, as curator of the Italian Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale and supervisor of acquisitions at Rome’s new MaXXi museum of 21st-century art is dividing the Italian art world, thanks to his well known antipathy to contemporary art.
Sgarbi was the under secretary of state for the ministry of culture from 2001-02 in Silvio Berlusconi’s government. In 2004, Sgarbi founded the Party of Beauty to halt the construction of new buildings in Italian cities. In 2006, he switched allegiance and stood for the centre-left Consumers’ List party. Appointed as the mayor of the Sicilian village of Salemi in 2008, he is an outspoken television pundit.
The Venice appointment is especially sensitive as Italy celebrates the 150th anniversary of its unification in 2011. Italian culture minister Sandro Bondi defended his choice, insisting that Sgarbi “has in-depth knowledge of Italy’s heritage”.
The appointment has drawn stinging criticism from Sgarbi’s compatriot Francesco Bonami, the curator of this year’s Whitney Biennial, who berates the current Italian government’s attitude to contemporary art.
“Unfortunately we deserve Sgarbi,” he says. “Contemporary art is to Sgarbi what America is to Bin Laden. Once in a while, Sgarbi, like Bin Laden, rants against his enemy. I have to say that Sgarbi’s joint appointment is very close to a suicidal attack on Italy’s dignity,” Bonami told The Art Newspaper.
Sgarbi has indicated how he will approach the Italian Pavilion: “I’m considering an empty pavilion that only contains an address book of Italian artists. I may also just include a single artist such as Saturnino Gatti, a 15th-century master who has been erased from art history, making him really contemporary. But in my ideal pavilion, I would like to install just one work, the Dead Christ by Mantegna [around 1480] next to a photograph of Che Guevara on his death bed.”
Meanwhile, Sgarbi has outlined his direction for the collection of the MaXXi, the national museum of 21st-century art, which is due to open this spring, telling our sister paper Il Giornale dell’Arte that he does not rule out a selection of Arte Povera artists but “alongside, in a so-called national collection, we should acquire works by Carol Rama, Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, Sergio Saroni and Ottavio Mazzonis. And if we have Maurizio Cattelan and Vanessa Beecroft we should also have Domenico Gnoli, Fabrizio Clerici and Carlo Guarienti.”
“I believe that the MaXXi should concentrate on the generation in its fifties. The criterion should not be whether something is traditional or not—I want Antonio López García and Lucian Freud in the collection. The main point is, we are in Italy and our museum should be different from museums in London and New York,” he added.
But Bonami again raised concerns about the development: “Since 1999, the MaXXi has had a headless acquisition policy. The collection is a mediocre accumulation of late 20th-century art. The opening show, curated by Achille Bonito Oliva, will focus on Gino De Dominicis—you could not get an exhibition that is more 20th-century. They are going backwards. I don’t understand how the president of the MaXXi Foundation [Pio Baldi] and the curators can maintain their dignity. They have mismanaged MaXXi and Sgarbi is the natural consequence.”
A museum spokeswoman emphasised, however, that Sgarbi has been appointed in an advisory role. “Sgarbi will not directly acquire works. The directors of the two MaXXi museums—Anna Mattirolo, director of MaXXi Arte, and Margherita Guccione, director of MaXXi Architecture—propose all acquisitions.” She also pointed out that the De Dominicis show is one of five planned for the inauguration.
The museum, designed by the Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid, was originally scheduled to open in 2006. The E150m project was first mooted in 1997 but various obstacles, such as shortfalls in government funding, have delayed the scheme. The E10m annual running costs will be partly provided by the ministry of culture. The institution has so far acquired more than 300 works, ones by Italian artists such as Alighiero Boetti, Mario Merz and Giuseppe Penone, as well as work by non-Italians Anish Kapoor, William Kentridge, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol.
But Sgarbi says that “works have been bought at prices that are completely inconsistent with [the usual] museum acquisition rates. These prices have definitely been inflated.”
He also criticised the appointments of Baldi, Mattirolo and Guccione, saying that they were “shoo-in” candidates, prompting the MaXXi spokeswoman to say: “The trio have worked with conviction on the MaXXi project since its inception, with excellent practical results.”
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