Rome: The Italian Capital's Contemporary Art Renaissance

Article from Artreview, Issue 50, May 2011

The contemporary art scene in Rome may seem at times curiously reluctant to declare itself here to stay, but on a recent visit to the Italian capital, ArtReview found plenty to  shout about: established and expanding contemporary art spaces, its own fledging art fair,an entire generation of young gallerists setting up shop – and let’ s not forget MAXXI, theZaha Hadid-designed ‘National Museum of the 21st Century Arts’. So why so shy?

By Andrew Smaldone

Gallerists in Rome tend to play down the city’ s recently acquired reputation for having a burgeoning international art scene. Perhaps those who minimise the city’s potential for contemporary art growth are correct, but in Rome there is evidence to sustain the idea that in the past five years the art scene has indeed expanded and, along the way, attracted significant artworld attention.

This development, however, has been gradual and uneven. It’s true that big events like Larry Gagosian launching a gallery in Via Francesco Crispi in December 2007 have brought more people and attracted worldwide press attention. One gallery director I spoke with described Gagosian Rome somewhat sarcastically as a kind of anomaly in a prime location (the space is near the Spanish Steps). She was quick to point out, however, that the gallery is cooperative and had no qualms about participating in ‘Roma Art 2 Nights’, put on by 28 galleries and three foundations in the capital to coordinate a contemporary-art viewing weekend, where spaces would remain open both day and night. By most accounts, the public response to the 2010 initiative was mixed, yet positive enough that a second edition, some time in the near future, has been floated.

Other Roman initiatives include the Rome Art Fair, aka ‘ROMA – The Road toContemporary Art’. Launched in 2008, the fair boasted more than 50,000 visitors for the2010 edition and claims on its website that Rome is the ‘protagonist of a contemporaryRenaissance’. Is such a statement true? Possibly; some participating galleries remain sceptical, but in the spirit of the times, they are supporting their fair, regardless of talk thatTurin’ s Artissima is the only art fair worth doing in Italy. This year (specifically from 6 to 8May), and for the second time, the event will be taking place in MACRO Testaccio.

MACRO is a contemporary art museum with two sites in the city: one is a 20-minute walk from the Termini railway station and looks like a properly souped-up multilevel contemporary art institution, whereas the other is farther outside the centre – though hardly in the sticks – in the Testaccio quarter and has a grungier feel. It’s a beautifully restored slaughterhouse complex and is well worth the trek to see curious group shows by big-namecurators, such as this year’s Plus Ultra: Works from the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Collection, curated by Francesco Bonami, although the architectural structure alone merits a trip.

Speaking of a ‘contemporary Renaissance’, it’s worth mentioning that the cultural waves can still be felt from the opening of Rome’ s Zaha Hadid-designed MAXXI, the NationalMuseum of the 21st Century Arts, in May 2010. Some in the city are slightly worried they might still be riding those waves, which could yet recede, leaving them in a cultural desert.These fears are understandable, in fact, given that a year ago virtually the entire artworld was in Rome for the opening. Yet a visit to the museum reminds one that such uncertainties, though understandable, are also somewhat exaggerated. What MAXXI has brought is tourism for contemporary art. This means that visitors going to the Vatican or the Pantheon could very well also go see a combination of contemporary art and architecture, including Hadid’s building, big-name artists and – very importantly – emerging and mid-career Italian artists.

Looking at the list of names and shows that MAXXI has mounted, one begins to get the idea that the museum is in the business of contextualising Italian culture. A few examples:The Vanishing Boundary (encompassing Italian works from the museum’s permanent collection); the Italian Contemporary Art Prize 2010; and Arte Povera giant Michelangelo Pistoletto’ s striking exhibition From One to Many, 1956–1974, recently installed in several galleries throughout the museum (see Reviews elsewhere in this issue). Architecture, meanwhile, has also received plenty of attention, via shows such as this year’ s FramingModernism: Architecture and Photography in Italy, 1926–1965, organised in collaboration with RIBA London.

It would appear, then, that Rome’s contemporary art museums are still charging ahead. But what about the galleries? What one sees is an entire generation of gallerists who have started up spaces in the past three to six years. A good example is Federica Schiavo, who opened her space in November 2008 after heading up the curatorial department at Hangar Bicoccain Milan. She deals with emerging artists such as the Italian-born, London-based Salvatore Arancio, along with Anne Hardy and Andrea Sala (among others), and is located in Piazza Montevecchio. Very close by is gallery T293, which just opened in Rome (it has an established space in Naples) and also deals with emerging artists of a certain highly conceptual calibre, such as Paris-based collective Claire Fontaine and American Jordan Wolfson.

Also in this area, near Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and not far from the Tiber, is Monitor. It shows the likes of New York-based Ian Tweedy and Nico Vascellari, both of whom have significantly shaped young Italian art. Vascellari has been exhibiting with Monitor since2006 and recently showed at MACRO; Tweedy studied and worked in Milan before moving to New York, and has had two exhibitions with the gallery. As an adolescent he did graffiti, but over the past five years has made a noteworthy contribution to new Italian art through his use of strategies of painting and drawing in combination with photography, sculpture and the employment of found objects (such as old book covers) to explore notions of decadence and the individual’s search for identity.

On the other side of the Tiber is Galleria Lorcan O’Neill. Not so long ago, the gallery invited Carsten Nicolai to do a room size installation that could be experienced through a large window facing the street. Opening in February, Unitxt Mirrored (2011) consisted of an audiovisual installation that transfixed one with multi coloured horizontal bands endlessly reflected on the adjacent wall, and funky robotic industrial sound emanating from a small amplifier lodged in the window. The gallery additionally shows international heavyweights Anselm Kiefer, Tracey Emin, Kiki Smith, Francesco Clemente and many more on a comparable echelon.

Back across the Ponte Mazzini and down the river, not too far from Lorcan O’Neill, 1/9 unosunove gives the visitor a range of artists who are doing international gallery shows as well as exhibiting at the museum level. Jamie Shovlin, for example, is a gallery artist who had simultaneous shows at the gallery and MACRO late this past winter. Maggazino D’Arte Moderna, located relatively near the Pantheon, and Galleria S.A.L.E.S. (which specialises in representing established Italian artists such as Grazia Toderi and Mario Airo but also the internationally esteemed Wolfgang Tillmans) are both worth exploring and provide Rome with plenty more artists to liven up the contemporary gallery scene.

Rome, moreover, is home to an influx of specialised artists in-residence arriving from across the globe because, well, Rome is Rome. It’s worth mentioning 26cc, an independent space that strives to promote contemporary culture through what its organisers describe as ‘sharing, discussion of ideas and paths and active collaborations’ and claims on its website to have had an artist-in-residence programme for foreign artists since 2009. More established institutions, such as the American Academy or Germany’ s Villa Massimo(which had Leipzig-based Matthias Weischer and Carsten Nicolai as residents a few years back) are further examples of residency possibilities for artists – albeit usually from specificWestern countries – wishing to pass some time or tweak their practice in the Eternal City.All told, Rome’s art scene comes across as a combination of somewhat disparate elements that keep people outside the city talking, and for better or worse, its artistic panorama would appear to be inimitable. Which is why one comes: in the hope of being, even if momentarily, a part of it.