July 30, 2014  |  Intern Chronicles
The Past Is Present: Modern and Contemporary Art in Italy

In Italian, un confronto; in English, a comparison, contrast, or confrontation. In New York, old buildings, like Dia:Beacon, are sometimes beautifully repurposed as museums, but more often they are torn down for something new. In Italy, factories and castles are often transformed into modern and contemporary art institutions. The past confronts the present, and the present is enhanced through its relationship to history.

The Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Turin was the first modern art museum established in Italy. Arianna Bona, Exhibition Project Manager at the museum, introduced me to the idea of il confronto: in order to heighten the display of modern and contemporary art, historical works are exhibited alongside more recent art. This confrontation is used to draw out relationships present within the history of Italian art, heightening the display of artwork by creating a bridge between artworks of different generations.

In Italy, this historical link is often shaped by the settings of museums. For example, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea is a contemporary art museum in a renovated castle. Artworks are exhibited dramatically in expansive galleries, some of which still have their 18th-century decorations. The works, by a range of Italian and international artists, come alive within this space. The built environs allow for a variety of evocative installations in rooms with high ceilings joined by vast hallways, connoting a sense of grandeur and encouraging introspection.

Innovative art spaces like the Cittadellarte – Fondazione Pistoletto also transform the purpose of the buildings within which they are situated. The foundation was created by Michelangelo Pistoletto, an Italian artist whose work exists at the origins of Arte Povera, the name given to a group of artists working in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s who sought to break down the boundaries between art and life. Cittadellarte is an intriguing space for art and community projects set within an old silk factory. I smiled while I watched a rowdy group of school children enter the foundation. I began to sense that in Italy, art is everywhere, and art is for everyone.

Like Castello di Rivoli and Cittadellarte, HangarBicocca, a contemporary art foundation in northern Milan, reuses a factory building for the display of multimedia artworks. Funded by the Pirelli tire company, HangarBicocca stages temporary exhibitions of international contemporary art and also has two permanent installations, by Fausto Melotti and Anselm Kiefer. Nothing can be hung on the walls, so the space is particularly conducive to exhibitions that include video, film, and immersive installations.

Italian art institutions are organic and adaptive, responding to the different environments in which artwork is produced and displayed. Often set within striking physical settings that are distinct from most institutions we can visit here in New York, Italian museums use the past to build relationships between art, history, and contemporary society.