As you enter in a museum for the first time, second time or third time, have you ever wondered about what the director of the museum thinks? What the director's preferred artwork is? What does the directors job consist in, how has the figure changed in the years?
We met Dr. Gianna A. Mina PhD in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art (University of London), director of the Museo Vincenzo Vela in Ligornetto (Switzerland).
As director of a Federal Museum, which are in your opinion the most satisfying and exciting moments?
When the public accesses an inauguration, when it enters the room and confirms that the project we have built over many months has a meaning, and finds a response. Preferably of course when it is positive ... That is definitely the most exciting moment, the relationship between the public, the museum and the exhibition.
And instead the more complex ones?
Complexity is inherent to any major museum project. By saying complex, I do not mean negative: I think of a set of elements which require a balance that must be built whilst mounting an exhibition. Not everything can be planned in advance and some of the most exciting solutions are spontaneous.
What are the most beautiful memories related to this museum?
There are many, it would be presumptuous to crystallise those numerous memories in one. Yet I have one, which is beautiful and dates back to after the renovation of the museum by architect Mario Botta (which lasted 5 years, from 1996 to 2001), the museum was reopened in 2001 with the presence of Ruth Dreifuss, then the Minister of Culture.
Before the official act, I was sitting alone in the grand hall, sumptuously decorated with hydrangeas hanging from the balcony; a string quartet was rehearsing Puccinis Crisantemi, a magnificent piece of highly emotional music. After a long period of closure (5 years indeed) a museum was coming back to life and that was indeed a moment of great emotion. Everything seemed to be craving for an “ideal” future to come, filled with responsibility and awareness of Vincenzo Velas legacy.
Over the course of your career, how did the figure of the curator change?
We must be careful to use the appropriate terms: curator is not the equivalent to director and viceversa. Sometimes both professional figures converge in one single person, as is my case; this was quite customary up to a decade ago, even in bigger institutions. With the increasing bureaucracy, because of marketing and management processes, the director is more and more absorbed by structural tasks and less and less allowed to curate exhibitions and publications. This is a great pity, which in the long term will weaken the institutions. In smaller museum, such as ours, it is still possible to devote a minimum of time to the content, to doing research….
The curator on the contrary, has gained in visibility since the '90s, especially in the context of contemporary art and in the arts in general, a complex system made up of artists, galleries, curators in the first place, and museums, which bring artists to their rooms. Therefore, the curator is a crucial figure, who plays a powerful role.
In what does the director’s job consist in for you? And how does it relate to its artists?
It consists in knowing how to “read” the place where you work in, starting from the geography, the history and the public. Knowing whom you are talking to is important. Not every museum is alike. Museums are individuals, which cannot be interchanged.
You must know the collections, the context in which they were born and how they came to a particular museum. Collections come first, exhibitions later!
Knowing the space, knowing the collection and having the courage to imagine and to build a special relationship with the public is exciting. With time, the public gets to trust the institution and develops a bond with it, just as it does with a good friend.
It is those three ingredients – knowing the outline, the geography, knowing the history of the institution and its collection and wishing to establish a special relationship with the public –that guarantee the future of museums.
Every person has a preferred artwork or one that most represent them, can we know which is yours?
I have always doubted that anyone can honestly answer this question… I’d like to quote Franz Schubert’s Liederkreise, which pertain the musical world. Classical music is my “fuel” (!). But of course there are works of art which I particularly treasure like Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maestà (1301-1311), a Medieval masterpiece, the subject of my PhD. But also The Deposition of the Dead Christ by Rogier van der Weyden (1460-1463), or The Pulpits by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano (1257-1260) or Giovanni Bellinis Sacre Conversazioni.
There are artworks we like and there are artworks that we do not like, but without which it is difficult to live, because they move other parts of us.
Instead your favourite work at the Museo Vincenzo Vela?
It is the "Morning Prayer", an early work by Vincenzo Vela (1846). I exhibit it in a particular position, facing South, facing the light of day, but not the public, which discovers her by moving around her. It is the work of a twenty-five year-old young sculptor coming from Ligornetto and making his way in Milan, hardly imaginable! It is the testimony of an artist sure of himself, wanting to abandon Neoclassicism, the rigidity of forms related to ancient art, and more interested in Naturalism introduced by the sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini (1777-1850. Not a religious work (Vincenzo Vela was anticlerical) but an extremely moving and in a way a spiritual work; a sculpture he made without a clear commission, just as happened with other masterpieces like "Spartaco" (1847-1850) and "The Victims of Labour" (1882), both extremely vigorous and inspiring works, highlights within Italian sculpture of the 19th C.
According to you, what can be done to bring young people closer to art and culture?
It is a very interesting and very complex question. The need for the arts is part of human nature, and we must allow young generations to discover it. It can be music, cinema, theatre, the visual arts. Perhaps institutions and schools are responsible for not having maintained or not having updated the language in which this should be done.
Museums must be self-critical and get back to the three questions I mentioned before, related to context, the collection and the public they act for.
Our museum has a collection that embodies values that are particularly important today (freedom, personal engagement, solidarity, alienation), so we work around them, with schools that often do not have enough time, or have very tight programs: we try to solicit teachers of subjects other than the arts, to take lessons in our museums. You can do mathematics or geometry in front of a sculpture by Vela ...
The gaze of young people can lead us to discover new things in our artists and we should make them feel more and more protagonists.
We have done 'Slam Poetry' with young people for years, we involve young musicians training at the Music school, students involved in film and video making, in conservation classes, in photography, social sciences etc. and it all works extremely well.
Never before has the access to museums been easier and more democratic than today.
What would you answer to the famous phrase "I could do that artwork to!"?
I would reply: "I am very happy to hear it, so show me".
What is art for you?
Art is an expressive form that makes me feel alive and urges me to look inside me and to look beyond me. And, when I like it, it makes me feel very happy, yet nevercomfortable: art is not a wellness session...