Italy might stop hiring foreign museum directors. The head of Milan's Brera hopes to leave his mark

The British-Canadian director of Milan’s Brera Gallery was hired in 2015 after the Italian government launched reforms that for the first time brought in foreign museum directors

Colleen Barry
Sunday 25 June 2023 08:09 BST

The British-Canadian director of Milan’s Brera Gallery was hired in 2015 after the Italian government launched reforms that for the first time brought in foreign museum directors. His eight-year tenure is ending as Premier Giorgia Meloni's right-wing administration seeks to again reserve top cultural jobs for Italians.

Admirers have credited James Bradburne, a 67-year-old architect who has run five cultural institutions in five countries, with revolutionizing the museum that Napoleon intended to make “the Louvre of Italy” and fill with paintings from his Italian campaigns when he expanded his French empire.

Bradburne had each of the 38 rooms renovated without ever closing the museum, established in 1809. He worked to make it more user-friendly by revamping the labels beneath key works, inaugurating musical events to draw in local residents and no longer putting together exhibitions as a way to drive visitor numbers.

During his tenure, popular innovations for highlighting the museum’s masterpieces included installing blue satin beneath Francesco Hayez’s “The Kiss” so visitors can could get a feel of the fabric rendered so perfectly in the painting.

Ineligible to reapply for the job and with only three months left before his contract ends, Bradburne is pushing another initiative: an online museum experience called BreraPlus. In effect, it is an indictment of the kind of mass tourism that turns masterpieces into backdrops for selfies.

Bradburne is making an international pitch to get global visitors to a virtual version of the Brera that goes beyond images of the artworks and makes participants stakeholders in the museum’s future, with access to periodic online meetings to discuss the institution's direction.

For the cost of one 15-euro admission, users get three months of access to the physical museum, plus one year of access to the website of the internet-accessible one, which features documentaries and films commissioned for BreraPlus.

Visitors also can zoom in on selected works, read annotations and exchange views with other visitors in a chat function. Heat maps overlaying the works show which areas are garnering the most interest.

“I think putting museums at the service of the mass tourism is a crime,’’ Bradburne said. For him, BreraPlus represents a “return to sustainable tourism, a tourism that doesn’t require everyone taking low-cost flights."

He acknowledges it will take at least a year to gauge if the project is successful, at which point he will be long gone.

Another pet project, the long-delayed renovations of the Palazzo Citterio across the street from the Brera to house the museum’s considerable contemporary art collection, also will be completed after Bradburne leaves, despite initial hopes for a 2018 opening.

Does he worry that all of the ideas and work he brought to the museum will vanish after he leaves in September?

“If somebody came here who actually gets it, which is an open question, if somebody understands what, in fact, I have done, it’s completely sustainable,’’ Bradburne told The Associated Press. “In fact, it costs less" to keep the projects he oversaw in place than to remove them.

The museum reforms made by a previous left-wing Italian government brought seven foreign directors to Italian museums in 2015 and were widely celebrated as overdue progress. Another breakthrough allowed museums to keep the revenue they generated, which was a breakthrough.

But Bradburne thinks the changes did not go far enough. Museums were not given control in other areas, such as hiring and staffing. Bradburne set up an educational staff with a work-around, calling the team's members “guards” on his organizational chart.

“I would say that the reforms, they made a step forward. But it wasn’t a big step, and it was a very mitigating step,'' he said.

Bradburne's job was recently posted with 10 others, including the directorship of the Uffizi, currently run by a German, and the Museum and Royal Park of Capodimonte in Naples, run by a Frenchman. The postings specify that applicants must be European and proficient in Italian.

Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano has denied that Italy is prejudiced against foreigners but also publicly lamented that the country’s top 10 cultural institutions, including the Pompeii archaeological site and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala Opera House, are run by non-Italians.

He has argued that Italian universities that focus on art history should be able to turn out enough Italian talent to fill the positions.

“The answer is unfortunately, no," Bradburne said. “The problem isn't that we are foreigners or not foreigners. It is that we have learned the skills to run a modern museum that Italy has not taught two generations of museum professionals.”

One way forward, he said, would be to use foreigners as mentors. “Use them, suck them dry," Bradburne said, "and train up Italians.”

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