The 2020–21 issue of Art in America’s Annual Guide, released in December 2020, includes interviews with museum directors about how they responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. Founded in Rome in 2010, MAXXI is a midsize contemporary art museum with a newly opened branch in the earthquake-damaged city of L’Aquila. The institution’s overall artistic head, Hou Hanru, who assumed his current post in 2013, is a highly esteemed international curator. His current show at MAXXI, “A Story for the Future,” runs through August 30, 2021.
Compared to institutions in the United States, we were lucky here at MAXXI. We were closed for only two months during the height of the Covid- 19 crisis last spring, and the Italian government made a point of maintaining cultural funding at its normal level. Since that money accounts for 50 to 60 percent of our budget, we were able to keep our entire staff of seventy professionals employed. The thing that has hurt us most is the sharp drop in tourist visits. But even that is not completely devastating financially, because the collection is always free to the public four days a week (Tuesday–Friday) anyhow. Most of the rest of our funding comes from corporations, which have become temporarily uncertain about their support in response to the downturn in admissions.
When we reopened in July, we chose to play to our strength as a research institution with multiple ties to the local community—somewhat on the ideal model originally proposed for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In effect, we try to be a new Roman Forum for contemporary creatives. Our art collection has only about 550 objects, but our architecture holdings number more than 200,000 models, drawings, notebooks, photos, and videos. Scholars and students make extensive use of our archives, tourists flock here, people from throughout Rome come to our numerous panels, lectures, and programs (at least twenty per year), and young people hang out in our courtyard.
Our tenth-anniversary show, “A Story for the Future,” is a combination archival exhibition and festival, featuring lots of documentary photos and videos, performances, sound works, seminars, etc., along with a few recently acquired artworks. It’s both an encyclopedia-style review of how MAXXI has interacted with changes in the world over the past decade and a manifesto for its future. Dutch designer Petra Blaisse has created a dynamic multimedia, multisensory environment for the event.
MAXXI constantly networks internationally, not least with institutions in China. Museums there are able to operate normally now, thanks to the no-nonsense measures imposed by the government early in the pandemic. The flip side of that state paternalism, of course, is a heavy reliance on government policies and funding. The Chinese economy is still growing, but its rate of growth has slowed—which means less money for museums that were never really flush to begin with. Meanwhile, censorship tightens. But many institutions manage to keep a certain autonomy, especially those that can fund themselves. And I am optimistic about the professional community’s capacity for resistance.