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Times are a-changing for Italian museums

Deadline passes for ad seeking nine museum directors, but who will get the jobs?

Wanted: a fresh crop of dynamic directors for Italy’s state museums and archaeological sites, preferably with management expertise, fundraising chops and an international outlook. An ad taken by the Italian culture ministry in the Economist magazine seeking candidates to lead nine institutions, including the ancient site of Herculaneum and the Unesco-protected D’Este and Adriana Villas at Tivoli, closed on 20 July.

The initiative comes a year after the Italian culture ministry appointed 20 new directors—including, for the first time, foreigners—to lead major museums such as the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence and the Galleria Borghese in Rome as part of a sweeping reform.

“The Italian museum system is turning a page and catching up after decades of backwardness,” the culture minister Dario Franceschini said last August. The second competition confirms the “political will to move forward” with a reform that is already yielding results, a ministry spokesman says.

The 20 museums that officially gained “autonomy” from central government last year are reporting a rise in visitor numbers and revenue. They can now fundraise independently for the first time and no longer have to return the funds to Rome for redistribution.

Change was long overdue. Taking the reins at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan last October was “like stepping back in time”, says James Bradburne, the British-Canadian former director of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. The museum lacked a clearly marked entrance and its collection, including masterpieces by Piero della Francesca and Raphael, was badly lit and had no labels. “For all intents and purposes, the visitor simply didn’t exist,” Bradburne says. He is working on a visitor-friendly rehang of the collection (12 rooms have been reinstalled so far), due to be completed within two years.

Fresh faces Behind the scenes at the Uffizi, Italy’s most-visited art museum, “about 11 exhibition departments” were working at cross-purposes, says Eike Schmidt, the German-born director who moved from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “Once in a while… the same painting was promised to two different exhibitions.”

Amid Schmidt’s efforts to streamline, the museum is preparing to open the Uffizi’s first dedicated galleries for temporary shows this winter. The museum is also using a €40m government grant to complete a long-stalled project to double its exhibition space.

Dispelling fears that the new guard would meet resistance in Italy’s traditional museum culture, Sylvain Bellenger, the French director of the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, says: “On the contrary, the last years of the ancient regime had created a deep expectation for change”. But the warm reception cannot disguise the long-term problem that museums are still “totally understaffed”, he says, due to an ageing workforce and few new recruits since 2008.

Astonishingly, Rome’s Galleria Borghese, a treasure house of works by the likes of Caravaggio and Bernini, has only five permanent staff members beyond the gallery guards, says Anna Coliva, the gallery’s director. The institution has no IT specialist, administrator or conservator.

This is set to change: four administrators are due to join the team following a ministry-sponsored initiative to encourage existing civil servants to fill important vacancies. But Coliva, like other directors, still has no power to hire (or fire), since permanent contracts are paid by the state. Tendering for services from external companies is a temporary stopgap, but one that is restricted by law as a drain on public finances.

Despite the limitations, the directors are optimistic about the possibilities for innovation. The Pinacoteca di Brera and Museo di Capodimonte have both created American friends’ schemes to raise more money, while the Galleria Borghese is planning to launch a digital study centre on Caravaggio and his circle.

With increased independence, Italy’s museums “can make an exceptional force as a group”, Coliva says. “But we need a bureaucratic and administrative structure that supports us.”

Directors wanted Nine institutions are seeking new directors from home and abroad. Applications are due online by 20 July; appointments are expected by 2017

1.    Complesso Monumentale della Pilotta (Parma)

2.    Museo delle Civiltà (Rome)

3.    Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia (Rome)

4.    Museo storico e il Parco del Castello di Miramare (Trieste)

5.    Parco Archeologico dei Campi Flegrei (Naples)

6.    Parco Archeologico dell’Appia Antica (Rome)

7.    Parco Archeologico di Ercolano (Naples)

8.    Parco Archeologico di Ostia Antica (Rome)

9.    Villa Adriana and Villa D’Este (Tivoli)