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Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Building Wars: MAXXI vs MACRO - Rome's Contemporary Art Blockbusters

MAXXI looking good - summer night art work lights up the courtyard,
 and the jutting out window is always captivating
Is Rome's MAXXI – the State’s 21st century (get the “XXI” in the name?) contemporary art museum all it’s cracked up to be?  Did Starchitect Zaha Hadid do her best work here?
(We thought enough of it to highlight it in one of the ours in our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler; see below for more information.)
Can MACRO – the City’s contemporary art museum with its dramatic new addition by Odile Decq compete?
What makes a good modern art museum in the 21st century? 

RST has pondered these questions for some time, esp. since – when we lived in the neighborhood in 2009 and saw it being built - we were initially turned off by Hadid’s monumental concrete bunker.   With a heavy dose of humility (we are not professionals in the art world), we’ve come up with a list of criteria to apply to these two critical museums that opened/reopened in 2010.  After evaluating those criteria and performing a totally unrepresentative sampling of friends and neighbors, [drum roll] the Conclusion: – we still prefer MACRO to MAXXI, but it’s a closer call than we first thought.
Odile Decq's MACRO addition shows off best with this colorful artwork replacing
 a dysfunctional fountain on the roof and shining through to the main floor
Here are our criteria for a new – or newly refashioned with a new addition – modern public art gallery:

Is the building an architectural statement in itself?
     Does it work in its environment – physically is it a good fit? And does it invite the local public?
       Does it provide good and sufficient, logical and exciting space for the art, or is it just about itself?
Is the collection good enough to support the building?
        Are the temporary shows interesting and provocative?
Is the programming embracing?


MAXXI at its worst - concrete bunker and no entrance from the side
 where most people live
MAXXI looking to the back, a year later, opened up and looking better
The building.  No question Hadid’s MAXXI in the Flaminio neighborhood just north of Piazza del Popolo is a blockbuster building with an international draw.  But it’s no Bilbao or Disney Hall (Los Angeles).  We think the internationalistas will not find it interesting for long. It’s just too much concrete; too uninviting – even tho’ it made RST’s Top 40.  And it does not at all fit the neighborhood, in RST’s opinion.  It sits like a colossus without any feeling of the lines of the neighborhood (and no, this wasn’t just a wasteland pre-Hadid).   And it has blocked out the neighbors from access to it much of the time (it’s possible that has changed/is changing).  It IS fun to prance up and down its stairs and ramps and look out the big projecting window.  But it’s also confusing to find any particular gallery or exhibit.  Even many of the employees have no idea where shows are or how to get from point A to point B.  In fact, many times you cannot get from point A to point B without going to ground and starting over (witness the architectural archive area).
It seems to provide good art space, if by that one means big rooms that one can refashion any way one wants, the current trend in art museums, it appears.
Stairways and ramps are seductive, but don't enhance the art much at MAXXI
The collection.  The collection is extraordinary weak; clearly the money ran out.  The temporary shows CAN be good – last year’s focus on art from India (“Indian Highway”), or just ordinary – this year’s homage, from MAXXI’s thin collection, to Marisa Merz (apologies to all feminists), which runs through May 2013.  The architectural shows can be more promising – an initial one on one of our favorites, Luigi Moretti, and last year’s “Verso est [Towards the East]. Chinese Architectural Landscape.”  Or just paltry – a show of the models of the competing plans for the museum itself (on into February 2013); although here one can get a sense of how the board came to pick Hadid’s design – it looks a lot better from a bird’s eye view, smaller, and not in concrete plus you can see the complex would have been another 50% larger (hmmm, would that have been better?).  Another show this summer was of 4 finalists for a competition – how to put on a show for nothing, it appears (closed this past June).  This may be in part because the president of the MAXXI foundation was forced to resign and it has only an acting president at this time.  So nothing new in 2012, it appears.  You can see for yourself on the MAXXI website (there’s an English button too); current and past (archive) shows are described.  MAXXI, btw, stands for Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (“National Museum of 21st Century Arts”), i.e., more contemporary than “modern” and run by the State.

One can't argue with success.  Crowds line up for an evening program at MAXXI
The programming.  Programming gets a higher grade even now – perhaps this was all scheduled before the president departed, but it clearly shows potential.  The pamphlets in each room are excellent.  There are many talks, films, videos, and, of course, parties (you can compare the toilets to MACRO's).  Using the outdoor space in the summer, with some connection to MOMA’s PS 1, has brought in some of the neighborhood.  And, it seems the back side of the museum may actually be open some of the time (and that’s where people live; the front side fronts on a military installation).

Via Guido Reni 4. Open 11-7 Tuesday-Sunday, later (to 10 p.m.) Saturday; Euro 11; buy tickets up to 1 hour before closing; closed May 1, Dec. 25.

MACRO's unabashedly postmodern interior
The walkway at MACRO gives great sight lines onto the exhibition below
The building.  We’ve always had a soft spot for MACRO (Museo d’Arte Contemporaneo di Roma, i.e., the City’s (not the State’s) contemporary art museum) because it is a) not too big, b) in a repurposed Peroni beer factory, c) nestled in a real neighborhood, d) adventurous in programming, e) used to be friendly and cheap – 2 Euros (then about $3).  The new addition by Odile Decq definitely entranced us.  Perhaps that’s because we had a hard hat tour, complete with free Campari soda, when it was under construction. But we think it’s more than that.  The addition has an in-your-face postmodern interior.  The suspended walkway in the new main gallery gives onto wonderful views of the artwork in that space (this year, the Neon, on through November 4), much more art-friendly than any of MAXXI’s ramps and stairways.  The addition is playful, it encourages art in interesting spaces (lit up on the high walls, streaming in from the skylight, on top of the auditorium “roof” and on top of its own roof (including a Sten/Lex peel-away graffiti mural), and adds a distinctly modern flavor to the somewhat staid Peroni buildings.  And, did we say the rooftop cafe and bar are great, and well used by the young professionals of Rome?  The view from the bar down the city street is captivating.  MACRO’s location near Porta Pia and Piazza Fiume facilitates its integration with real people and a real neighborhood.  But, one opinion we solicited called Decq’s addition a failure, adding – she said - almost no gallery space for all the money and design.

Exhibit A, the toilet wars: MAXXI's toilet
And, can we add (if we needed a tie-breaker), the restrooms beat MAXXI’s – and we’ve posted on both!
Exhibit B, the toilet wars: MACRO's sinks

The collection.  The shows this summer featured excellent retrospectives of lesser known Rome artists (easier work to come by) Claudio Cintoli (closed Sept. 2) and Vettor Pisani (on through Sept. 23), Open Studios (thank you Dana Prescott for starting this at the American Academy in Rome) with the current slate of artists on through May 2013, and an okay, but not particularly blockbuster show on neon art (again, more retrospective).  So MACRO too suffers from a limited collection. Again, the directorship has been something of a revolving door, esp. with the party of the Mayor changing from left- to right-wing.  (Thanks to Temple professor and Rome art curator (one of the best - go to anything she curates) Shara Wasserman for filling us in on some of these political details.)  We also almost had a fight with a ticket seller here a year ago when he sold us our tickets and THEN told us the new wing, which had been billed as having had its grand opening, was not in fact open and wouldn’t refund our money.  And, this year, the tickets are up to Euro 11 (about $14+), and the ticket sellers are just as unfriendly and unhelpful.   The web site is not too user friendly.  You have to hit the “Menu” button at the bottom to get any categories, and it’s not clear how to get the site in English.)  On a website tiebreaker, MAXXI would win.

Sten/Lex on MACRO's roofop (the face was revealed as the outer layer
 wore off, or was picked off by visitors (including me)
The programming.  Appears weaker than in prior years.  Not much in the way of talks, special showings, events.
Via Nizza 138, open 11-7 Tuesday-Sunday, and until 10 on Saturday (again, get there an hour before closing); closed Jan. 1, May 1, Dec. 25.

AND THE WINNER IS?  For us, MACRO, but we know we’re in the minority and welcome other opinions!
One of MACRO's Open Studios, and one of our favorites
We should point out that, in addition to the revolving directorships, these government-run institutions are suffering like all others in Italy from extreme budget cutbacks.  MACRO may have a better group of wealthy patrons behind it.  In any event, we hope better times are coming.  Perhaps we should just be grateful there is this much contemporary art in publicly-run galleries in Rome.


P.S.  2.5 more.   Rome also hosts the State’s “modern” art gallery, GNAM (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna – “National Gallery of Modern Art”).  Modern is used as older than contemporary, in European parlance.  GNAM has the best collection of any of the 3, esp. of 20th century Italian art.  Its building, constructed in 1911 to host Italy’s first state modern art gallery, is serviceable, but not something to write home about.  It’s situated in “Academy Gulch” – Valle Giulia, behind the Villa Borghese.  Definitely worth a visit. Don’t skip too quickly through the atrium space right behind the ticket counter; it often has the best exhibit.  A fourth public modern art gallery is the City’s modern (as opposed to contemporary – i.e. MACRO) gallery not too far from the Spanish Steps and the Gagosian: Galleria d’Arte Moderna.   Recently reopened after an extensive multi-year remodeling, the current show (through September) is a great showcase of (mainly) 20th Century Italian art.  And one last note – MACRO also hosts MACRO Testaccio in the quarter of that name, in the ex-slaughterhouse, about which we’ve posted several times; though now relegated to special shows (i.e., not open all the time) and events – what there are, however, are excellent, if pricier than in the past.

And for more on MAXXI and the 21st art and cultural quarter of Flaminio, see our new print AND eBook,  Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler.  Along with the tour of Flaminia, that includes Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer OlympicsModern Rome features three other walks: the "garden" suburb of Garbatella; the 20th-century suburb of EUR, designed by the Fascists; and a stairways walk in classic Trastevere. 

This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores,  and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

1 comment:

Miami art Basel 2012 said...

An art collection with some new and unique art pieces makes the exhibition or a museum different from others. As various art forms are present in the exhibition that needs to be known to people through these museums. Hence these art museums are doing their best in showing different art work to the people.