"What's going on at the MAXXI?" This is the kind of email you get from people outside the museum who have caught wind of this sudden, strange crisis, which spans two of the main problems in Italy today: money and confidence.
The Ministry of National Heritage and Culture ignited the crisis in April. Without negotiating a public stance with the museum, it announced that 2011's deficit had made it impossible to approve the 2012 budget, and as a result it would set up an external commission to administrate the foundation that operates the MAXXI.
The museum retorts that it has achieved good results since opening two years ago, in terms of both visitors and resources (with nearly 50 per cent in self-financing). Therefore, by cutting off most of its financial support, it is the ministry that has sparked a crisis.
Public debate in Italy, sanctified by national newspapers, has cultivated a so-called "behind-the-scenes" genre, accordingly raising questions as to why the ministry wants to decapitate the MAXXI, and, as heads role, who have been earmarked as replacements.
Critics of the museum adopt two arguments: one about architecture, the other about operations. Predictably, the former maintains that the huge and costly building was built without clear ideas, and that this is the fate of all monumental ambitions of the "cultural state": the creation of waste. The second sustains that the quality of the MAXXI's programming and management has failed to attract enough visitors and, above all, private funding, and thus top executives should be replaced.
The MAXXI's defenders point out that the external administrator Antonia Pasqua Recchia's arrival and the replacement of the foundation's directors should be sufficient to restore funding and reach the desired result: the political-bureaucratic exercise of indirect power, rather than direct intervention. This style also rings truer with the current season of "technicians" in Italian government, compared to the centre right's previous penchant for feisty protagonists, from Vittorio Sgarbi to Enrico Bondi and Giancarlo Galan. Moreover, it offers a glimpse of a ministerial elite that is little affected by political changes.
A small but revealing clue surfaces with the position of the cultural heritage employees' unions, which, unlike other unions, are the only voices that regularly speak out about officials' promotions within the ministry. The unions point an accusing finger at the MAXXI Foundation's autonomy, calling for the "normalisation" of the MAXXI as a state museum. Are all levels of the ministry therefore set on steering the institution closer to their own visions and strategies?
That the issue is complicated is further demonstrated by Italy's leading daily, Corriere della Sera. By publishing articles from the opposing camp in multipage spreads instead of the typical one-page "pros-and-cons" format, the newspaper appears to be stepping in as one of the battlegrounds. Of course, reservations are admissible, regarding both Zaha Hadid's building and the MAXXI's directors and curators. But one needs to understand if these two objections have any grounding.
Is the building too big? Are design faults to blame for the deficit? Frankly, this doesn't seem to be the case, at least not to the extent of appreciably shifting the balance of accounts. Could the competition jury have selected a less expensive project? Undoubtedly. But this wouldn't have saved the museum from on-off funding. In terms of management, the difference between this project and others would have been all but insignificant: the costs behind a 15,000-square-metre building that produces and hosts exhibitions can easily be assessed and gauged against known parameters. The MAXXI is a medium-sized museum, much smaller than the Tate, the Guggenheim Bilbao or the Beaubourg, with an overall area of about a half, a third or a fourth respectively, and about a tenth of the budget.
The ministry's annual contribution to the budget amounts to several million euros. This is no trifling sum, but neither is it astronomical, and it cannot be compared to the sorry condition of other Italian museums, signing off 90 per cent of their budgets to staff salaries. The Italian state must explicitly choose to shoulder this fiscal burden — if deemed worthy — to have a national contemporary art museum in Rome.
This institution will never be financially self-sufficient in the context of Italian society today, even looking beyond the crisis. This also holds true for donations and sponsors. They might play a greater role, but it's inconceivable that they could replace the ministry. Otherwise it would be necessary to offer the MAXXI to the highest bidder, as with Venice's Punta della Dogana, and hope there's a Monsieur Pinault willing to take it.
The crisis of Rome's museum conveys the typical sense of uncertainty haunting today's cultural institutions. How can one fail to see that the players and mechanisms are the same as with the Venice Biennale, along with the continuous delays that plague what should be routine nominations? The conflict at the heart of the Biennale's governance ends up being transposed onto the exhibitions' curators (with particular fury in the case of architecture, as one can infer from the stormy selection process of its directors, from Fuksas to Chipperfield, up to the curatorship of the Italian Pavilion, which was only announced in early May 2012).
Returning to the MAXXI, one should delve into the museum's history and context to identify the reasons underpinning its fragility. Rem Koolhaas, always a dab hand at playing ahead of the game, flagged up the point in his competition entry's report: "How can Rome animate an institution of the scale and ambition now contemplated?"
In its uncertain relationship with the ministry, the museum's character as an institution has emerged nearly as slowly as the structure itself was erected, and, in a sense, "begins" from the very same building. It's a rough story about friction (also due to the person who initially conceived it, the director of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna Sandra Pinto), which is the mirror image of the building's smooth internal and external surfaces.
Pio Baldi's resignation as president of the MAXXI Foundation has been offset with the promise of a continuation in cultural programming and a ministry pledge to assume responsibility for the museum's funding. In the meantime, the ministry has appointed a new director to manage the uncertain transition.
To conclude, however, it must be said that the controversy surrounding the MAXXI contains a profoundly untimely element. The true test of its success should come in a few years, when its "novelty" honeymoon with visitors is over. By then the museum's identity will have been established through the choices of its directors and curators, and the dust will have settled around the building that houses it, whose character as an object is currently amplified by its unfinished state. Give the MAXXI time.
Francesco Garofalo shares a studio in Rome with Sharon Yoshie Miura (Miura Garofalo Architetti) and has taught at the Faculty of Architecture in Pescara for 12 years, following a 9-year tenure at IUAV in Venice. He has organised several competitions, including the one for the MAXXI in 1998-99; in 2008 he curated the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In 2008 he also published a collection of essays with Allemandi titled Architettura scritta ("Written Architecture").