On the Popularity of Italian Contemporary Art Abroad*

The Facts of an International Presence, and Their Analysis

Marilena Pirrelli

Why today would an Italian artist who wanted to exhibit in Berlin, or in another European city, struggle to find a gallery willing to host them? Why does the international success of Italian contemporary art seem to have stopped in the 1950s-1960s-1970s (Fontana, Burri, arte povera), while today, apart from a few names, it is mostly relegated to marginal positions? The report Quanto è (ri)conosciuta all’estero l’arte contemporanea italiana? starts out from these questions, attempting to identify the critical issues of the Italian system and to draw a comparison between our situation and that of other countries. This independent study was conducted by the author together with Silvia Anna Barrilà, Franco Broccardi, Maria Adelaide Marchesoni and Irene Sanesi, produced by the professional studio BBS-Lombard with the collaboration of Arte Generali, Artprice and Articker/Phillips. Starting from the indispensable study by Pierluigi Sacco, Walter Santagata and Michele Trimarchi L’arte contemporanea italiana nel mondo (Skira, 2005), our research focused on artists born after 1960 who have produced visual works in the last thirty-to-forty years.

The first part of the report is a qualitative survey, in which a number of curators — 24 out of 69 respondents, to be specific — agreed to answer our questions about the Italian artists who, in their opinion, have (or have not) achieved international recognition, and about the limits and unexpressed potential of the Italian system. In the second, quantitative part, we collected and compared data on the Italian presence abroad, analysing in particular the permanent collections of 76 international contemporary art museums: the last seven editions of the Venice Biennale, the last eight editions of Documenta, and the last three editions of 18 other international biennales. The media analysis was also quantitative, conducted on articles published in 16,000 online publications in 25 languages, thanks to our collaboration with the American research institute Articker. Also taken into account were lists of artists represented in 831 international galleries (selected based on their participation in the world’s major contemporary art fairs); the “Italian Sales” over the last twenty years and auction results from 2000 to the present, worked out with the cooperation of the French art institute Artprice. We also reviewed the activities of Pac 2021, Cantica21, Q-International of the Quadriennale di Roma, Art Bonus, 25 of the 82 Italian Cultural Institutes around the world (regarding the cultural diplomacy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation) and the ten editions of the Italian Council. Finally, the study is completed by an in-depth study on the tax aspects of art, on the instruments for supporting contemporary art, and an analysis conducted by the Canadian research institute Wondeur on Italian art centres, compared with international ones using AI.

The integration of the two surveys — the quantitative and qualitative —became necessary because numbers alone are not sufficient to interpret an ever-shifting phenomenon such as contemporary art. It was here that the experience of the curators helped us to read the results that came out. So, the numbers are in. The artistic production in museums, galleries, media and auctions speaks, above all, of a historically established Italian art — Spatialism, Arte Povera and the Transavantgarde — and of the only contemporary champion, Maurizio Cattelan, born in 1960. Then the image of Italy fades, and only artists who have continued their training and production abroad, building relationships with galleries and museum institutions in other countries, come through. This is a first critical element, on the shoulders of the Italian academies, which are incapable of providing the tools for their students to achieve international success.

Since 2000, 51 artists have entered 61 permanent collections of 76 museums in 23 countries surveyed in the Artfacts.net database. First, of course, is Cattelan (who lives and works between Milan and New York) followed by Rosa Barba, who lives in Berlin, Vanessa Beecroft, who lives and works in Los Angeles, Luisa Lambri, who lives in Milan, Tatiana Trouvé, based in Paris, Monica Bonvicini, in Berlin, Enrico David, in London, Diego Perrone (who has lived in Berlin in the past) and Francesco Vezzoli (who studies in London and works in Milan). Foreign experience dominates. Much more present in international group exhibitions, Italian artists do not, however, obtain institutional solo exhibitions in their homeland, which could be the springboard for international success. We also sought out the traces of international visibility by looking into biennales, starting with the Venice International Exhibition, in the editions from 2007 to 2019, where the Italian presence fluctuated between 2.6 and 11.9 percent of the artists. This year alone, curator Cecilia Alemani favoured the entry of multiple Italians (italiane rather than italiani: just one is male), amounting to 12 percent of the total 213 artists present, with an age range foregrounding seven authors born after 1960. In the current edition, the curator’s choices confirms the need to shed light on the history of women’s art from the twentieth century onwards, touching also on the present generations. At Documenta, in the editions since 1992, the Italian presence is even scanter — between 2 and 7 percent, and absent in this year’s edition, focused on global art. Finally, in the other international biennales, Italian authors are often absent from the research and Asian events, whereas they appear more frequently when the curators are familiar with the Italian scene, or if the artists themselves already reside abroad. Otherwise, the choices regard already established names. After all, the era when an Italian movement could have flagship curators as Germano Celant and Achille Bonito Oliva seems to have dropped the baton in favour of curators who are less tied to the body of Italian society. These are citizens of the world capable of interpreting the flow of art in each country — a freedom exercised, however, in climes where support for artistic production is strongly structured.

The analysis carried out on the media thanks to Articker has allowed us to observe that in 2021, Italian art of every historical period had 6.96 percent coverage. This has, in fact, grown by over 50 percent over the last ten years. Yet this is itself thanks to the notoriety of ancient art, of the great names of the Renaissance and Baroque, and the exception of Cattelan, without whom the rate of coverage for contemporaries drops to 1.87 percent. Italian contemporary art also enters international galleries in a peripheral way. Moreover, the commercial and promotional activity of gallery owners is fragile and very risky without a cultural positioning of Italian and international museum institutions. Out of 831 galleries analysed, 135 foreign galleries have a total of 137 Italian artists in their stable: in practice, 16.2 percent of the galleries have at least one Italian contemporary artist. Among the best represented are the already mentioned names of Cattelan and Bonvicini, Marinella Senatore, Alessandro Pessoli, Andrea Galvani, Arcangelo Sassolino and Luca Vitone (many of them also reside abroad). Those who promote and take a bet on these artists are Italian gallerists, or ones of Italian origin, who have spaces abroad, or who have a strong relationship with Italy and with artists already living outside Italy. Women artists account for just over a third of these. The big global galleries tend to move on the safe side: in their portfolios we find the usual well-known names (Cattelan, Vezzoli, Trouvé, Piero Golia, Roberto Cuoghi) — apart, that is, from the acquisition of the bequests of historically established authors of the Italian twentieth century (Melotti, Mauri, etc.), who need investment but run no cultural risks. Many Italian gallery owners based abroad also bet on historically established Italians, who are safer and known to the international market, or on talents with an international following. It is therefore difficult for mid-career artists and young talents to cross national borders: without a control room, without a country-system to support them, they are the ones who struggle to establish themselves internationally. And if the Italian Cultural Institutes abroad try to do their part, artists and operators complain about the lack of a network with the museums on the peninsula or with the Culture Ministry’s contemporary strategies. On the other hand, there is no national agency in Italy to support contemporary art abroad, comparable, for example, to the British Council, the Office for Contemporary Art Norway, the Mondriaan Fund in the Netherlands or Pro Helvetia in Switzerland. It could be said that since 2017 there has been the Italian Council, but the effects are still hard to make out, and in the 1999 Statute of the Quadriennale (art. 2, point C) we read that its tasks include promoting the dissemination and awareness of Italian artistic culture abroad. In short, it could become the agency for the foreign promotion of Italian art, but to be up to this task it would need a strong orientation in this sense, with funding and specific resources for playing a coordinating role between the various initiatives of the ministries, the Biennale Arte and museum and gallery institutions. Perhaps we just need to recognise the need for the control room, activate it and provide it with the means.

For their part, the auction turnover only confirm the focus on “safe” artists. Christie’s and Sotheby’s Italian Sales in London over the last twenty years have strengthened the international market for historically established postwar artists, with the exception of the usual Cattelan (with just over €2.5 million in sales at this type of auction). In global auctions, post-1960 Italian contemporary artists have lost ground over the last twenty years: whereas in 2000 their turnover was higher than that of the French and Germans, in 2021 the situation was reversed, with the French achieving seven times more than the Italians and five times more than the Germans. Most of the auction turnover of the Italians is attributable to one artist: Maurizio Cattelan, who, however, in comparison with the same generation of French and German artists, stands only in tenth position. If auction turnover follows notoriety, with which Italian contemporary art is so poorly supplied, it should come as no surprise that market circulation and cultural recognition often do not coincide: a contemporary artist may be present in galleries, but count few — or insignificant — market outlets.

The report confirms, in short, that the art of the past continues to represent our present, at the risk of nailing Italy to the stereotype of the Grand Tour, newly updated in mass tourism. This is, unquestionably, a prestigious past, but we cannot live off its rents, and in any case it risks hiding aspects of great value in today’s art. After all, when we barely get to study the early twentieth century at school, how can we think of having a public that would be up to frequenting galleries that bet on the contemporary? Awareness of the present, from our education to our adult life, is constantly postponed (for a long time it was entrusted to TV, and today to social and online media). And if the art of the past helps us to live, the art of the present makes us aware, which is why we need to be familiar with it.

*To read the full report, you just need to register and download it at the following link: <https://www.bbs-lombard.com/la-visibilita-internazionale-dellarte-italiana/>


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