Inquiry into museum reform, part 3. Martina Bagnoli (Estensi Galleries) speaks.

Third installment of our survey on museum reform. Here today is opinion and judgments on the reform by Martina Bagnoli, director of the Estensi Galleries.

“Digitization of the collections not as an appendix but as an essential tool of research and enhancement” and making the visitor experience “memorable”: these are the two distinctive traits Martina Bagnoli claims in her direction of the Estense Galleries, which began on December 15, 2015. Bagnoli’s experience is also made special by the fact that it is the only diffuse museum with an autonomous statute. In fact, the Estense Galleries were born in 2015 from the amalgamation of five independent institutes before the Franceschini Reform. They include the Galleria Estense in Modena, with the art collection of the Dukes of Este; the Museo Lapidario Estense in Modena, which documents the history of the city from the Roman era to the late 17th century; the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria in Modena and the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Ferrara, on the piano nobile of the Palazzo dei Diamanti, the historic home of the Este family with a significant collection of paintings in Ferrara from the Two to the Eighteenth century; and the Palazzo Ducale in Sassuolo, one of the most important Baroque residences in northern Italy. Unlike the directors heard in previous installments of our inquiry, Bagnoli believes in the possibility of making Italian museums free as well, on the Anglo-Saxon model, with the fundamental contribution of private individuals, rather than thinking of an (unrealistic) increase in state funding, like his MANN colleague Paolo Giulierini. Who, incidentally, shortly after our interview was “promoted” with the move from the second to the first managerial tier. And on the subject of these two levels even for Bagnoli, as for those we had previously heard from, the differences between one and the other remain difficult to understand, unless we want to make it a matter solely of economic treatment. Then again, for the art historian, it should be the director who can choose his or her own staff, which at the Galleries is significantly lacking in all technical officers, and the museum board should be more independent. While “attendance figures only make one crazy if one believes they are the only metric of success.”

Martina Bagnoli
Martina Bagnoli

MS. There are two different degrees of autonomy: general and nongeneral management level museums. What is the difference? What does it entail that the Este Galleries are subject to the powers of direction, coordination, and control of the Museums Directorate?

MB. The difference is poorly understood from an organizational point of view and is perhaps best explained by a difference in rank between museums that are more important in terms of collections, locations, and attendance, and therefore also in the director’s compensation. To be subject to the coordination and control of the Museums Directorate means above all to relate to the headquarters of the ministry of which the Este Galleries (like all first- and second-tier museums) are territorial branches.

The Ministry remains to varying degrees involved in the decision-making process. In your opinion, would it be appropriate or, on the contrary, deleterious to take a further step, recognizing full autonomy for these “special” institutes? Financial autonomy includes, in fact, the management of the revenues that flow to its budget, but it does not include personnel-related expenses, the allocation of which is attested to the central administration. Would the Institute he heads be able to cover salaries as well?

Yes, I think so, too. The specificity of each museum makes it essential to be able to choose its staff based on the professional qualifications needed for the museum and the implementation of its strategic plan. My institute would be able to hire a small proportion of employees.

Speaking of staff, is it understaffed? Would it be preferable for the director to indicate to the central administration the professional figures according to the technical-operational needs he needs?

Yes, my institute is understaffed and it would be desirable to be able to indicate the figures needed. There is a lack of all technical officers: Architects, Curators, Librarians, Restorers and communication experts. In addition, the band of assistants (secretaries, protocol officers, monitoring officers, public relations officers, etc.) is almost completely exhausted, so a lot of time is wasted doing small (but important) things.

To what extent do the Este Galleries participate in the Financial Rebalancing Fund among state institutes and places of culture?

Like all museums, the Estensi Galleries participates with 20 percent of its income. The percentage is a figure that varies each year based on revenue; I prefer not to quote numbers that are often either misunderstood or misinterpreted.

One of the main changes introduced for autonomous museums is their governance. Does the director-committee-scientific committee organization work at the management level? How often does the scientific committee convene? In an interview, then-Dg Antonio Lampis observed that the members of these bodies often instead of “supporting the director ’paralyze’ his activity by personalism.” If you agree with this observation, what could be the alternative?

Let’s say that the scientific committees should be chosen by the director based on the skills the director needs to carry out his strategic plan and the museum’s intended mission. For the BoD, on the other hand, the director should not also be its chairman. This is to ensure more autonomy for this oversight body.

Moving on to scientific autonomy: can you tell us about your research activities and your enhancement plan? Is it connoted by a distinctive trait?

Our distinguishing trait is definitely to have pursued the digitization of the collections not as an adjunct but as an essential tool of research and enhancement and at the same time to have completed the security and rearrangements of all the museum’s venues to make the visit aesthetically pleasing and memorable for the whole public. I will tell you better: the creation of a digital library platform, the Estense Digital Library, which publishes library and museum collections in high definition and with the IIIF protocol that allows sharing, annotation, and the creation of exportable presentations , has been a milestone of my tenure. EDL has become a model for many other institutions, such as the Central State Archives, which has traced it for its digital display case. The launch of the online scholarly catalog, with an open source system that allows authorship of individual records, their archiving over time and automatic export of citations, and that will publish research on our 14th-century painting collections in a progressive manner is another major innovation that I think will serve as a model for other museums . To this must be added the enormous work done in the individual venues to improve their appearance and security: the complete refurbishment of the Pinacoteca in Ferrara, the rearrangement of several rooms in the Galleria Estense in Modena and the creation of an exhibition hall that did not exist before, the restoration and recovery of the historic rooms of the Biblioteca Estense, now open to the public for the first time, The new multimedia and thematic layout in Sassuolo, the rearrangement of the storerooms with the creation of study rooms and adequate security and air conditioning systems. The refurbishments of all lighting and man-made safety systems in all venues. The monumental restoration of the southern facade of the Sassuolo building. In short, the complete transformation of venues into welcoming and aesthetically coherent and appreciable spaces are certainly the mark of my tenure.

The Estense Gallery in Modena. Photo: Silvia Gelli
The Estense Gallery in Modena. Photo: Silvia Gelli

Have you planned any citizen loyalty initiatives? If so, which ones? How does the museum fit into the dynamics also of economic, as well as cultural, development of the community and the area of reference?

Yes, many. Lately also the creation of a series of membership cards that allow visitors to access the museum several times with a small monthly fee. They are a way to stay listening to the wishes of the public since they provide for direct contact with buyers. In addition, the card serves to open the museum’s doors as a place of meeting and recreation where people willingly return and not just as a one-time tourist destination. We have also worked a lot with local businesses to create alliances and join their business network. A shared path has been started that has led to awareness of the museum as an important asset for the community and the area. Various businesses in the area now feel at home here, and this therefore has important spin-offs for sponsorships and donations. Various associations and entities, such as Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, are interested in participating in individual projects by supporting their creation or management, this is the case with special educational projects such as the creation of tactile stations for the blind or the creation of educational paths for inmates of the Sant’Anna prison in Modena.

Chapter protection: to whom does it belong? To the Galleries or to the Superintendence? In Sicily, where the corporatist model applied to cultural institutions was introduced earlier than in the state, back in 2000, it is expected that the Superintendent will chair the Committee. Do you consider this an alternative “formula” or do you think it could fuel conflicts between Superintendent and Director?

If protection means the preservation of collections and places, it seems to me there is no doubt that it belongs to the director of a museum. If, on the other hand, one means the legal protection (constraints, export bans, etc.) of the nation’s cultural heritage this belongs to the Superintendent. So it seems to me that things are quite distinct.

Highly topical issue, free museums. Gabriele Finaldi, who directed it until last August, said “free admission is in the DNA of the National Gallery” (of London). Genetics teaches that DNA can mutate, Do you think this is a model that can be imported to Italy, with the necessary adaptations? Is it conceivable to totally give up the resources produced by entrance fees?

I believe that free museums are a sign of great civility. It is a goal that must be achieved together with the private community. Because it is donations that allow free museums to be free. Let’s remember that someone always pays: either the community with taxes or private individuals voluntarily with their donations (for which there should be very substantial tax breaks).

Are there moments of exchange, such as technical tables convened with some regularity, among you autonomous directors to compare different experiences? Replicate successful ones or solve common problems? Or has a competitive spirit prevailed? Doesn’t the most immediate (but also the most trivial) comparison of visitor numbers create some performance anxiety?

There have been sporadic officially organized moments of confrontation. I often do it informally with some of my colleagues. Attendance figures only make one crazy if one believes they are the only metric of success. Certainly it is a good tool to measure the development of the museum project and the success of specific projects ( exhibitions, etc.), but it is not data that by itself is an end in itself. A museum that attracts millions of tourists but does not enter the lives of citizens measures a success of income ( if the museum is paid ) and image, but not necessarily of cultural offerings for the city in which it is.

In summary, what is your balance sheet of the autonomist experience? If you had to quantify it in a grade from 0 to 10?

I give it a 7. To evolve a core of individual institutions with a fragmented geography into a single institution capable of offering an organic and quality cultural offering was a formidable challenge but one that gave me a lot of satisfaction. Equally great was seeing the staff grow professionally along with the development of the museum. Less exciting has been the management of the bureaucratic machine.

When does your contract end? What plans do you have? Will you participate in new competitions?

My second term ends on December 14, 2023. Then I will go to direct the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo. Therefore, I will not participate in new competitions in the immediate future.