Peter Aufreiter: "Italy lacks flexibility, and museum directors are forced to be administrators"

Interview with Peter Aufreiter, director of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, who will leave the post at the end of his term.

The term of the director of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino and the Polo Museale delle Marche, Peter Aufreiter (Linz, 1974), is coming to an end. An Austrian art historian, Aufreiter is one of the foreign directors of autonomous museums who joined the ranks of the ministry in 2015, at the dawn of the Franceschini reform: before arriving in Urbino, Aufreiter was, until 2015, deputy director of the Belvedere in Vienna (where he headed the exhibitions department, the loans department, and the deposits department) and before that, from 2005 to 2008, he was the head of exhibitions at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Back in June, Aufreiter declared that he would be leaving Italy at the end of his term. We caught up with him to let him tell us what has been done in the past four years at the Ducal Palace in Urbino (home of the National Gallery) and at the pole’s museums, what reasons led him to bid farewell to Italy, and what he sees as the critical issues in our state museums. The interview is by Federico Giannini, editor in chief of Windows on Art.

Peter Aufreiter
Peter Aufreiter

FG. Director, your four-year term at the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino is coming to an end. Can you take stock of what has been accomplished over the years?

PA. When I arrived in Urbino, with the museums having just been separated from the superintendencies and with the reform of the ministry having just begun, no one, between myself and the colleagues who had been chosen to direct the other museums, knew quite how to act, and resources were not yet available: I, for example, began my term on December 1, 2015 (others also on October 1 or November 1) and had the first budget in April of the following year, which is why we spent half the year without having funds to spend. In the meantime we tried to work on staffing, which basically had to be built up, because when we arrived there was, for example, no manager for marketing, or communications, or events. I, however, was lucky enough to be assigned the former superintendent’s office, which was based in Urbino (and after the reform was moved to Ancona), so what was his staff was at my disposal and offered to help me. We started right away with analysis: one of the first things we did was to start a collaboration with the University of Urbino to conduct surveys on tourist flows, so that we could understand where our visitors were coming from, the number of days they spent in Urbino, whether they were first-time visitors or not, and all of this gave us a very precise understanding of how to act. Now, clearly I can only speak for my own case, because it has to be premised that Urbino is a very special place, in the sense that there are no trains or highways that go all the way here, so you don’t pass there by accident: you have to want to go to Urbino. Then, Urbino has fourteen thousand inhabitants and certainly does not have the potential of cities like Milan, Rome, or Florence, but we are fortunate to have the Romagna Riviera nearby and cities like Rimini, Pesaro, Fano, Riccione, and Cattolica half an hour away, which, especially in the summer months, makes it easier for us to work. Thanks to the preliminary survey we conducted on flows, we understood that two-thirds of the tourists who come to Urbino do not enter the Ducal Palace, and we understood that 80 percent come by word of mouth, and thanks to this basic information we set our strategy and marketing actions. For the local public, we worked mainly on events: we organized, for example, plays, concerts, wine tastings, dinners and much more. The Ducal Palace public then visited the museum in recent years on the occasion of exhibitions (we organized about twenty, including contemporary art exhibitions), the theater festival, and the living nativity scene that we set up every year. We also organized graduation parties and birthday parties that included a visit to the Ducal Palace. The intent is to tie an experience to the museum visit, because we realized that, here, the museum, for many visitors, had to be combined with something more. These initiatives, which we have always tried to make attractive to the area, have worked very well. It is important (and, I would add, not only for residents: also for tourists) that there is always something new at the museum. This strategy has worked: since 2014, the last year before the reform that gave autonomy to the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, audiences have increased by about 20 percent and revenues have doubled. In short, the main purpose of my strategy was to link the Ducal Palace and Renaissance art to events: based on this strategy we then set up communication as well. It took a couple of years to get into full swing, after which even the residents understood that there is always something new going on at the museum. Among the important results we have achieved, I would then like to mention the opening of some rooms in the Ducal Palace that were not open to visitors (such as one of the little towers, which was not usable, and we secured it: this ensured us a great success), and the fact that we managed to motivate the staff, who identified with this new course. We then worked extensively on education: a large part of our visitors (about seventy to eighty thousand) are children. In the beginning, when I arrived, there was not even money to buy paper to do something with the kids and children. I’ll give an example: the first year we came up with a Mother’s Day project, and we wanted to have the children make paintings (complete with frames) to give to their mothers. The museum staff had liked the idea but we had the problem that ... we lacked scissors. In short, there were really some basic problems. Now with what we gained from the increased influx of visitors we could also afford to invest in education by purchasing materials (including technology).

The balance therefore is positive.

In my opinion the big change introduced by the Franceschini reform was the possibility of having the money that museums earn stay in the museums, minus the 20 percent that goes to the solidarity fund. This allows you to work knowing that the better you are, the more visitors grow, and the more funds you have to buy works of art, for restorations, to do other initiatives. If you are successful you can invest again for next year: in this sense autonomy has been very much appreciated. Now, here in Urbino everyone hopes that things will continue in the same spirit: in these years we have really seen the happiness of visitors and the city. Visitors then come back: we have also activated an annual ticket that sells very well, because people want to come several times a year to the Ducal Palace, and the public is happy when they visit the Palace, but not only that: many recommend the Palace to friends and tourists. And this is exactly what I wanted. So the balance, from this point of view, is very positive, because the strategy we came up with after conducting our analysis is working very well. Now we have an important challenge ahead of us, the year of Raphael: on October 3 we will open the exhibition Raphael and the Friends of Urbino, which runs until January 19. We got it started in 2019 because we already knew that for 2020, the year of the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, it would be impossible to get loans of Raphael’s works. Other events are then planned in the year that I hope my successor will pick up and carry out as best he can.

On the museums of the Regional Museum Pole, how did you work, also taking into account the fact that the territory of the Marche is very particular?

The Polo had many more difficulties, because it had no staff: there were only custodians, and there was no one in the offices. Over time, especially thanks to the 2016 competition, architects, marketing people, communication staff, archaeologists came in. However, there is one problem that has been with us from day one: there has always been a lack of administrative people. That is, there has been a lack of people who pay the bills, who prepare the paperwork for projects, for tenders, for new displays. So in this area, I always have to work with the superintendency and the regional secretariat. And that certainly holds back activities a little bit. Then, the situation varies from museum to museum: the Rocca di Gradara, for example, has never had major problems being in a very attractive destination for tourism, and the same goes for the Rocca Roveresca in Senigallia. It is different for the six archaeological museums, on the other hand, which have great potential and in which we have organized several initiatives, although in this case we have not reached the point I would have liked to have reached, mainly due to the fact that the Pole does not enjoy the resources that the National Gallery enjoys. I have, however, found it an advantage to direct both the Gallery and the Pole, despite all the problems: because you activate a strong relationship with the territory, which is important for all museums, including the National Gallery. I have always been invited by mayors, associations, other museums in the territory as director of the Polo, and this has allowed me to get to know all of Le Marche in depth: knowing the territory and its culture also allows you to activate important collaborations. It has to be said that I have often collaborated ... with myself, that is, activating collaborations between the Gallery and the Polo (for example, an agreement was signed whereby the National Gallery hosts some works from the Polo’s museums that are restored, so Urbino, attracting more public, with more resources can invest more in the territory). For me it was a lot more work but I found it an advantage.

You became director following the reform initiated between 2014 and 2015 by Minister Franceschini: what is your assessment of the reform?

The Franceschini reform was a start. When Franceschini was minister he told us explicitly, “I start this path, I give the possibility to reform, but to really reform museums it has to be you directors.” However, the point is that we have not really been able to completely reform museums, because in my opinion what we really lack is flexibility: we cannot choose the staff. I give an example: in three of the six archaeological museums of the Polo Museale (Ascoli Piceno, Numana and Ancona) we are redoing the Roman section. Once this phase is over, we will no longer need a Roman art expert: maybe we will need an expert who specializes on the Piceni, the Etruscans or the Greeks, and maybe the Roman art expert can go and help another museum in another region. Instead it doesn’t work that way now: I am entitled to have three archaeologists, who come in by competition through a scoring system that places them in a ranking list. But with this system an expert in Hellenistic art could get there, for example, even though we don’t have any objects from the Hellenistic period, with the result that he is here in the office preparing about the Picenian culture, which he may not know, and to avoid wasting time I have to turn to an outside expert (for example, a university professor) who understands the situation right away. So what happens is that the state ends up paying two salaries, namely that of the person who is not the right one for us, and that of the external collaborator who has knowledge on the subject and takes care of the exhibition design for us. The same goes for restorers: we have been sent restorers who specialize in canvas and wood for archaeology museums, where we have no canvas and no wood. And I also heard that in the South, three restorers specializing in stone restoration were sent to a museum where there was no stone object. These are still the absurdities of the Italian state museum system: I understand that it is difficult to solve them because there is a system based on competitions and scores, but a little more freedom would be needed. To reiterate: I do not always need a Roman art expert, but I might need a Roman art expert for a limited period of time. However, this is not possible in Italy, because there is a lack of flexibility. I make a comparison with Austria: in Vienna, at the Belvedere, in the office that dealt with tourism I had a guy who was a great expert on the tourist flows coming in from Russia (there are a lot of Russian tourists in Vienna). With the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, Russian tourism completely collapsed: for two years there were no more Russian tourists in Vienna (then they came back, but for a couple of years the flow practically stopped). And at that juncture we had fired the expert, because we no longer needed a specialist on Russian tourism at the time when there was no tourism from Russia. Instead, we hired an expert on Chinese tourism, because there was a need to specialize on that market. Instead, what would have happened in Italy is that the Russian tourism expert would have had to become a Chinese tourism expert overnight. In this case the museum should function like a private company: if there is no longer a certain type of clientele, I no longer need the expert who is specialized on that type of clientele. I know I am asking for things that are very difficult for the Italian public administration, but if Italy wants to put itself at the forefront in the international context it should have more flexibility. This is a point that not even the Franceschini reform has been able to solve. On the positive side, however, there is the fact that the money stays in the museum, which is very important, because with our budget we can decide to buy a work of art, do a restoration, do an exhibition, do a theater festival, and this is already a huge step forward, which even perhaps was not expected from Italy.

The changes of the Franceschini reform are likely to take another direction as a result of the Bonisoli reform, although it is all uncertain now since the implementing decrees have been frozen. In any case, it would be interesting to know what is your assessment of the Bonisoli reform.

With the Bonisoli reform in my opinion we would return to centralism, with Rome wanting to decide on loans, purchases, tenders and contracts, with the abolition of boards of directors, a measure, the latter, that would make museums more tied to the ministry. Of course, compared to Franceschini’s, it is a different strategy, and it is the minister who decides his own strategy. I decided to leave because I was no longer comfortable with the minister’s strategy. Of course, it’s not necessarily that what Bonisoli wanted couldn’t work, but it would take a huge office in Rome to solve the problems of all the museums. The point, however, is that the ministry is not prepared for such a situation. If the Bonisoli reform had gone ahead, maybe the museums would have stopped for a couple of years because of the work that would have to be done to make the new system work. I repeat: It is right that each minister has his own strategy, and I, as a small director, have to decide whether I am or am not. Now that Franceschini is back I hope that we will move forward with his reform, although I have to say that in the Bonisoli reform it was not all bad. For example, in my case, in the Marche, Bonisoli had wanted to set up the National Museums of the Marche, thus bringing all the museums together in one entity, as if they were all parts of one company. This would have been a great advantage, for the fact that I am now director of two different companies, and also from the personnel point of view now, for example, I have an architect for the Polo and not for the gallery. Then, of course, we have to see what the amalgamation between the Gallery and the Pole entails for the future of personnel, budget and other management aspects, but in general the idea of uniting the Gallery and the Pole seemed to me very positive. It is much more serious this centralism: I hope that with Franceschini we will return to as much autonomy as possible, and I hope that we will also solve the problems that have never been solved (such as staff flexibility). I would be very happy for Marche and for Italy if we continue on the path that began when I arrived.

Another important passage of the Bonisoli reform (although then it will have to be seen how it will change, since Franceschini, as mentioned, has blocked his measures for the time being), contested by many, was the intent to abolish boards. It would be interesting to understand what help the board gave you and why it is considered so important by the directors...

It was so important. Within my board of directors I had, for example, an important lawyer, Professor Cesare San Mauro, who gave me a lot of suggestions when there were shortages, and again I had Engineer Giovanni Castellucci, CEO of Autostrade per l’Italia s.p.a., who after the events in Genoa did not have much time for us anymore, but before that he always offered us a lot of help. For me, the board of directors is not a controlling body (if anything, the board of auditors is), but it is a board in the true sense of the word, made up of regional and national entrepreneurs who not only support the museum but also circulate its name and bring high-level personalities to visit it, and this is a very important point. And also, dealing with someone who has administrative experience is a huge advantage: just think about the possibility of asking a famous lawyer how he or she advises to behave in a certain situation. The board has really helped me a lot. Maybe it is not necessary for bureaucracy, because you can live very well without the board’s signature on the budget-that is not the point. But it is necessary because of the help it provides and its great usefulness.

Many of your foreign colleagues have often complained that museums in Italy are suffocated by bureaucracy. What do you think is wrong with our country’s museum system in the small problems of everyday life?

The problem is not so much the bureaucracy itself: in Italy there is so much bureaucracy, but everything was born with its own reason, to solve a certain problem. The real problem in Italy (and which does not exist, for example, in countries like France, Germany, Austria) is that it is constantly changing: almost every day there is a new circular, a new regulation, a new rule. And this is unmanageable. The procurement code, for example, has changed three times in the last two years. The situation is serious, also because it touches on the fact that there are almost five hundred state museums in Italy, and if something changes at the bureaucratic level, the consequences affect almost five hundred museums that lose a lot of time (and therefore a lot of useful work) to understand the bureaucratic changes. Then maybe it happens that when one has just finished understanding one regulation, another new one comes along. Bureaucracy in itself is not a problem: we have people in our offices who have been working for 30 years with the Italian bureaucracy, they know it well and they know how to deal with it, but the problem is that even they have to discuss first because they have heard that maybe a new regulation will come out, and then they have to work all the time to take in the changes and to keep up to date. This I think is the problem that holds us back the most: if I want to start a project I have to go to my administrative people, who stop me because, for example, they see that a new regulation came out three months ago that they have to study well. This is where a lot of time is lost.

However, we would like to know more about what are, in this sense, the differences between Italy and abroad (in your case, Austria, taking into account, however, that the proportions of the two countries and their respective museum systems are very different), that is, from the point of view of bureaucracy and administrative and generally practical functioning, what is it that there is in Italy that is lacking abroad, or vice versa...

Of course, in Austria there are not nearly five hundred state museums as there are in Italy: there the museums are almost all regional, and there are only seven state museums (they are the largest ones and they are all in Vienna). In Austria the last reform there was twenty years ago: it was a partial reform, and after a few years it was seen that it worked, that the museums had more money, found more sponsors, and as a result the reform was completed and the museums were granted total autonomy (they were turned into foundations and the director can decide on hiring staff, as happens in a private company). The main difference with Austria is that in Austria no politician, of any party, would think of making such major changes in such a short time: there is no way a minister would do something just to leave his or her mark. Things that don’t work, of course, have to be improved, but you don’t have to change everything just because the previous minister was of a different color. My experience in Austria is that there the market and tourism are self-regulating: it doesn’t take much influence from the ministry. Then, in Austria it never happened that the ministry told me what works I could or could not lend to another museum. In Italy we need the ministry to give more freedom to the directors: then, if the director is not successful he will be changed. But you can’t meddle in the details of programming, as happened to my colleague Peter Assmann at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, when Minister Bonisoli gave his opinion on the Nitsch exhibition: it can’t be the minister who determines whether an exhibition should be done or not. The difference is that in other countries you choose a director who has his own line, and then if it does not go well he is changed, but you should not meddle in the loans, the exhibitions, the actions of the individual museum. Of course it is easy to say (and I also realize that I am saying this as a foreigner: maybe instead for an Italian it is normal to attack a minister because he does not meddle enough in the life of museums), but it is also true that in Italy art and culture have a much more important position than they do in Germany or Austria. Let me give an example: last year, on Easter Monday, the Ducal Palace in Mantua closed due to lack of staff. Almost two years later we still remember this fact very well. If in Vienna the Albertina closed for Easter Monday, probably no one would care about it: visitors would maybe think that the Albertina people are stupid because they lose revenue, but they would not give the fact all that much importance, and they would simply go to visit another museum. Instead, in Italy such a fact ends up on the front page of ten newspapers. And then in Italy if I introduce myself as one of the foreign directors of autonomous museums, everyone knows what I am talking about: because citizens identify with their culture. Maybe then they don’t go and visit the museums, but they know what’s going on. This of course is very positive: I think that in no other country in the world do the inhabitants identify so much with their art and culture.

And speaking of foreign directors, in June you had said that here in Italy many people are convinced that it is better if museums are run by Italian directors. What did you mean by that?

Meanwhile, I must point out that here in Urbino I have never been told that I am no good because I am a foreigner. Not least because I would find it ridiculous: work and results count. However, I think that at this stage of reform it is more important for Italian museums to be directed by an expert in Italian administration instead of an expert in culture or marketing. I spend about 70 percent of my time in administration. And I am not an expert in Italian administration: this situation also makes me sick, because I do things that I do not consider myself good at. I have often said this even to Minister Bonisoli: “If you don’t send me the administrative people I lack, you are right when you say that Italians are better than foreigners at running museums.” Because it is useless for an Italian museum to pay a foreign director to deal with Italian administration. Or maybe it is good to have both: one to take care of administration and one to bring international experience. I matured the decision to leave Urbino when the minister was still Bonisoli and I could see in what direction his reform was going: I thought I was no longer useful with my ideas, because with such an arrangement it would not be ideas that would count, but obedience to Rome. In any case, as far as I am concerned, I think I made a contribution that the National Gallery needed: that of seeing the museum from another point of view, of showing that the museum can also be enhanced through events and high-level exhibitions, but also through weddings and room rentals. Those who have grown up within the superintendency system would perhaps not even think of changing this strategy, simply because they have not experienced a different system. So, the international experience is useful and important, however, if the director is only used to do administration, it does not make much sense.

One last question: what do you feel like suggesting to your successor?

I will suggest talking a lot with the staff, because they don’t need me anymore in so many things, and everything now works very well: the exhibition office, the marketing and communication office, the accounting department... they have all become very good, and if the new director listens with patience he can move forward on this line, because there is a lot of potential in the Marche.

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