Meet MAXXI Foundation President Giovanna Melandri

The MAXXI – National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome is the first national museum dedicated to contemporary arts and architecture in Italy. Designed by famed British architect, the late Zaha Hadid, it is experiencing a period of rebirth thanks to a busy calendar of international events.But above all, MAXXI owes thanks to the strength and to the determination of president of the MAXXI Foundation, Giovanna Melandri (New York, 1962).Divided into two sections, MAXXI art and MAXXI architecture, another museum site was opened in L’Aquila, Abruzzo, in the late Baroque-style estate of the Ardinghelli family, better known as Palazzo Franchi Cappelli.

Among its most important and exclusive projects, MAXXI collaborates with Fremantle, the world leader in the production and distribution of entertainment programs, films and documentaries, to shoot a series of masterclasses with five different protagonists: the photographer Letizia Battaglia, master of sustainable architecture Mario Cucinella, architect and designer Piero Lissoni, Oscar-winning composer Nicola Piovani, and the pioneer of Arte Povera Michelangelo Pistoletto. In addition to evening openings, there is the MIXT – Musei per tutti project that includes stations in Braille, video guides in sign language and tactile stations, to complete accessibility to culture for visitors without barriers.In short, the museum looks to the future with optimism in the name of sustainability, innovation and above all inclusion.

A former politician and economist, deputy from 1994 to 2013, and also the founder and president of the Human Foundation, Melandri tells FRONTRUNNER about the Roman museum’s future challenges.

The MAXXI – National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome
Photo credit: Francesco Radino

As we’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, how has MAXXI changed since the reopening of museums in Italy on May 18, 2020?

We have learned many lessons. Obviously it was very difficult, but I must say that we have been closed repeatedly but never turned off. We reopened by doubling because we inaugurated a new location in L’Aquila and we worked on developing a very important online content production already in the first lockdown, in fact today the museum’s offer is between virtual and face-to-face. One thing we are proud of is the dimension of civic, social, education in a great cultural institution. We were in the midst of the “institutional building” and on this definition, we exploited and used this period to ask ourselves and question ourselves even more about what we want to be and that is a laboratory of the future, an open platform and we have recovered the “sentimental relationship” with the city of Rome. We worked a lot. Consider that before the pandemic, half of our audience was mostly international, especially American and Asian, which for now we have lost, yet the data of the last few months is incredible: we had the best October and November ever, because we sold as media 45 thousand tickets per month!

So has the pandemic, somehow, defined a new way of describing art and museums in particular?

Surely thanks to the double register online and in person. In addition to having renewed the relationship with the city and the current offer of exhibition projects, the green pass has helped us for the serenity of a visit in protection. In this period we have very important exhibitions such as Amazônia by Sebastião Salgado, the personal The Purple Line by Thomas Hirschhorn, Casa Balla and the Permanent Collection which, thanks to the important resources that we have been able to have from the Ministry, the national public collection is growing and I emphasize that you can visit it for free.

Casa Balla, MAXXI, Rome
Photo credit: M3Studio

What are MAXXI Museum’s latest projects?

We have decided to extend the opening of Casa Balla for a year, which is a very interesting project. It’s the recovery of the house where the master of Italian futurism Giacomo Balla lived with his wife and two daughters. We have two very important exhibitions coming soon. The first is Cao Fei, a visionary Chinese artist who will bring unpublished projects for the first time to MAXXI with Supernova. The second is a very feminine programme: we are about to inaugurate an exhibition entitled Buone Nuove. Donne in architettura. We are a national contemporary art museum, but also an architecture museum. Thus, our research on architecture is very important. After Ugo Ponti, Aldo Rossi and many others, we are about to open an important exhibition on the history of women in architecture. Then, there is the collaboration with Fremantle, which came from the experience we had during the lockdown. During that period, we had over 15 million views for our projects and it was necessary to team up with a professional partner on audio-video production to carry out some lessons with the great protagonists of contemporary art, architecture and Italian culture.

On the making and preserving of culture in Italy, is there still something missing?

Italy is a great cultural superpower that needs support. In my opinion, what is missing is a proper mechanism to “support the demand for culture”: going to the cinema, to the museum, to the theater, to an archaeological area, is an expense that is good for Italians’ health. So, as we deduct our health costs on the one hand, in my opinion we could be able to deduct part of our expenses in culture from our income because culture is a medicine of the soul!

You are also President of the Human Foundation. How was the project conceived and what is the mission?

Human was born ten years ago before I arrived at MAXXI and was born with a very specific ambition: to bring the culture of “impact investment” to Italy as well. Today, sustainability is achieved with investments that integrate general, such as environmental and social impacts into their logic. We work with many realities. The underlying logic of Human is the interest of the economy on the generatively of the message, therefore through large funds, we evaluate the world of business and society. Also to train social entrepreneurs and in fact we have a training school for entrepreneurs in progress which, after a selection, has identified 45 organizations that we are forming, in short: Human has grown very much in recent years!

Sebastião Salgado
Photo credit: Musacchio, Ianniello, Pasqualini

On 20 December 2020, you returned the Legion of Honor to France after the Elysée awarded the country’s highest recognition to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. What has changed since that time?

This is not only the case of Giulio Regeni, but also Patrick Zacki. I love France very much. It was not a very painful decision, but not an easy one. I had the honor of having the Legion of Honor, but illegitimately detaining an Italian boy studying at the University of Bologna for too long … I understand all the reasons for realpolitik, but there is no need to confer the honor on a leader/politician who both in the case of Regeni and in the case of Zacki, has not honored the international conventions on human rights. I returned the Legion of Honor because I contested the award made to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Nevertheless, I am a great friend of France and will continue to be.

Gender equality: how do you live your role as president?

I have fought all my life for gender equality, even in politics. Just today I was seeing that at MAXXI there are about 90 employees and 90% of which are women and since I arrived there have been over 30 pregnancies: this fact speaks more than many words. Italy is a country where few children are made and women are helped. It wasn’t easy, but we’ve handled this situation so it can be done. I tell you it makes me happy to have tried to create an organization that resembles my ideas and I would like this to be an example because it is possible! It is not impossible! Jobs are key to enabling working women to integrate their status as maternity workers, and jobs must resemble the ideas we historically theorize.

Jannis Kounellis
Untitled (2014)
MAXXI Collection, senzamargine
Photo credit: Agostino Osio

Your career in politics began in 1994, do you ever think of going back? Are you missing something from your past?

No. I had a wonderful experience. I served my country for almost twenty years and ten years ago I decided to create the Human Foundation by resigning from Parliament. I think that when you do politics, you have to dedicate yourself only to that, you have to dedicate your life. Now I am doing two other things with Human and MAXXI that I like very much and, in a certain sense, they are also very political. I am committed to building a large laboratory on the future through the gaze and visions of artists in a place where art, science and technology talk to each other. Then, I am committed to Human in trying to give concrete tools to the idea of sustainability.

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