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Take it to the Max | Rome’s MAXXI Gallery Goes Global
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Take it to the Max | Rome’s MAXXI Gallery Goes Global

Picture of Stephanie Stafford
Updated: 13 December 2015
We take a look at the Rome’s MAXXI Gallery’s burgeoning attempts to claim a stake on the global art stage. This pioneering attempt to showcase contemporary art in the Eternal City had a shaky start, but all that is set to change since last year’s exciting arrival of a new Artistic Director with a global vision. We take a closer look.

North of the ancient epicentre, beyond the reaches of an already limited metro system, you’ll find Rome’s Flaminio Quarter. Just turn off one of the residential streets of high ochre apartments blocks, balconies blooming with laundry and geraniums, past the local bar with its plastic chairs and Coca Cola awning, and you’ll chance upon an architectural anomaly – a futuristic vision of white concrete and glass Rome’s answer to the 21st century, the MAXXI gallery.

Since its foundation in 2010, the MAXXI seemed set on a downward spiral. It’s not secret that it’s been trudging along under the burden of debt and continually tripping up on continuous funding cuts from the government. Even its few provocative attempts to get attention fell short: a pedopornographic exhibition by the Chapman brothers was called off shortly after it begun.

Yet there was generalized scorn and disinterest at the MAXXI’s attempts to stake a claim on the international cultural map. For the tourists, a long weekend in the city-centre is hardly enough to soak up the ruins of the Eternal City. And what about for the Romans? In a city where the payoff for a resplendent past is a grotty present, where citizens and tourists alike, under the charm of the ancient walls, roll their eyes at their contemporaries’ attempts to appropriate Rome in the modern age, its no mean feat for any modern institution like the MAXXI to carve a space for itself.

Well, little over a year ago, the fate of this contemporary art space began to change. The key did not lie within the Roman walls it seems, but, like some twist in a Darren Brown’s Italophilic-cum-mystery novel, it lay in the most unexpected of places. In Hou-Hanru, in fact. The American-Chinese art curator took over as the MAXXI’s artistic director in 2013, and he seemed an unlikely choice. Not for lack of talent, for Hou-Hanru’s curriculum vitae is impressive to say the least, having curated numerous exhibitions including the Shanghai and Gwangju Biennales. Yet it has to be admitted that Italy lays claim to a notoriously insular approach to politics and culture. Hou-Hanru, in his dual ethnicity, is an oxymoronic embodiment of Italy’s hopes and fears, one arm pulled to the West, the other, brandishing a sword at the swaths of immigrants from the East that touch down on its shores every day. This didn’t phase Hou-Hanru, and he readily accepted the challenges ahead.

Hou-Hanru has revealed his new plans for the gallery: ‘It is a global vision I had for the MAXXI. This country actually is a very young nation and it is a very decentralized community, with a huge multiplicity of cultural identities. And also this is traditionally a country of emigration- you have Italian diasporas around the world- but is also a country that is at the frontier of Europe, facing an influx of people from African, Asian and Mediterranean nations, so it has always been a transitional place. So the challenge for me was how to somehow create a relevant, cultural, artistic platform for this transition?”

A global vision might seem a little obvious in this day and age, but for a gallery that has failed to draw artists from across the borders, and for a country that often shies away from engaging on the global stage, this is revolutionary. The most recent exhibitions have been a showcase of Korean video and new media art since the 1970s (the first of its kind in Europe), and an exhibition of the monumentally proportioned and Biblically inspired installations by Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping. Most striking is the disproportionately huge snake skeleton that weaves through the unique space of the gallery. To welcome the New Year, the MAXXI is planning to host an exhibition examining the relationship between the urban and visual arts in Istanbul, which will work as part of a wider show on global food security. But the gallery is still acknowledging its Italian roots, with beautiful, nostalgic exhibitions on currently that expose the high-end and street fashion of the swinging sixties.

Visits to the gallery have increased manifold, and there is distinct buzz on the art scene around the word MAXXI. It seems that artists and art critics alike are finally starting to pay attention. Located on the peripheries of Rome, this gallery is no longer on the periphery of the art world.

By Stephanie Stafford