During the 1700s artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi sketched detailed depictions of the sprawling ruins of Rome with a romanticized passion for the past. But today's reality might also include short-panted tourists staring up from under their brimmed baseball caps at these ancient sites.
In many ways, Rome – "The Eternal City" – is a place of the past. It is a place where people from all over the world come to gaze upon churches and piazzas constructed hundreds of years ago. Little do many know, or care, that the contemporary art scene exists around many of its corners. Although new artists are presenting intriguing and fresh work, today's art is still vying for public interest in a place where the magnificent old is still so cherished. However, solid examples of work, increasing interest from Italians, acceptance of foreign artists, and new venues may be signs that Rome's art world is growing towards a promising future.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon droves of viewers pour into the Pantheon, Rome's first Christianized temple. Up the street a small gallery named Magazzino stands inside a narrow cobblestone entranceway – nearly empty. On the exhibit's opening night, Australian artist Marco Fusinato's collages of Baghdad bombings and "Itchy and Scratchy" cartoons were interpreted by three improv musicians to create a confrontational performance. Inside the main room, three empty folding chairs and accompanying music stands remain, surrounded by images of violence, strife, sheet music, and spiral patterns scattered on the floor. At Monitor gallery in west Rome, owner Paola Capata expressed why it is a tough time for today's art scene despite the interesting works on view. "In Los Angeles and New York you have a public interest in contemporary art," she said. "Rome is a town that has no tradition for the contemporary."
Magazzino's owner Mauro Nicoletti expressed similar feelings, saying no "strong community" for new art exists; but although he said Rome is not the ideal place for the young artist, he pointed to globalization as a factor for the increasing interest in new work. Evidence of worldwide connections can be seen at both galleries: the current exhibit at Magazzino is a showcase of eight Australian artists, while Monitor's space is filled with the multimedia work of Dutchman Guido van der Werve. Elsewhere, Macro Future gallery is hosting "New York Minute: 60 Artists on the NY Scene." Magazzino Assistant Director Alicia Garcia sees this display of foreign art as a new trend. Shows like these expose the Roman public to kinds of work they may have never seen, like a "chess piano." Essentially, van der Werve designed the board around an opening chess move called the "King's Gambit," a risky maneuver that exposes the "King" piece to early danger. When his weird instrument is played correctly, each move on the board produces an emotionally dripping tone until the match ends in a stalemate (and also supplies the score to his recent film "Why a piano can't be tuned or waiting for an earthquake").
Luckily, Rome's contemporary art scene shows more signs of movement than van der Werve's chess match. Capata and Nicoletti both expressed that they haven't seen significant growth like this since the 70s and 80s and that tastes might be changing to those similar in other major cities. "In New York you see a poster advertising the Met," said Capata. "Here you see one for the [15-18th Century art at the] Villa Borghese, which is great, but those of us who are in our thirties wants something else," said Capata. For starters, she and likeminded people can turn to "arte e roma," a gallery and events guide now currently listing over 100 cutting edge venues in its "October/November" issue. Additionally Nicoletti says that while 15 years ago the young bourgeois wanted to buy 18th century landscapes, they are now considering contemporary art for their collections.
In the future, Capata hopes both the famous tourist sites and new art can thrive side by side. "If you think that you have to compete, it doesn't work," she said. "You can't expect to draw the same kind of people." One sign that contemporary art may be able to attract more crowds in 2010 is the ongoing renovation of the MAXXI Museum by world-famous architect Zaha Hadid. But for Italian artist Nicoletia Agostini, the future for 21st Century fine art is about more than new facilities. "It's a movement of life and it's growing," she said. "It's important not to be stuck in the past."