Fight the tyranny of the blockbuster


James Bradburne on the art of running a museum

The head of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera is on a mission to get galleries to raise their game

Picture on the front shows James Bradburne before 'St Mark Preaching in Alexandria' at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

 Museum director James Bradburne fears for his profession. He is perturbed by the way some museums treat their visitors. He is dismayed by the “drug” of the blockbuster exhibition.

“We are killing museums,” says Bradburne, head of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera. “I really believe that. We are killing the things we love. “We lost our way in the ’80s when directors were forced to use blockbusters to drive a museum’s economy by increasing visitor numbers. Now they have become a drug because without them a museum won’t be able to survive, but that betrays the very nature of our stewardship of the collections.”

A baroque figure sporting round specs and prone to exotic waistcoats — for this interview a teaming of floral patterns, plaid and cord with disparate buttons — Bradburne has been in London to help oversee an exhibition of modernist Italian art at the Estorick Collection in north London. Until recently he was head of the Strozzi Gallery in Florence, where he produced highly acclaimed exhibitions such as Bronzino, Money and Beauty and Pontormo & Rosso Fiorentino.

Now he is revitalising the Brera, as one of the 20 new museum directors appointed in 2016 by Italy’s then prime minister Matteo Renzi as part of a shake-up of the country’s state-owned — and, some considered, moribund — cultural sector.

A British-Canadian, he was one of seven non-Italians to be chosen. “The Strozzi was like driving a Ferrari,” he says. “A state museum is like driving a 1930s Bentley because the machine is not adapted to its function very well. I am taking on the beast, a museum run as a department of a department of a Soviet-style state bureaucracy.” It does have its advantages, however — chiefly an enviable 74 per cent state funding.

The Brera was founded in 1809 by Napoleon as the Louvre of Italy and has 500 works by the likes of Raphael, Mantegna, Bellini, Tintoretto and Veronese, as well as “The Supper at Emmaus” by Caravaggio. Modigliani's 'Head of a Young Lady' (1915) is among the works in the Estorick Collection show There is also a substantial collection of Italian modernist art that was amassed and then donated to the Brera by Emilio and Maria Jesi.

The paintings and sculptures have been “squashed into a corridor”, but they will be found a new home nearby in 2019. It is a selection of those works that make up the Estorick’s show, The Enchanted Room: Modern Works from the Pinacoteca di Brera, opening this week. Artists include Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini and Mario Sironi, with metaphysical paintings by Carlo Carrà and works by Giorgio de Chirico, Giorgio Morandi and Filippo De Pisis.

“This is one of the great collections of Italian modern art and it’s the first time it will be seen in Britain,” says Bradburne. “The Estorick is a symbol of excellence with arguably the best collection of Italian modern art outside of MoMA — even as good as MoMA.” For him the Estorick and the Brera represent what museums should be about, true to their core identity, eschewing the lure of boosting visitor figures.

Works from the Brera Gallery such as Gino Severini's 'Le nord sud' (1912) make up the Estorick Collection's new exhibition He argues that after the war too many European museums neglected “playing” their collections but instead became fixated on protecting the works.

“Taking care is fundamental but if it is the central aim it means you don’t have to give a damn about who is looking at the stuff. It’s totally self-referential. Yes, you are doing your job as an art historian, as a museum director, but that means you don’t have to worry if young people, old people, teenagers, a handicapped kid or someone with Alzheimer’s can’t get in or if there are no labels.

“In Italy people confuse an excellent collection with an excellent museum. Italy has superlative collections but very bad museums, while Cincinnati, Cleveland and Denver in the USA, for example, have far better museums than any in Italy but they don’t have such good collections. The Getty collection is second-rate — sorry if I offend my friends — but it’s a great museum. They do things with the collection that we are barely imagining.

“It is the difference between having the score of Mozart and playing it. The museum is the performance of the stuff in your collection, not the collection per se.” The average time people look at a painting is 15 seconds. If anyone thinks that is enough I don’t know which profession I am in Bradburne is particularly exercised by what he calls the tyranny of the blockbuster.

These mega-shows, he says, are “cannibalising” the great galleries: “Research demonstrates that if visitor numbers to temporary shows are subtracted, the permanent collections are, in fact, losing business.” It is an argument, however, which ignores the challenges facing museums that have only modest collections — or none at all — and have to rely on one-off shows for revenue, such as the Baltic in Gateshead, the Turner Gallery in Margate, the Royal Academy and even Tate Modern. The Dulwich Picture Gallery, currently showing the works of Moomins creator Tove Jansson, receives no regular public funding at all.

Indeed, the Strozzi itself exists only as a venue for short-term displays, but Bradburne insists: “We turned down a lot of the obvious blockbusters. We didn’t do ‘Sunflowers’, we didn’t do ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, we did very interesting, experimental exhibitions of high emotional power which aimed to create new knowledge.” Mario Sironi, 'Urban Landscape with Chimney' (1930) Now, at the Brera, with that cushion of state cash, he has the opportunity to practise what he preaches and prove himself a worthy steward of a great collection — without recourse to anything as tyrannical as a blockbuster.

“I am running a museum where I have the instruments to produce — and the pun works — not ex-hibitions but in-hibitions, bringing in select works and putting them with our permanent exhibits as a way of learning new things about them.” At the Brera, for example, one of the museum’s treasures, Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation Over the Dead Christ”, is currently being contrasted with later paintings of the same scene by Annibale Carracci and Orazio Borgianni.

The way they are presented illustrates Bradburne’s enthusiasm for backdrops of strong reds and blues and labels, big readable labels, for which he has commissioned contributions from writers such as Ali Smith, Tim Parks, Orhan Pamuk and Sarah Dunant.

“The painting has all the answers but you need to get people to look at it,” he says. “The average time people look at a painting is 15 seconds. Fifteen seconds! If anyone thinks that is enough I don’t know which profession I am in.”

As we have met in the week when the Art Fund launched its annual quest for the Museum of the Year 2018, conversation turns to what makes a winner worthy of the £100,000 prize. Last year it was won by the Hepworth in Wakefield, which plays to its nucleus of works by Ben Nicholson, L.S. Lowry, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and in 2016 by the Victoria and Albert, which won predominantly on the strength of Savage Beauty, its blockbuster about fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

“The museum worth £100K is the one that works for the greatest, the widest, most diverse series of publics,” he says. “You know what the goal is — to get people to see more, to look longer. “Above all, we need a Copernican revolution in which you put the museum at the heart of the community and visitors at the centre of the museum.” Carlo Carrà, 'The Metaphysical Muse' (1917) He rattles off some of the museums that meet his criteria — the Frick in New York, “a masterpiece in its own right”, the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands, and for intellectual stimulation the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.

“The Estorick show is a small gem. Every picture is there for a reason. I bet you the [number of] people who have an emotional experience is far higher here because they will have seen something new and discovered an artist they never heard of.”

He quotes the late cultural commentator Kenneth Hudson, who suggested that the museums that survive the 21st century will have either charm or chairs. “If you want people to look longer and see more, you give them something to sit on because nobody learns standing up,” says Bradburne. “I have just ordered 150 portable stools for the Brera.”

So there you have it: a museum needs charm, chairs and readable labels. A Caravaggio is a bonus. January 24-April 8,