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Solidarity and sustainability: Madre, a museum for the 21st century

Interview with Laura Valente, president of the Fondazione Donnaregina

Published: 27 7月 2020
“To fulfil their important role, contemporary artworks need light and space,” says Laura Valente, president of the Fondazione Donnaregina that manages the Madre museum in Naples. So, light and space are two elements that should be conceived as “chiaroscuro scores”. Valente emphasises that “for a contemporary art museum, light is not important, it is fundamental. Lighting often represents three quarters of the work, because if the right beam of light hits an artwork from the right perspective, you have created an instant set design for the entire room.”
Solidarity and sustainability: Madre, a museum for the 21st century

Untitled, Mimmo Paladino, 2006

Lighting often represents three quarters of the work, because if the right beam of light hits an artwork from the right perspective, you have created an instant set design for the entire room.
“Madre” is the acronym for the Museum of Contemporary Art Donnaregina - Donnaregina being an in-house institution that belongs to the Campania Regional Authorities and is located in the nineteenth century Palazzo Donnaregina, in the heart of the historic centre of Naples. Officially opened in 2005, the palazzo was restored and transformed by the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza Vieira and in addition to the three floors dedicated to exhibitions, it includes a library, media centre, book shop and café area and two large courtyards. The collection features the works of a number of major Italian and international artists straddling the previous and current centuries, such as: Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, Mimmo Paladino, Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Richard Serra and Robert Rauschenberg.

Considering that lighting is so important, these days the people who design these systems are held in extremely high regard. “Today in a contemporary art museum, the lighting designer is a necessary, artistic figure who is just as important as when operating in a theatre producing plays or operas. At Madre, many of the exhibitions we have staged have had absolute master lighting designers, like Cesare Accetta.

To reflect on this issue, just think of the Madre site specific collection. That is to say, the artworks which have been specifically conceived for the rooms on the museum’s first floor. Creating an installation destined to stay in the same place forever means assessing its lighting and, if necessary, adapting it to suit individual artworks (or the opposite, even if this occurs rarely). Whether it is the artist or lighting designer, who makes these decisions, they are still choices that influence the perception of the artwork, and are, therefore, in a certain sense, artistic decisions.

Some of the rooms at Madre receive a vast amount of light, at least at certain hours of the day, whereas others don’t have windows and are lit by artificial light sources only. The best way to get a clear idea of this is obviously to visit the museum in person, but if that is not possible, you can use digital alternatives like taking a virtual stroll on Street View or the Google Arts & Culture museum page.
Solidarity and sustainability: Madre, a museum for the 21st century

Ave Ovo, Francesco Clemente, 2005

Out of all the site specific rooms, Valente chooses the one with Ave Ovo by Francesco Clemente as an example. This features a majolica floor and a fresco of monumental proportions that is spread over two rooms and two floors. It is a work featuring antique and modern Neapolitan locations and symbols. “The light,” explains Valente, “is in the choice of colours, tiles, glass and floor that is practically as large as a football pitch. But you only realise this from a certain perspective and because the light on the tiles changes completely, depending on which of the three entrances you come into the room from.”

Any mention of artificial lighting inevitably raises the issue of sustainability. “That’s my thing,” says Valente. “When I came to Madre [in 2018, ed] I found that there was a lot more we could do in terms of energy efficiency and we needed to do it. It’s something this period demands of us, also because public funding is something we have to respect.” This issue is not limited to light though. “Every area in the life of the museum should be approached with artistic sensitivity and a focus on sustainability. After the summer, we will be launching our programme of large exhibitions that also focuses on our changing world,” she continues. “Our collective show in December, curated by the director Kathryn Weir also has an ecological mindset, and is dedicated to art that is born from a sustainable system and artists who use sustainability as the basis of their poetic and creative reasoning.”
Solidarity and sustainability: Madre, a museum for the 21st century

Two visitors looking at Dark Brother by Anish Kapoor (photo: Amedeo Benestante)

A recent example of an initiative that combines sustainability and solidarity is Playground by Temitayo Ogunbiyi. This is an artistic installation made with recycled materials that children can play with. It has been created using a virtuous circuit of circular economy.”

The museum’s social inclusion display material initiative is also inspired by the principle of the circular economy – and the spirit of traditional Neapolitan “suspended coffee”. “Now, when any display material at Madre is dismantled,” explains Valente, “it is donated to cultural enterprises, cooperatives, associations and small museums in the Campania region who cannot afford it and are currently closed for that reason. The first donation went to the former Orta di Atella town hall, a building that was confiscated from the Camorra and then converted into a museum, only to be vandalised by the Camorra the day after it was opened. We are going to open it again using material from Madre”.

An unexpected sighting: Dries Mertens, a footballer who plays for Napoli, during lockdown.
The video is part of Interval, Naples, 2020: Diary of a suspended city by Eduardo Castaldo

During lockdown, Madre took part in the national #iorestoacasa campaign in various ways. It launched Madre door-to-door, “a digital programme, divided into three main themes on the museum’s website and social channels that brings art to people’s doorsteps”. This includes unseen contents and material from the museum’s permanent and temporary exhibitions. It also sent out a call to artists, inviting them to reinvent current key words and themes, such as vicinity/distance, home, isolation, community, quarantine, family, relations, etc. On the museum’s social channels, Eduardo Castaldo took the historical Rai Intervallo format and restyled it as a daily lockdown diary of photographs and unpublished video clips.

“When the museum reopened on 18th May, we said to ourselves: after everything that has happened, how can we possibly pretend that nothing has changed and simply continue from where we left off? It just wasn’t possible,” says Valente, “because a contemporary art museum has to ask itself what is going on around it. It has to be the litmus test of its time and use its specific tools to probe reality and provide responses to what is happening. This is particularly true of this period. And so we decided to organise Factory 2020, as part of a two- year social inclusion project called Madre per il sociale.” This means that for the whole of the summer, the main gallery in Piazza Madre and the two courtyards of the museum will be animated by workshops and free activities. Specially conceived and created by artists for adults and children, this initiative is dedicated to Gianni Rodari and his ‘grammar of fantasy’, to mark the centenary of his birth.