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Milan, the art of the city

Milan’s reputation as a fashion hub is universally known but its dedication to modern art receives less attention. Julianna Barnaby discovers the weird, wacky and wonderful side of the avant-garde



If you were playing a word association game with Italy’s major cities and the word ‘art’ came up, Milan would probably not be the location that springs to mind. Rome, Florence and Venice would almost certainly pip it to the post. Business yes, art, no.

Until recently, Milan’s strong private sector and weaker public sector has meant that apart from fashion, creativity has struggled in the metropolis. But this is changing. While Italy’s other cities might have the museums, Milan is increasingly creating its own privately funded independent and unique scene that’s a fusion of galleries, spaces and foundations. The past few years have been dedicated to putting the city firmly on the art map and its reputation as a hub for contemporary art is on the rise.

As a bridge between Italy and the rest of Europe, Milan is a cultural crossroads through which people enter the country and its business capital. Business trips to the city often involve a stop in one of the many designer shops, bars or restaurants. Its increasing evolution into a focal point for contemporary art provides a new view on a city long-hailed as the home of fashion and very little else.

The wide range of galleries and exhibitions are perfect for business travellers – there’s always something to see, whether you have five hours or five days spare to explore the varying disciplines of work present in the city. Even the biggest of Milan’s galleries are relatively crowd-free, unlike more heralded spaces like the Tate Modern and Guggenheim, making them perfect for an afternoon’s browsing.

In addition, the city’s annual art fair MiArt, which has been running for 14 years, is consolidating its position as one of the leading events of its type with an ever-increasing weighting on contemporary pieces. Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, curator of the Contemporary section, argues this shift is “because Milan is the city of the artists, galleries and collectors of modern and contemporary art. Because Milan is the city of modern and contemporary exhibitions. Because Milan is Italy’s most modern and contemporary city.”

Building the foundations
Art foundations such as the Mudima Foundation and Nicola Trussardi Foundation have provided a cornerstone for this growth, encouraging the evolution of genre and style the city is becoming famous for. Their role is an important one, as it is purely cultural rather than commercial and solely focuses on encouraging new and existing artists to develop, creating and maintaining connections with international art institutions.

The Mudima Foundation spans the boundaries of visual arts, contemporary literature, music and multimedia presentations to create exhibitions held in its own spaces and in other galleries worldwide. Its function is to bring a host of challenging and eminent artists such as Sandro Chia, Ben Vautier and Daniel Spoerri, most of whom create projects specifically conceived for the foundation. It’s been responsible for musical events and exhibitions, sourcing artists and creating projects both at home and abroad, with a particular emphasis on Far Eastern countries like Korea and Japan.

Likewise the Nicola Trussardi Foundation is a non profit institution aimed at promoting contemporary art and culture. Unlike the Mudima, they do not have their own space and work only on the production and distribution of pieces across a variety of channels and in differing locations across the city. Naming Milan as both their inspiration and their base for their activities, they’re focused on the diffusion of art into everyday life, ie pamphlets and magazines.

Their newest project is an exhibition by Turner Prize-nominated Tacita Dean, her first solo exhibition in Italy. Entitled Still Life, the exhibition is located in the impressive rooms of the Palazzo Dugnani, a historic gem tucked away in the heart of the city. Her works scrutinise the temporal pauses in life – the pivotal moments that are so important to everyday reality, and are comprised of a mass of mixed media films, photographs and installations.

Integrating the city’s unique fusion of past and present, the locations of the exhibitions are often as striking as the projects themselves. Contemporary conceptions are contrasted and integrated with historic buildings. The Nicola Trussardi Foundation’s use of the 17th century Palazzo Dugnani to host Tacita Dean’s Still Life, for example, weaves the exhibition into the long history of the building and entwines this history into the temporal awareness of the exhibition itself. Over the coming years, the foundation aims to integrate more and more of the city’s older buildings into its modern art scene as a way of mapping out Milan to an international audience.

Contrastingly, the sparse, cheap locale of the newly built Bovisa Triennale provides a different kind of commentary on the exhibitions it hosts. The ‘anti-architecture’ of the bare scaffolding and plastic forms structuring the gallery provides an almost-blank and ever-changing canvas for the displays. Even the abandoned gasworks opposite the gallery are often adorned with artwork relating to the exhibitions inside, showing this consistently self-aware positioning of projects is not just limited to those hosted by the foundations.

Opened in 2006, the Bovisa has already become one of the city’s most important spaces and covers an expansive 2,000sq m. All of the exhibitions are temporary and cover all aspects and mediums. There’s also a bookshop and a cafe, making it the perfect place to while away a spare day away from the crowds.

Another hotspot is the Spazio Oberdan, an exhibition space designed by Gae Aulenti and Carlo Lamperti. One of the few galleries to be managed by the cultural sector, the 700m exhibition space is dedicated to visual art and paired with a cinema showing a diverse array of modern and classic films. The venue also hosts music festivals and performances (call ahead to check the programme).

Though the challenging works of galleries such as Le Case d’Arte, A Arte Invernizzi, Galleria Pack, 10 Corso Como and Galleria De Carlo might not be to everyone’s tastes, it’s undeniable that together they are a cultural heavyweight, a progressive and a force in the city.

10 Corso Como was conceived by ex-fashion editor Carla Sozzani and marries literature, art, fashion and beauty in its funky exhibitions. Describing itself as a ‘network of spaces all rolled into one experience’, it’s great for picking up pieces to take home. Galleria De Carlo is the place to go for cutting edge light and video installations.

Giampolo Abbondio’s Galleria Pack is one of the galleries most consistently credited with attracting important young artists to the city. Milanese-born Abbondio has created a space that reflects the city’s dual heritage as a gateway to Italy and Europe, a cultural mish-mash of identity in the modern world.

Even though Milan’s public sector-funded art is relatively small in comparison to other cities, those that exist occupy an important place on the scene. The P.A.C or Padiglione di Arte Contemporanea is one such place and hosts an ever-changing cycle of temporary shows. Normally staging four to five exhibitions yearly, previous exhibitors include famed American photographer Andres Serrano.

One of Italy’s most famous contemporary artists, Milan-trained Vanessa Beecroft’s recent performance piece at PAC as part of MiArt was well-received by international commentators. Featuring 20 African people eating a formal dinner without silverware, plates or wearing shoes it even claimed the attention of hip-hop star Kanye West who featured it on his blog. The gallery also organises a year-round educational programme for children and young adults to stimulate discussion and awareness.

Arguably the jewel in Milan’s art crown is the annual international modern and contemporary art fair, MiArt. Spread over more than 12,000sq m, the fair takes place in April each year and the 2009 edition saw over 140 galleries and 38,000 visitors descend for their slice of the creative pie.

Becoming an increasingly important trendsetter, MiArt is a dynamic event that explores the frontiers of the art world, hence the slogan ‘Mi Art: Art Now!’. The overall focus is on bridging gaps between artistic mediums and concepts – famous artists take the design of some of the fair’s spaces as a way of fusing architecture and art.

The fair is split into two sections contemporary and modern. Of these, the contemporary section is attracting the most attention, emphasising the importance of quality and encourages smaller new galleries to participate alongside established modern art galleries. The modern section exhibits pieces from movements such as the Futurist, Metaphysical, Cubist, avant-garde and Impoverished Art.

Setting the precedent for galleries and foundations, the Mirages art trail displays striking, large-scale works from the fair in prominent positions across the capital. Sculptures crop up in the most unlikely of settings throughout downtown Milan, emphasising the permeable nature of art. The newly-established Associazione Amici di MiArt is an investment fund aiming to purchase and display works in public locations in the city throughout the year, cementing its reputation as a year-round art destination.

The financial crisis has meant that more than ever, investors are looking for safe channels for their money. As art has traditionally been seen as one such avenue, there’s a growing trend of high-quality pieces dominating the market. If you are looking to invest in a piece or two, Milan’s the perfect destination as up-and-coming artists often come without the colossal price tag of other cities.

Paolo Galassi, chairman of Fiera Milano International, organiser of MiArt agrees, “At a time when the financial crisis is making many businesses cut back on investments FMI has decided to invest in our art fair… This decision reflects our confidence that we can make Milan a foundation upon which companies involved in the promotion of art can build business.”

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