Major Museums in Rome Reopened Their Doors to the Public: The National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art on Slowing Down their Plans

Isabella De Stefano discusses coping with the ongoing back and forth of closing and reopening museums in Italy, as well as the way the National Gallery is dealing with the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. 

News / Local / Art&Culture

By Marilù Ciabattoni / Staff Writer

Unlock: External installation on the occasion of the re-opening of Feb. 1.

This article was written on Feb. 22. Interviews were conducted on Feb. 18.

ROME—The National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art resumes its projects after almost 100 days since the decree that forced major art institutions to close in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The d.P.C.m. of Nov. 3, 2020 mandated national museums and theaters to close, despite respecting all measures and protocols to reduce the spread of the virus. The decree of Jan. 14 allowed the former to open again, though exclusively in yellow zones. After a few weeks during which Lazio was labeled as an orange zone, on Feb. 1 Roman museums were finally able to re-open. 

Time is Out of Joint

As Director Cristiana Collu wrote for the museum’s website, “la Galleria Nazionale riapre, riaprirà sempre.” The National Gallery reopens, and it always will.

As a matter of fact, the Head of Educational Services, Communications and External Relations, Isabella De Stefano, is up to the challenge of getting the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art to start again at full speed, prepared to adapt to the circumstances this will bring. 

De Stefano is in charge of coordinating all educational and pedagogical activities proposed to the public entities of the gallery, particularly schools, families, children, adults, elderly people and disabled. One of her tasks also consists in communicating everything that happens inside the gallery, both regarding exhibitions and projects and less tangible activities such as archives, libraries and restoration. 

What does this reopening mean for the National Gallery? 

“It means restarting the museum’s ordinary life, especially an in-person interaction with our public entities,” De Stefano says. Despite the museum being closed, some educational projects have continued remotely, while the maintenance—everything regarding the museum as ordinary life—continued. 

Although understanding that smaller museums may not allow the same level of safety as the National Gallery does, De Stefano says that it would have been useful for the Government to distinguish between smaller institutions and museums offering wide spaces and open-air exhibitions, for instance, when deciding which measures could prevent the spread of the virus.

Io dico Io – I say I

Which projects were interrupted by the d.P.C.m of November 2020? 

“Interrupted is not the right word. They were slowed down. Unfortunately, it was not possible to have in-person projects, such as visits, pedagogical laboratories with children in front of the artworks or in-person drawing sessions,” De Stefano says. 

However, according to her, it was a useful phase of preparation because, as soon as museums were allowed to reopen on Feb. 1, the National Gallery was ready to open by inaugurating new exhibitions and projects such as activities of cultural mediation with the Fine Arts Academy of Rome.  

“It was slow but sure project, so to speak, in preparation of what would happen afterwards,” says De Stefano. Other examples of activities that continued online were book presentations, workshops and children laboratories with focus sessions on artworks. The museum also maintained a relationship with the public through videos and social media. 

This year, the National Gallery has already had three online events: the presentation of two catalogues—Evergreen by illustrator Attilio Cassinelli and A distanza ravvicinata—as well as a talk on the differences in landscape between the East and the West, and the workshop Attraverso lo smartphone.

Despite the expectable inflection in the number of visits caused by the intermittent closures and fear for the virus, from Feb. 1, the National Gallery has been registering a moderate turnout of visitors, who, according to De Stefano, are happy to be back in museums. 

Although having to deal with a collective fear, which also includes the uncertainty of going out to visit museums, the National Gallery has been evaluated positively by the visitors interviewed during the first week of re-opening. Many, in fact, considered it a safe space because of its wide environments that instill security and do not create problems regarding the respect of social distancing measures. 

In spite of the fact that  the situation seems to be improving on a national level, the color of regions might still change, and if Lazio is assigned orange again, museums may close once more. According to De Stefano, the National Gallery has to deal with a complex system of museums like  other companies in their own field. 

“We have to learn how to deal with this ongoing stop and go,” she says. “As of today, we continue operating despite everything. If there is a halt, we accept it for what it is and restart like it never happened.” Their employees had to master the mindset of not stopping before the actual halt is imposed, according to De Stefano. 

“It’s the opposite: we continue no matter what, and if we have to interrupt again, we start slowing down again with the perspective of always being able to reopen,” she says. 

The National Gallery has recently inaugurated its next exhibition Io dico Io – I say I on Feb. 27. Featuring 50 female Italian artists of different generations, the show is curated by Cecilia Canziani, Lara Conte and Paola Ugolini. The exhibition originated from the need of taking the floor and speak in the first person, to affirm one’s own subjectivity, creating una sola moltitudine, a multiplicity of I’s made of consonances and dissonances.

Interviews translated from Italian by Marilù Ciabattoni 

Image credits: National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art / All Rights Reserved 

Read more about galleries and artists during lockdown in two articles written by Marilù Ciabattoni for her journalism class and published recently on Wanted in Rome and Romeing:

 How Art Galleries and Artists are Surviving the COVID-19 Crisis in Rome

 The Future of Art in Rome: How Private Art Galleries and Artists are Surviving the Pandemic