Apollo Magazine

‘Now is the time to be smart’ – the Pinacoteca di Brera in a time of lockdown

Its doors may be closed, but Milan’s greatest gallery will find ways to keep working for the quarantined city, says director James Bradburne

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

What was only six weeks ago unthinkable, two weeks ago become a possibility, and at 3am on Sunday 8 March became a certainty – Milan, along with the entire region of Lombardy, was locked down. At Brera, we must keep our doors shut to the public for further weeks or months. So we stay closed, like all the museums and libraries in Italy, which have now joined the schools in the lockdown.

But Brera is not only a beautiful palace in the centre of Milan; it is a vision and a soul in the heart of the city. The doors may be closed, but the heart is still beating. I direct both the national library (the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense) and the picture gallery, but all the facets of Brera – which also includes the art school, the Ricordi Archive, the institute of arts and sciences, the botanical garden and the observatory – have a common purpose, which is service to the public. The current closure has no precedent: through two wars Brera remained open, and even below the bombers the city remained unfettered and free. Now, even if Milan doesn’t stop functioning, we are closed. It is time to become the real expression of the adjective ‘smart’, or in Italian agile, at least when it comes to our work.

How can we give the city access to the library and the Pinacoteca when the doors themselves are closed? How can we continue to support the city and its citizens in this dark moment of its history? We look to be ‘smart’ wherever possible, and to make our support for the city visible – at a distance of more than one metre of course – via the internet, social networks, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. We already have a number of multimedia threads online at www.pinacotecabrera.org: Notes for Resistance, an allusion at once cultural and immunological; Once upon a time in the library, storytelling for children who cannot go to school; MyBrera, in which the entire staff talk about the Brera they love; and Brera/Musica, our series of exceptional concerts. We are about to film guided tours of the library and the art gallery to increase our support for the city locked behind doors. We need culture, and if the Milanese can no longer come to Brera, Brera will go the Milanese.

Obviously we must preserve and protect our heritage, and we of course have to maintain a physical presence in Brera to ensure the safety and continuity of the institutions and the collections. We must keep our promises to other institutions with loans and help. We continue to have our team meetings via Skype – the weekly schedule remains unchanged. We continue to work behind the scenes to make our exhibition spaces usable, clean and ready for the inevitable reopening.

This shadow is going to pass, and we must be stronger, more agile, even more committed to protecting and creating value with our heritage, and to serving the public – the mission to which we have been called. In the words of Fernanda Wittgens, Italy’s first woman director, who led Brera throughout the Second World War: ‘Brera is not the collector’s hortus conclusus, the museum of “preciousness”: Brera is a national gallery of broad historical fabric, created by Napoleon to “educate the people” according to the profound values of the Enlightenment that we, its heirs, cannot betray.’ By resisting, by continuing to be at the city’s side throughout this crisis, we do not betray our past, nor do we betray our future.

The hardest thing to manage has been the anxiety, the worry, and the natural tendency to panic in the face of uncertainty. There has occasionally been tension between concerns for our own health and our mission to serve the city. But the staff are the heart of Brera, just as Brera is the heart of the city, and in the end Brera has shown itself able to express the values it inherited. Faced with the current crisis, we must, as I was told by the then mayor of Florence, Leonardo Domenici, a few weeks after my arrival at the helm of the Palazzo Strozzi in 2006, ‘resist, resist, resist’. We are resisting. But when we reopen, the party will be richly deserved.

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