Austerity July/August 2012

For the Love of Art

Destroying paintings in order to save them
Ciro de Luca/Reuters

Antonio Manfredi, director of the Contemporary Art Museum of Casoria, stands outside the doorway of his exhibition space. In one hand, he holds a torch made from a wad of white cloth tied to a piece of wood. Next to him, on a square stand of bent rebar, he has hung a painting. The clouds are low. The air holds a hint of rain. With a bottle of lighter fluid, Manfredi wets first the torch and then the painting. He passes the stream across the front of the canvas, over its back, and three times along the bottom of the frame. He uses a cigarette lighter to set the torch on fire. And then he gently transfers the flame to the painting.

At first, the canvas doesn’t burn. Painted in 2007 by a German artist named Astrid Stöfhas, it depicts four women from the Bayern Munich female soccer team embracing in celebration of a goal. The style is expressionist. A mass of soccer uniforms—red slashed with white—dominates the foreground. Above, the players’ faces are blurs of brushwork. The auto-da-fé has attracted three television crews and a handful of photographers, and for several seconds the only sound is the clicking of cameras. Smoke ripples across the painting’s surface like mist on a lake.

Manfredi inaugurated the museum in 2005, at the request of the then mayor of Casoria, a Mob-infested suburb in the Neapolitan hinterland, one of those all-too-typical zones of Italian degradation where garbage casually piles up on the sidewalk, and lost tourists wonder if they haven’t stepped into the Third World. The promised funding never arrived. Six months after the museum threw open its doors, the Casoria city council closed its own doors; the national government had dissolved it, following suspected infiltration by the Mafia. Manfredi decided to press on, using as a display space what was originally meant to be a temporary location: the rough concrete basement of a local school.

The city didn’t ask for rent, or payment for the utilities, but the museum received no other government support. Manfredi, an artist himself and a native of Casoria, called on friends and connections to gather a collection, which today includes more than a thousand works of art from as far away as China, Chile, New Zealand, and Burkina Faso. “I didn’t want to create an IKEA museum, with always the same 200 artists from the big galleries,” Manfredi says. “I wanted to create a museum that was dynamic, open to new trends, and to give … artists that don’t have a big market at their back a chance to express themselves and be inside a museum.” He kept the place open by begging favors and even selling his own artwork. But with the recession, his limited supply of local donors dried up, and he concluded that he could no longer afford to care for the works he had acquired.

Italy’s economic troubles have cut hard into both private and public funding for museums. In April, the Maxxi, Italy’s flagship contemporary-art museum, which opened to great fanfare in 2010, was taken over by the government, after auditors said they found a $1 million shortfall in the previous year’s budget. Across the country, theaters, archaeological parks, and other cultural institutions are feeling austerity’s pinch.

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Stephan Faris is a writer living in Rome.

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