In June, I was in Florence for a couple of days before settling in Bari for a secondment at Vessel, to meet with several artists and curators using socially engaged methodologies in their practices, as well as to attend some of the events at the Villa Romana, like the discussion Strings Attached: the Structures of and Behind Art Institutions led by the artist Anike Joyce Sadiq with Simone Frangi, Justin Randolph Thompson, Lucrezia Cipitelli, Alessandra Ferrini and Andrea Scrima. As the title itself makes it easy to guess, it was about the confined position of arts institutions amid critical cultural thinking and practices on the one hand, and funding bodies and policy makers on the other.
The panellists began reflecting on their experiences working in, with, and alongside art institutions, with specific attention given to the Villa Romana mainly around the ongoing changes and negotiations taking place within the organisational structures. For those who do not know, Villa Romana (est. 1905) is a German art institution running a renowned residency program in Florence, as well as organising the oldest German art prize called Villa Romana Prize. The non-profit association Villa Romana e.V. is supported by the Deutsche Bank Foundation as the main sponsor since 1920, and by the Federal German Government and some other private sponsors. The first point to make here is that Villa Romana is one of the many ‘independent’ and ‘no-profit’ arts institutions being tied to funding and corporate sponsorship to be able to maintain and sustain itself.
While discussing the problems which might not be so obvious on the surface but in fact unavoidably detrimental within the infra/structures, the terms ‘agency,’ ‘criticality,’ ‘exclusion,’ ‘inclusion,’ ‘accountability,’ ‘transparency,’ ‘positionality,’ seemed to recur most, and we found ourselves thinking and reflecting about, aloud or otherwise, the dependencies that restrict or hinder efforts of those who work in or with the institution. This encouraged the debate around the uneven dispersion of power and privilege within an art association like Villa Romana e.V., accompanied by the questions of: what can the current structures actually accommodate?; whose interests are being served?; what does the current composition of the association tell us in terms of the asymmetrical distribution of power among the board of directors, staff and artist members?; why are artists excluded from the decision-making in the institution initially established by artists for artists?; what strategies are implemented by those in power to obscure their own failure to provide infrastructural support to artists?; who wants to maintain the status quo and who wants to transcend it?; and what ways can the current power structures and its administrative mechanisms be challenged in order to reclaim the ‘independent’ and ‘no-profit’ status of the institution.
Recalling the discussion that was held in June, it is still the case that given the explicitness of the financial and political dependencies, arts institutions remain a paradoxical site, in which the sounds of resistance and criticism have not been muted, but they are definitely not as loud. Within complex and corrupted institutional territories, it thus becomes crucial not only to identify the problems, but also to constantly rethink about the collective actions we can take to emancipate ourselves, together, from the strings attached.
Turning back to the event…The lively atmosphere in the garden of Villa Romana seemed to create the conditions not for a conclusion but for new openings. The event, not the conversation, ended with the insightful remarks of the panellists on the future of arts institutions and the transformative power of thinking together, followed by a warmest thank to current director Angelika Stepken for her ambitious and engaging work so far in making Villa Romana as welcoming and hospitable for all artist residents, guests, and visitors – despite the strings attached.