Bulletin 2024.3

Putting out numerous fires with only a little water: museums and sustainability

A conversation with Caterina Riva, director of MACTE and Bart van der Heide, director of Museion

AMACI Conference - Museums at the Ecological Turn, Bergamo, 24.11.2023  Foto Paolo Biava

What does sustainability mean for a museum? What are the necessary changes to achieve it? What are the theoretical and concrete difficulties that museums face as they strive towards sustainability? And what are the benefits for the public? These are the questions at the heart of a conversation between Bart van der Heide, Museion Director and Caterina Riva, Director of MACTE, Termoli Contemporary Art Museum. This discussion continues the dialogue initiated at the conference “Museums and Sustainability”, hosted by Museion in June 2023, during which Museion unveiled its first Sustainability Roadmap — a pioneering initiative for contemporary art museums in Italy. It also references the AMACI conference “Museums at the Ecological Turn,” which took place in Bergamo in November 2023, which was co-curated by Caterina Riva.

Museion’s Sustainability Roadmap was collaboratively crafted by the Museion team in partnership with the Terra Institute. This initiative represents a significant stride towards the future, encompassing sustainability across various dimensions including community engagement, infrastructure, leadership, financial endurance, and employee well-being. Indeed, the museum and its stakeholders function as a micro-community, reflecting the broader societal context to which we all belong. As such, this report serves as an inaugural step for the institution towards comprehensively translating the pressing issues into tangible goals and measurements.

AMACI Conference - Museums at the Ecological Turn, Bergamo, 24.11.2023 Photo Paolo Biava

Bart van der Heide: Climate change confronts museums, as well as political and economic entities, with significant transformations, the scale of which can be underestimated. So, how does your vision as the director of a museum fit into this context?

Caterina Riva: As the first female director of a museum in the South of Italy, a significant portion of my efforts is devoted to cultivating a newfound appreciation for the museum within the local community, which previously had little to no exposure to it. The desire to act and make decisions ethically often clashes with the reality of finding rapid solutions to the micro-emergencies that arise every day. Consequently, the independence and breathing space necessary for envisioning more virtuous processes and genuine best practices are often lacking, as one is constantly preoccupied with chasing immediate results without adequate time or support. It is a bit like putting out numerous fires with only a little water. I believe that this journey should be differentiated and tailored to the diverse nature of the cultural institutions we are discussing. However, museums should also serve as forums where the imperative changes and policies are openly discussed, both within administrative circles and in public discourse.

BvdH: With regard to sustainability in museums, have you noticed any differences between Italy and the other countries you have lived in?

CR: Up until a few years ago, ecological awareness in institutions, even foreign ones, was not particularly advanced. In my personal experience, I have encountered situations that have been very different and, in some ways, opposite.

Upon my arrival in Termoli to assume the role of MACTE museum director, coinciding with the tail end of the initial lockdown period, I had just returned from a two-year stint working in Asia, primarily in Singapore. During my time there, I served as the Curator of five galleries at a College of the Arts—an expansive and intricate institution housed in a glass building in the city centre. The building maintained constant air conditioning, and its recycling system was both insufficient and inefficient. During my time there, alongside contending with the relentless humidity, I also grappled with the fumes emanating from the fires necessary for palm oil extraction in Indonesia. These reached as far as Singapore, covering the entire city and its skyscrapers with a thick haze of unbreathable air. Some years before that, I lived in Auckland in New Zealand, and there the situation was very different.

BvdH: Can you elaborate?

CR: The city is built on several dormant volcanoes and in recent times it has been hit by devastating floods. Every time I flew in, I was required to complete a landing card specifying that I was not importing any food or seeds and declare that there was no soil on the soles of my shoes or if I had been out on farmland in other continents. All these measures were implemented to protect the specific biosphere of the country. Of course, you can’t avoid contamination altogether. Just as we cannot overlook the intricate interconnections between various phenomena, which can have either disastrous or beneficial effects, even when they occur many kilometres apart.

AMACI Conference - Museums at the Ecological Turn, Bergamo, 24.11.2023 Photo Paolo Biava

BvdH: In your talk in Bergamo you spoke about the need for “risky thinking”. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that?

CR: I realize that solutions must address systemic issues and structural frameworks. In this respect, the conference in Bergamo intended to catalyze a shift in mindset among organizations, art professionals and other stakeholders, urging them to embrace a change of pace. “Risky thinking” embodies the mindset of individuals who are unafraid to challenge conventions or comply to political correctness, instead boldly confronting issues head-on.

The path towards sustainability refers to considerations of consumption but must prioritize the well-being of people and respectful interactions with our environments. Museums find themselves at a critical juncture in theoretical discourse, torn between the urge to slow down and embrace complexity, and the capitalist production model characterized by relentless and stressful labor.

BvdH: What, in your view, are the concrete challenges that museums are grappling with today?

CR: Institutions, including art museums, are confronted with the growing challenge of securing sufficient and ethically sound funding, which can result in placing excessive job performance demands on staff, often leading to burnout. The administrations that support museums frequently follow commercial business models, overlooking the unique dynamics operating within cultural, non-profit entities that foster the advancement of the communities they serve. Museums are not just an architectural building, or exclusively defined by the artworks contained or displayed within them. Moreover, they are the people who work in and through these structures, creating and dissolving temporary communities of solidarity, awareness, and self-determination.

BvdH: Based on your experience, to what extent does a museum’s dedication to sustainability impact the daily lives and experiences of the individual citizens who visit it?

CR: The museum creates a conversation and an exchange with the public that is not a given point of departure but rather of arrival. In this way, it becomes a civic place, but it takes patience and tenacity to build an idea of accessibility and continuity. The exhibition The 3 ecologies that we presented at MACTE in 2022 was meant to be a step in this direction. I hope that visitors gained deeper insight into the perspectives and struggles for survival depicted by the artists from diverse continents, perhaps, uncovering the similarities and shared attitudes portrayed.

AMACI Conference - Museums at the Ecological Turn, Bergamo, 24.11.2023 Photo Paolo Biava

Caterina Riva, MACTE Director, Termoli Contemporary Art Museum, in conversation with Bart van der Heide, Museion Director.

Caterina Riva is a contemporary art curator and the Director of MACTE Termoli Contemporary Art Museum since September 2020. She joined the steering committee of AMACI Association of the Italian Contemporary Art Museums in 2022. Riva founded and directed the project space FormContent in London (2007-2010), directed Artspace in Auckland, New Zealand (2011-2014) and was Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (2017-2019). Among her most recent group exhibitions are The 3 ecologies and The bait, both at MACTE in 2022.

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