ROME – An Italian administrative court has nixed the selection of five museum directors, siding with critics of a much-vaunted reform plan that allowed experts from other European Union countries to compete for top posts.
The ruling was an embarrassing setback for Italy’s much-hailed effort to modernize its bureaucratic museum system. The Culture Ministry said it would appeal.
“I ask myself what image our country is giving to the rest of the world,” Culture Minister Dario Francheschini, the museum modernization plan’s architect, told reporters Thursday.
The reform plan featured a high-profile search for top art and archaeology experts to run Italy’s museums. The hiring of non-Italians for director posts disgruntled some Italians.
On Wednesday, the Lazio region’s administrative tribunal threw out five of the 20 museum appointments made in 2015.
Among the 15 whose selections were unaffected by the tribunal’s scrutiny are some of the first foreigners to be named to head Italy’s most prestigious art institutions, including a German at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, a Briton at the Brera art museum in Milan and a Frenchman at the Capodimonte museum in Naples.
The exact reasons five of the appointments were declared invalid weren’t immediately clear, but Italian news reports said the use of Skype to interview some of the candidates figured in the ruling.
Among the five appointees who were rejected was Peter Assmann, an Austrian art historian who has led the Ducal Palace in Mantua. Others included the directors of the Estense Gallery in Modena and archaeological museums in Naples, Taranto and Reggio Calabria.
The museum in Reggio Calabria is home to a pair of imposing bronze Greek statues, found in the sea off Italy in 1972. Known as the Riace bronzes, the nearly 2,500-year-old statues are a cherished national symbol of Italy’s rich art history.
Two of the five museum directors whose appointments were suspended by the tribunal are Italians who made their reputations abroad, one in Baltimore, Maryland, and the other in France.
The museum reform project was a centerpiece of former Premier Matteo Renzi’s government. Franceschini noted that opening up the competition to non-Italian European Union citizens was “so innovative, so courageous,” it made headlines worldwide.
Uffizi director Eike Schmidt, one the non-Italians whose appointment resulted from the 2015 change, expressed concern the broader undertaking to enhance Italy’s art institutions could unravel.
Schmidt has been working to make the venerable Florence art museum, famed for its Botticelli and other masterpieces, more visitor-friendly.
He used a soccer term to describe the ruling’s effect.
“If they close in some way to borders toward Europe, and toward the world, it would really be an ‘own goal’ for Italian culture and for the economy,” the Italian news agency ANSA quoted Schmidt as telling reporters in Florence.
Ministry figures released Thursday said that under Assmann’s direction, attendance at the Ducal Palace increased by some 76 percent. The museum in southern Taranto, far from the beaten tourist path, saw a similar attendance boost..
Revenues from Italy’s museums and archaeological sites increased by 38 percent since 2015, the ministry said. Italy’s culture ministry budget is chronically strapped, and the reform plan allowed museums to invest much of their revenues into improvements.