The Foundation Dedicated to Mario and Marisa Merz Had Big Plans to Celebrate Its 15th Anniversary in Italy. Then the Pandemic Hit

“It is a surreal experience,” says Beatrice Merz, the foundation's president.

Mario and Beatrice Merz in 2000. © Felix Rozen.

The Fondazione Merz, the contemporary art center in Italy named after the groundbreaking Arte Povera artist Mario Merz and founded by his daughter, Beatrice, celebrates its 15th anniversary on April 29 in circumstances its leadership could hardly have imagined just months ago.

Turin, the northern Italian city where the foundation is located, remains on lockdown, and nearly 28,000 people across the country have died from the coronavirus. Once-bustling cities have become ghost towns, and hospitals are still reeling from a record influx of patients.

Like other institutions in the country, the Fondazione Merz is closed, and its anniversary exhibition—“Push the Limits,” with an all-female lineup of 17 artists, including Barbara Kruger, Katharina Grosse, and Carrie Mae Weems—has been pushed back indefinitely. (Merz hopes it will open in September.) 

Two other shows, devoted to Bertille Bak, the winner of last year’s Merz prize, and Michal Rovner, have been postponed to 2021.

“It is a surreal experience,” Beatrice Merz, the foundation’s president, tells Artnet News. “Initially it seemed as though we had been catapulted into a film. But it has gone on too long to be anything but real. This experience will remain in our collective memory for a long time.”

“It’s a huge blow, both economically and in terms of image,” she adds. “It’s a serious blow to the Italian artistic system, which even under normal conditions has never experienced financial glory.”

Even large institutions, such as Turin’s Egyptian Museum, are struggling as they lose income from ticket sales, and may continue to suffer even after the pandemic ends if people are reluctant to visit public spaces. If one thing is to come out of all this, Merz hopes the government will recognize the value cultural tourism brings to the Italian economy. 

“For the world, Italy is synonymous with culture, and its name is intertwined with creativity and artistic heritage,” she says. “Every economic sector is in some way linked to the cultural sector.” 

2000, Nîmes (Mario and Beatrice Merz). ©Felix Rozen.

2000, Nîmes (Mario and Beatrice Merz). ©Felix Rozen.

In the meantime, while its physical location is closed, and with its concerts and shows expected to resume no earlier than December, the foundation will stream its summer concert series online in July. It is also recruiting performers to create a new concert that will be streamed live on the foundation’s website. As the various parts will be played separately from musicians’ homes, Merz hopes to create an interactive, video-game-like experience after the fact, in which audiences can manipulate the score by switching different musical recordings on and off, and changing their order.

In addition, a series of weekly talks on Instagram, including discussions with crime reporter Salvatore Cusimano, actress Pamela Villoresi, and economist Marco Zatterin, will begin in May 3. The foundation is also sharing moments from its archives on Instagram. One of its most memorable exhibitions was a 2009 show of the German artist Wolfgang Laib, who invited 45 Brahmins from South India to hold a week-long fire ritual to rid the world of negative energy.

“Maybe we should call them back today,” Merz muses.

But she says her favorite moment in the foundation’s history was the day it opened its exhibition space. “We managed to make a wish come true,” she recalls. 

In the near term, Italy is preparing to ease lockdown restrictions, and museums will be allowed to begin reopening on May 18. In this moment, Merz says, it is essential to develop new priorities.

“It is time to leave aside selfishness, self-praise, and arbitrary provocations and to give life and visibility to a culture capable of looking at the world on several levels and from different directions,” Merz says. “Only this kind of culture can help us.”

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