For years, if not decades, James Bradburne has posed a fundamental cultural question: are museums for one-time visitors or for long-term users?
On September 15, 2020, three months after the declining Italian pandemic allowed the reopening of the great museum he runs, the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, he answered his own question by ending the sale of visit tickets unique. As far as he knows, the Brera, as it is widely known, was the first major European museum to do so.
The Brera would kill the physical tour ticket model as the primary measure of the museum’s value; instead, it would become a community institution, like a library, where patrons would purchase annual subscriptions that would allow them to experience the museum either physically or digitally – 24/7 access that, incidentally, would make it to the test pandemics.
“Before, we were just counting visitors – it was the barometer of our success,” Bradburne, from Toronto, told me over a morning cappuccino in the stylish Brera’s cafe in historic Milan, just a few minutes walk from the city’s dazzling fashion. streets. “My vision of a museum is an instrument for educating the public. This is not a new idea and this is how Napoleon saw the Brera. I want to bring this place back in the future.
It was Napoleon who founded the Brera in 1809, after his military escapades through Italy as commander of the French revolutionary army (in 1805, while he was emperor, he was crowned King of Italy in the Milan Cathedral). Napoleon saw the Brera as the Italian Louvre and as an integral part of the cultural experience of Milan, and not as a magnet for tourists. Museums as tourist nets did not emerge as a concept until the 1970s, with the launch of widebody jets.
The Brera did not quite achieve ‘Louvre’ status – its astonishing collection of Renaissance art, including masterpieces by Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian, Mantegna and Bellini, has always been under- esteemed by the Italian State and the art-loving public. Most of the museum’s recent directors, with the support of the Italian state, have continued the numbers game in an attempt to hoist the Brera into the court of great visitors. Brera’s best year was 2019, the year before the pandemic, with 417,000 visitors, a relatively small number compared to, say, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, with 4.4 million visitors.
Then there was none.
The Brera closed on February 23, 2020 as northern Italy became the COVID-19 epicenter of Europe (all of Italy would close two weeks later). It reopened as an online museum only three days later and physically reopened on June 9, only to close again on November 5, when the second wave hit. It reopened again on May 4, 2021, when it was a different cultural beast.
Bradburne used the pandemic to accelerate the museum’s transformation from a one-time visit model to an annual subscription model, with a strong focus on an enhanced digital experience. “Just as newspapers have moved from print to tablets, the museum is finding ways to empower the community to order the museum experience at home, online, anytime,” he said. .
Bradburne is a larger than life, tall and towering character with a dandy fashion sense.
The day we met on a warm September morning, he was wearing a rather conservative gold waistcoat in a Louis XVI-inspired fabric and design; it was decorated with lilies. Sometimes he goes for wildly colorful geometric designs that make him stand out in the crowd like a huge peacock. The Financial Times described Bradburne as one of Europe’s most eye-catching dressers.
Bradburne, who turns 66 this month and one year from mandatory retirement in Italy’s state museum system, has a job that defies a neat category. Ostensibly an architect, he has had a mixed education and careers in architecture, design, education, journalism and entertainment. His work could be described as that of a museologist, although a better description would be that of a museum mercenary for hire. His expertise – and his passion – is to take old broken cultural institutions and make them more user-friendly and relevant by propelling them into the modern age.
The son of a Royal Air Force pilot turned commercial photographer, the young James (who is also a British citizen) lived in Toronto until the age of 19 and spent seven years in Vancouver as a producer of radio and pavilion designer at Expo 86. In the 1990s, he was primarily a fellow museum repairer and exhibition consultant.
In the mid-1990s he was responsible for design, education and planning at the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam, before joining the Museum of Applied Arts in Frankfurt and Next Generation, a British foundation established by the patron of Vintage lego to promote creativity, learning and play.
His tall order came in 2006, when he was hired to renovate the stunning but otherwise stunning Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, built in the early 16th century.
He turned it into an inventive, ever-evolving space that has hosted concerts and modern art exhibitions – the Jeff Koons “Shine” exhibit kicks off in October – and experimented with bizarre innovations such as “scent labels” , which were personalized fragrances released. to certain works of art to enhance the viewing experience. He built a radio studio where kids could interview their grandparents about their childhood and made Strozzi Cafe and Wine Bar a must visit for the arty types of Florence.
Bradburne’s award was the best job at Brera, in 2015, and he’ll admit his redesign wasn’t easy or fun compared to the Strozzi experience. La Brera, which includes one of Italy’s oldest and most important libraries, was tired, poorly lit, poorly displayed, and lacked a cafe and gift shop. He was – and remains – understaffed.
While many of these shortcomings have been corrected and the number of visitors has increased, Bradburne was still not satisfied. He believed that ticket sales alone were both a betrayal of Brera’s original mission and would never guarantee the museum’s success on its own. Came the annual subscription model, known as BreraPlus, and the effort to give Brera back to its community. The digital offer would make it possible to discover the museum and all its features at any time, even if the pandemic triggers a new closure.
BreraPlus costs € 15 ($ 22.42) and allows unlimited access to enhanced digital content for one year and unlimited visits for three months. The digital side, which Bradburne describes as “very labor intensive,” offers the viewer a tour of the vaults, where unexposed art is stored; 26-minute documentaries featuring interviews with art experts; intimate tours of galleries and individual works of art, including their back panels, in high resolution; restorers showing X-ray and infrared images of paintings; reading books for children; and concerts inspired by works of art.
The latter featured the pianist Clive Britton playing Franz Liszt Sposalizio in front of Raphael’s “Marriage of the Virgin”, the work which, in the late 1830s, inspired the Hungarian composer to write the play.
Private sponsors, such as banks, help fund BreraPlus’ enhanced digital products. BreraPlus subscribers will also be given a small role in the governance of Brera, allowing them to participate in the annual board meetings.
Does everything work? Bradburne will admit that his experience is still too recent to be judged, but is convinced that he is on to something potentially exciting, if not revolutionary, in museum culture and expects overall Brera use to increase, increasing. thus incomes. “I admit that we make it up as we go; it’s an experience, ”he said. “I hope what we are doing here will be the equivalent of turning a one night stand into a long term relationship.”
Register now for Globe Arts & Lifestyle Newsletters for more news, articles and tips delivered to your inbox.