‘Everything I do is to create an environment that allows people to take out of the art what the artist has put in’
Outspoken and unorthodox, the museum director James Bradburne has brought his expertise, his labels and his distinctive sense of style to the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. Jasper Rees travelled to Italy to meet him
In January 2015, an advertisement appeared on the Economist’s website announcing 20 job vacancies. These were not just any vacancies. The Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism was seeking new directors for every single one of its state museums, from Venice’s Accademia in the north to Reggio Calabria’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale in the heel of Italy’s boot.
Previously, each post had only ever been open to Italians. But its museums were so steeped in bureaucratic paralysis, their visitor numbers so underwhelming and their websites so unwelcoming, that in an act of violent desperation the government sacked 20 directors and summoned international assistance.
Of the 1,200 applicants, 86 were non-Italians. The new appointments, made in October, include three Germans, two Austrians, a Frenchman and a British-Canadian called James Bradburne. The last is by any measurement much the most colourful and downright unusual of the new recruits, and the surest sign of the Italian government’s eagerness to attempt something radically different.
James Bradburne at the Pinacoteca di Brera, with unhung artworks displayed on racks. Photograph by Alberto Zanetti
Bradburne, 60, is the new director of Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera. He is a tall and well-known poppy on the international museum circuit, an unmissable giant of a man with an air of Pickwickian affability and a dandyish sense of style; he never appears in public unless encased in one of his 70-strong signature collection of bespoke waistcoats, while a lick of parted hair dangles like a delicate frond from the side of his large, square head.
That’s the look. The sound of Bradburne is commensurately florid: he can talk, and talk, in well-made paragraphs mingling rational argument and passionate conviction. Take his decision not to apply for the vacancy of the Uffizi, even though he and his Russian wife make their home in Florence.
‘I deliberately didn’t throw my hat into the ring,’ he says, ‘because I don’t think I’m ready to tackle the challenge of managing that quantity of people who are coming for reasons not related to a desire to be transformed by the art. There is already in the Brera — and in most art museums other than the Louvre, the Met, etc — a self-selection going on where people are coming to look at the art. You’re already on good ground. The Brera for me is ideal.’
‘There is an irreverence, a brashness. I am opinionated. I am probably considered too over-the-top sometimes’
Of the 20 museums, he says, the Brera presents ‘far and away the most difficult challenge’, composed as it is of six separate institutions (he also runs the national library, plus there’s an art school, an observatory and a botanical garden). As he embarked on what he calls ‘a fight between political will and administrative won’ts’, he told his staff he was appointing a deputy from the Czech Republic called Franz Kafka. Several months into his tenure as an Italian state employee, it remains uncertain whether Bradburne’s outspokenness about the difficulty of getting anything done in Italy will work in his favour.
By Bradburne’s own cheerful admission, a person of such exotic plumage is not to every museum board’s taste. He has been up for jobs in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and Somerset House, but was deemed, an insider advised him, ‘too Marmitey’. ‘Half of the selection committees tend to like me,’ he says, in an accent that hovers somewhere between Toronto and Pall Mall. ‘And the other half don’t. I’m not English enough. There is an irreverence, a brashness. I am opinionated. I am probably considered too over-the-top sometimes. Too clever by half.’
There is also the randomness of his CV. He has not curated his way up the departmental ladder at any of the world’s super museums. He has no doctorate in some arcane byway of art history. His first permanent job was in a science museum in Amsterdam before he moved to applied arts in Frankfurt. He describes himself on his website as an architect, designer and museum specialist. So how did he end up in charge of a collection whose masterpieces include Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, Piero della Francesca’s Montefeltro Altarpiece and Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ? (The Mantegna was lamentably hung at waist height by a previous regime that believed people should genuflect in its presence; it has been raised to a more appropriate position by Bradburne.)
One of the museum’s masterpieces, Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin (right), hanging next to Perugino’s version, on loan from France. Photograph by Alberto Zanetti
Bradburne’s most overt qualification is a stint of eight years in Florence running the Palazzo Strozzi. There he managed to turn a moribund space for temporary exhibitions into a must-visit international hub. Among the venue’s acclaimed blockbusters was a once-in-a-lifetime Bronzino retrospective and The Springtime of the Renaissance, a tour of early Florentine sculpture in which the Louvre consented to go second for the first time in its history of collaboration.
The key to his success there, and everywhere else, and fundamental to his philosophy, is labelling. Bradburne is the label guy. The history of labelling was the subject of his PhD thesis and is at the source of his belief that a museum’s job is to change the lives of all who walk through its doors. ‘The passion of learning for the hell of learning has been the pole star of my professional career,’ he says. Thus, at the Brera, alongside clearly printed information labels, known in the trade as ‘tombstones’, he has what he calls ‘a chat label, which art historians might not find interesting but a child might’.
Bradburne is such a fan of labels that he has even had his own one designed for after he’s gone. It simply says, ‘Remember me laughing’
The purpose is to get families talking, rather than seeking early salvation in the museum café. He has also commissioned writers to supply reflective commentaries on certain paintings. Browsers can find out what Ali Smith, Orhan Pamuk or Sarah Dunant — all of whom have written fiction set in the 16th century — have to say about the likes of Crivelli, Caravaggio and Giovanni Bellini.
‘I don’t want to see museums with people shuffling listlessly in front of paintings they look at for six seconds,’ says Bradburne. ‘Everything I do is to create an environment that allows people to take out of the art what the artist has put in. You want people to be transformed by that experience, and I’m afraid there are very few museums and very few moments in museums that truly have the transformative power of a great book or a great film. And that is the weakness of the profession: we let ourselves of the hook. We say, “The artist is great. It’s your problem that you don’t get it.”’
Bradburne is such a fan of labels that he has even had one of his own designed for after he’s gone. He commissioned it from the calligraphic stonecutter Linda Kindersley, who is a fellow member of the Athenaeum in London. ‘Clearly it seems rather silly to wait till I realise I’m on my last legs to write down what I want on my tombstone.’ It simply says, ‘Remember me laughing’.
Bradburne’s ability to challenge consensual thinking has deep roots. The story he tells of his upbringing suggests he was always an outsider. His Englishness was inherited from his father, the youngest of three brothers who all spent their lives abroad. (One became the Foreign Office’s chief Arabist, another ran a leper colony in Rhodesia, where he was murdered and is now a candidate for beatifcation.) Bradburne’s father emigrated in a huff in the 1950s. ‘He took England with him. I grew up in the Hundred Acre Wood. The English would consider me a colonial, but I’m not Canadian for goodness’ sake. I was ostracised as a five-year-old for my plummy accent.’
His maverick belief in learning for the hell of it was first manifested when, as a sixth-former in the late 1960s, he was in a small group who petitioned the board of education in Toronto to create a free school in which students had a form of self-directed, self-motivated learning.
‘I had quietly accumulated a series of very beautiful waistcoats. They let me take my jacket of without feeling undressed’
He didn’t move to England permanently until he was 30. He had been working as a designer of museum installations and found himself frustrated when collaborating with architects. ‘They tended to presume their education gave them this aura of infallibility. Like doctors, architects listen to other architects.’
Moving to London, he entered the third year of the Architectural Association’s course. He has been back to Canada only three times in 30 years. So began a peripatetic career in museums, first as a science exhibition designer in Africa, the Middle East and China, then at the new Metropolis centre (now the NEMO Science Museum) in Amsterdam, and the museum of applied arts in Frankfurt. That was when the waistcoats — he deploys the old-school pronunciation ‘weskits’ — became a function of his public persona.
‘I had quietly accumulated a series of very beautiful waistcoats. They let me take my jacket off without feeling undressed. Then I realised I could actually lecture on the history of applied arts using a waistcoat. For every exhibition opening I decided to have a new one made. Now it’s so well known that I do this, the Museum of Silk in Como asked if they could make me one.’
Then came the Palazzo Strozzi. When he applied for the Brera — he also put himself up for the Galleria Borghese in Rome and the Accademia in Venice — he had for several years been in the thick of typically Italian infighting which resulted, eventually, in the non-renewal of his contract at the Strozzi. The lava flow of his discourse dwindles to a trickle on this delicate subject: he blames ‘Florentine politics’.
Whoever he offended, it seems not to have harmed his standing with the ministry in Rome. His impact at the Brera is clearly measurable for anyone walking through its doors. He is only four rooms into a 38-room rehang, but already there is a difference. In contrast to the pallid blue or insipid beige walls elsewhere in the museum, the new rooms have been repainted a deep crimson, and sympathetically lit. The restoration area is now viewable behind glass walls, as are some of the unhung artworks stored in racks.
In one room, until the end of June, Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin hangs next to Perugino’s painting of the same subject, lent by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen, which became the eventual owner after Napoleon made off with it in 1797. It is a stunning and richly rewarding juxtaposition.
Whether Milan and indeed Italy can withstand the shock of this semi-autonomous modernizer remains to be seen. Whatever the impression he may create, Bradburne insists he is not the story. ‘I try not to be over-the-top,’ he says. ‘I am not grandstanding, and I’m certainly not doing it for me. I believe you can only do what I’m doing if you can convince other people to come along with you. I’m actually neither really extroverted nor immodest. But I know exactly what I’m doing.’