Close this search box.

The History of 21st Century Art in Universities
A Multi-Voice Dialogue on Current Practices and Future Goals

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

As part of the “Network universitario” project promoted by the Fondazione La Quadriennale di Roma since March 2022, we have surveyed current doctoral research projects specifically dedicated to the visual arts in 21st century Italy. As may partly have been expected, the results of this mapping exercise portray a reality that is struggling to open up to the most pressing developments in contemporary art: only four doctoral students are currently involved in research projects related to the Italian artistic experiences of the last twenty years.[1] The picture becomes richer if we broaden the range of analysis to include the work of PhD students working on Italian art in the 1990s and the international art context.[2] Nevertheless, to date, the panorama of art-historical studies conducted at the doctoral level points to little attention to the present. There are many reasons for this. To my mind, the shortage of PhD scholarships, only minimally made up for by PNRR funds, remains one of the most negative factors. Added to this, however, is a more general disconnect between university teaching, on the one hand, and current artistic practices, followed by militant criticism, on the other. Added to this are the difficulties of examining events in the making or linked to a very recent past, which remains to be historicised. This is especially the case in the present scenario characterised by the pulverisation of art histories, the widening of geographical and cultural boundaries, the crisis of disciplinary boundaries and — last but not least — the changes produced by the digital turn. Thinking about the future of the Italian university, starting from the specific angle of contemporary art history, I believe that we need to question this disaffection towards the Italian art of the present, in order to try to correct the pitch and incentivise virtuous approaches capable of fostering research into art today — an indispensable basis for imagining, and setting out projects for, tomorrow. To this end, I gathered the reflections of some colleagues who are particularly sensitive to this issue, and who have more years of teaching behind them than I do, who generously shared their experience in the field and suggested possible ways forward. Some common points emerged from the dialogue, mainly related to the role of teaching and the relationship with public and private institutions active in the contemporary art sector in Italy. Strengthening or creating ex-novo collaborations between the university and the foundations and museums operating in local territories was among the first questions raised by Roberto Pinto, professor at the University of Bologna. He is curator of exhibitions and public art projects including ArtLine Milano — Parco d’Arte Contemporanea,[3] an ongoing project promoted by the Milan city hall, which envisages the establishment of an open-air art collection in the public park of City Life, with the involvement of numerous Italian and international artists: Riccardo Benassi, Rossella Biscotti, Linda Fregni Nagler, Shilpa Gupta, Adelita Husni-Bey, Wilfredo Prieto, Matteo Rubbi, Serena Vestrucci, Judith Hopf and Pascale Marthine Tayou. Pinto’s familiarity with artists, the fruit of an almost daily contact cemented over the years, is reflected in his teaching practice: among the recent activities he has supported, mention should be made of the doctoral workshop La fine e altri inizi[4] (2022), curated together with Daniel Borselli and Arianna Casarini, thanks to which an interesting discussion space has been created for doctoral students engaged in the study of art since 1990.

The need to establish a many-branched network of relationships with institutions active in the territory is also at the heart of the reflections of Giorgio Bacci, a lecturer at the University of Florence. He emphasised the importance of bringing students into dialogue with the outside world as early as their undergrad and master’s degrees. To this end, the course in Contemporary Art History (methodologies, tools and practices), which he taught as part of the master’s degree in Art History, has the stated aim of “making students an active part of the contemporary art system, guiding them in developing capacities of intervention by putting into practice the critical and art-historical tools learnt at the level of methodological theory. Hence the course specification, “methodologies, tools and practices”, which aims to underscore the desire to bring into fruitful dialogue the fields of academic research, museum education and popularisation among a broad audience. To achieve this objective, in the Florentine case, special agreements have been signed with libraries, museums, associations and contemporary art centres, which at various times of the year host the students in their facilities, allowing them to interact with curators, exhibition designers, communication experts, researchers and of course artists, and thus become protagonists of the projects in which they participate. In this way, a virtuous process is set underway that allows the students to experiment in the field with a historical-critical telescope that puts the history of the recent past in perspective with the artistic experiments of the present, grasping the novelties that arise precisely through webs of engagement, placing the oriented framing of the exhibition alongside the external gaze of the museum. Clearly, the articulation of the course reflects the experimental approach, combining a theoretical part, with in-class lessons dedicated to the major themes of current art (from the last twenty or thirty years) and meetings with artists, with a practical part, which emphasises the extra-curricular work carried out by students, who are invited to present, during class time but at the host institutions, the activities pursued during the year”.[5]

Hosting artists at lectures is also an established practice at La Sapienza Università di Roma, where already in the days of Maurizio Calvesi, Nello Ponente, Marisa Volpi, and then Marisa Dalai Emiliani, Simonetta Lux, and Silvia Bordini, (hoping not to forget anyone), opportunities of this kind were frequent. Even today, seminars with artists are an essential educational tool, and sometimes offer important opportunities to reflect on the future not only of art, but also of teaching itself. Such is the case noted by Antonella Sbrilli, lecturer in the History of Contemporary Art at La Sapienza: “In a seminar a few years ago, the artists/researchers Oriana Persico and Salvatore Iaconesi (who died prematurely in 2022) — who together made up the group Art is Open Source — invited the participants to imagine an object or a situation in the near future, two years, five years, eight years in front of them. The same exercise can be done with a course in contemporary art history, considering that every academic year something changes: the balance between face-to-face and online lectures; the mother tongues of students who come from various parts of the world; the attitude towards the texts which are proposed to be studied; the type of distance between the prior knowledge of those who teach and those who learn; the sheer quantity of information on contemporary art, which also arrives in class on mobile devices; how to check students’ preparedness and their work. How are all these elements working to shape the contemporary art history courses of tomorrow, the future teachers and students, and their future interactions and relations? My answer is a mix of ongoing experiences (some of which are already under way) and possible developments to be pursued: setting up new types of multimedia, open-access textbooks, connected to the resources of museums and institutions; inviting artists on didacticresidencies to the courses, designing workshops and analyses of works together with them; experimenting and practising new forms of assessment of the understanding that is acquired; opening up to connections with other disciplines that have some resonance with our own; working on simulations of activities related to art-historical skills”.[6]

The reflections of Antonella Sbrilli and the other teachers who contributed to this discussion touch on wide-ranging themes. They urge us to come to terms with the need to experiment with innovative teaching practices, through which to look at the present, in its various articulations — including digital ones — in order to try to imagine the future. This means arriving at teaching practices that centre on the ever-changing relationship between those who teach and those who learn, and that are able to make best use of the differences among students who, today more than ever, come from various parts of the world.

[1] Synopses of current doctoral research are available on the Fondazione Quadriennale website, on the page dedicated to the Network universitario project: (last accessed 20 April 2023).
[2] In this regard, see the programme of the doctoral workshop La fine e altri inizi. Workshop dottorale sull’arte dal 900, curated by Roberto Pinto, Daniel Borselli, and Arianna Casarini, University of Bologna, 8-9 September 2022. (last accessed 25 April 2023).
[3] The curatorial team of the project, started in 2014, currently consists of Roberto Pinto, Katia Anguelova, Mariacristina Ferraioli and Cecilia Guida: (last accessed 22 April 2023).
[4] See footnote 2.
[5] Conversation and email exchange with Giorgio Bacci between 10 and 19 April 2023.
[6] Conversation and email exchange with Antonella Sbrilli between 7 and 13 April 2023.