Vicente Todoli on the Pirelli HangarBicocca art space

Vicente Todoli on the Pirelli HangarBicocca art space

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When Vicente Todoli left Tate Modern in 2010 after seven years as director, he was determined never to lead a contemporary art museum again. “I said: ‘that’s it for me; I’m done.” Although he had enjoyed his time there, the amount of socialising required to secure funding for Tate from donors and sponsors proved onerous for Todoli, who was keen to devote himself “100 per cent to art”.

So, when the Italian tyre manufacturer Pirelli invited him to Milan two years later and asked him to direct HangarBicocca, an enormous display space in a hangar where railway carriages and locomotives used to be made, Todoli hesitated. “They told me, ‘We want you to create a unique, international exhibition programme here; you don’t need to fundraise.’” The money for the venture, now €5mn a year, would come from Pirelli. Entry for the public would be free. Todoli said yes.

But how did a tyre manufacturer come to set up a contemporary art space in the first place? In the early 2000s, Pirelli Real Estate, a division which is no longer part of the multinational, owned multiple properties in north-east Milan, near company headquarters. The idea of establishing an art gallery was part of the company’s revamp of the former industrial district.

A middle-aged man wearing a dark bomber jacket looks at the camera against a green neon-lit background
Vicente Todoli: ‘If an exhibition works the reward is double because its interaction with the architecture creates something bigger than the sum of its parts’ © Lorenzo Palmieri

“Through one of the managers of Pirelli we had a contact with Anselm Kiefer,” says Marco Tronchetti Provera, then Pirelli’s chief executive, now its executive vice-chair and president of HangarBicocca. “He visited the hangar and saw immediately that there was a chance for him to do something unique.” The German artist suggested a massive installation of seven soaring cement towers ranging in height from 13 metres to 19 metres. “I was enthusiastic. It was a unique chance to have a major work by a famous and important contemporary artist,” says Tronchetti Provera when we meet in Milan.

Kiefer’s permanent installation, augmented in 2015 by the addition of five massive paintings on long-term loan from the artist, opened to the public in 2004. “That was the beginning of the story” for Pirelli HangarBicocca, says Tronchetti Provera. At first, the gallery focused on Kiefer’s work, organising a few “minor exhibitions” to sit alongside it.

Todoli’s appointment in 2012 was the turning point for the space. He assembled a team of curators and education, outreach and publication specialists, giving Pirelli HangarBicocca the full range of services expected from a major public gallery.

An installation incorporating textiles, natural fibres, coral beads and plants creates a humanoid silhouette in tones of brown, pink, light blue and white
Installation view of Chiara Camoni’s ‘Sister’ (2022), as seen at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan © Courtesy the artist/SpazioA/Pirelli HangarBicocca. Photo: Agostino Osio

This year, Pirelli HangarBicocca is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Under Todoli’s direction for the past 12 years, it has established itself as one of the most ambitious galleries in the world, each of its exhibitions grappling with the immensity of the space — 5,000 sq m for its central hall alone, 50 per cent larger than the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern — allowing for the display of sequences of major installations which few museums can accommodate. Attendance has risen from around 30,000 a year in 2004 to 135,000 last year.

“It’s a very difficult space, but if an exhibition works the reward is double because its interaction with the architecture creates something bigger than the sum of its parts,” says Todoli on a video call the following week. “My departure point is that the whole show has to work either as one installation or as a kind of play in three acts where you have an introduction, a main section and an ending.”

The shows scheduled this year and next to mark the anniversary include a survey opening in October of 30 kinetic constructions by the late Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, organised in conjunction with the Museum Tinguely in Basel; slideshows by the American photographer and activist Nan Goldin, each one shown in a specially constructed pavilion, as conceived by Stockholm’s Moderna Museet; and a retrospective of the work of Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi. He won the Aperto prize for young artists at the Venice Biennale in 1993 with his installation of flags conjured from sand which doubled up as an ant farm: as the insects moved from flag to flag, they gradually eroded each one. After a spell in the US, the artist moved back to Japan where he has remained ever since, continuing to create “masterpieces” that are barely known in Europe, says Todoli.

A blue and red textile web comprising wooden, plastic and tin objects floats across a black room which hosts a blue spray-painted platform on its left
Installation view of Nari Ward’s ‘Ground Break’ (2024) exhibition, as seen at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan © Courtesy the artist/Pirelli HangarBicocca. Photo: Agostino Osio

The Yanagi exhibition exemplifies the programming criteria set by Todoli for Pirelli HangarBicocca. Throughout his tenure, the gallery has hosted site-specific retrospectives of contemporary artists whose work is not widely known in Italy. It has shown the first surveys in the country for the Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Meireles, the late Spanish artist Juan Muñoz, the French multidisciplinary artist Philippe Parreno and the Japanese Mono-ha group artist Kishio Suga, among many others.

There have also been examinations of lesser-known aspects of famous artists’ output, such as the Ambienti spaziali, rooms and environments that the master of the slashed canvas, Lucio Fontana, began to design in the 1940s. “Each show is conceived as a revelation,” says Todoli.

But with its principal funding coming from one source, no government support and no corporate tax breaks for Pirelli’s donations, is its future secure? Tronchetti Provera is confident. “This is part of the legacy of Pirelli,” he says. But the company has to do well. “Obviously if the company doesn’t perform, resources have to be focused on our main activities but this is a stimulus for us to do better and better.”