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Why This Italian Art Museum Is Seeking Asylum

Museums around the world are threatened by lots of things today, but usually the mafia isn’t included in that long list. The Contemporary Art Museum of Casoria (CAM, for short), in Casoria, Italy, however, fears the dark forces of La Cosa Nostra so strongly that they have asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to provide them with sanctuary in Germany, which would mean moving the entire museum—staff included—across the border. Is Antonio Manfredi, the director of CAM and an artist himself, serious when he calls this “a warning scream from Italian art,” or is this just an elaborate performance art piece from an institution that specializes in the medium? If this museum asks and receives sanctuary, should (can?) other museums do the same?

Although the mafia ranks as a main and immediate threat, Manfredi’s list of enemies is long and distinguished, including the Italian government itself. "If the Italian government isn't capable of taking care of its cultural treasures, then let another country do it," Manfredi told Josh Ward of the German magazine Der Spiegel. "This is a warning scream from Italian art to the world." Manfredi cites the recent failures to maintain the structures at the ancient city of Pompeii as proof that the Italian government can’t be trusted to protect the cultural treasures in its own backyard. Manfredi admits that, even if his wish isn’t granted by the German government, perhaps the request itself might be enough to awaken the Italian people to the cultural neglect of their government.

Before you scoff at Manfredi’s mafia mania, keep in mind the power of the Camorra, the local mafia, which Manfredi claims has infiltrated the local government, and thus played a key role in choking off badly needed public funds to keep his museum and others operating. “The mafia doesn't need to say outright 'We are going to kill you!'” Manfredi explains in the Der Spiegel article after describing an ominous black doll left on the museum’s doorstep. “They are very subtle. You might receive a message saying you should give some thought to hiring a private security company. If you live here, you know that's a strong threat.” If the local mafia’s subtle in their ways, Manfredi and CAM certainly are not, having staged AfriCAM (a show dealing with immigration held after the Camorra allegedly shot six West African immigrants) and CAMorra (a 2008 show actually using the local mafia’s name while also playing off the museum’s nickname).

Just the idea of asylum makes me picture Charles Laughton as Quasimodo swinging to Maureen O'Hara/ Esmeralda’s rescue in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and crying for “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” from the bell tower. Manfredi’s public request is just as dramatic, but not as fictional or unique as you might think. Museums all around the world feeling the financial crunch of austerity measures wish they could pull up stakes and head for greener, less austere pastures. They may not have the mafia at their heels, but other forms of organized crime (known in America as “Wall Street”) might force some museums to fight or flee, or more likely simply close. The world’s economic pendulum will swing back to good fortune eventually, but in the meantime, CAM and similar institutions will need someone to swing to their rescue sooner rather than later.

[Image: View of The Contemporary Art Museum of Casoria. Courtesy of the museum.]

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