What is a cultural institution for? Interview with Chiara Costa, Fondazione Prada

Unexpected associations, a continuous exchange of thoughts and critical thinking lie at the heart of the curatorial asset of a thriving contemporary art foundation. During a recent talk with Chiara Costa, Head of Programs at Fondazione Prada, Istituto Marangoni Firenze students got to see how complex yet challenging it is to work with such a relevant cultural organization suspended between art and fashion, the memory of the past and a fast-paced present. 

After the talk, the Editorial staff of I’M Firenze Digest had the opportunity to ask her new questions about the future of Fondazione Prada curatorial program. 


By Giulia Piceni and Elena Tortelli. Cover image: Fondazione Prada, Milan. Photo: Bas Princen. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada.

Chiara Costa, Head of Programs since 2019, is the volcanic mind behind the projects organized in the Fondazione Prada ecosystem. Art historian and researcher, she has collaborated with la Biennale di Venezia, Manifesta, CCCS Strozzina in Florence, Swiss Institute in Rome, Ordet and ICA in Milan among others. During her talk with Istituto Marangoni Firenze students, she explained how each Fondazione Prada venue has different objectives and needs. Places where the local architecture and the artefacts on display create an impossible communication made real through art. 

I’MF: The best way to start this interview may be to ask how your relationship with Fondazione Prada began. Your experience started as an editor and researcher. How did those years in the publishing industry influence your current role?

CC: Strangely enough, the Fondazione was the first place where I worked when I was still a student. I used to do several activities, from putting opening invitations into envelopes to acting as an interpreter for artists. Then I worked for some time in the communication department. I left when I did a positive interview in the organization department at La Biennale in Venice.
I always did more than one job, which helped me learn as much as possible. After some years as a freelancer, they asked me to go back to Fondazione and work as an editor for their publication, a job of which I was really fond. I think my skills combine all these elements from my background. But most importantly, through communication I understood the behind-the-scenes, and I learned how to organize content through publishing.

“Domenico Gnoli”, exhibition view at Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2021-2022. Photo: Roberto Marossi. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada

I’MF: Fondazione Prada is a one-of-a-kind institution. It has forged a strong connection between fashion and art, as shown recently with Domenico Gnoli’s retrospective. How does the fashion world influence Fondazione Prada?

CC: In the first years of activity of the Fondazione, exhibitions were organized twice a year at the Prada headquarters, when they did not use it for fashion shows. Now it is the opposite, which makes me think it has been about crossing paths since the beginning. The Gnoli show happened because Mr. Bertelli has been collecting his work for many years, so I must say it comes from a personal passion.
And of course, Prada’s impact of Prada is huge because Miuccia Prada is personally involved in what we do on a daily basis. She’s not a President who comes twice a year to deliver speeches. She is there often and we talk to her every day – and to be honest she never delivers speeches, because she expects the projects to speak a lot for themselves! So, I would not say it is a matter of brand-institution relation, it’s really all about the people behind it.

“Alex Da Corte. Rubber Pencil Devil”, exhibition view at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai, 2020-2021. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada

I’MF: In recent years, there has been an acceleration and rise in digital curating due to the pandemic. About digital experiences and technologies, what are the institutions plans for the future? Are there going to be any new online projects for everyone?

CC: In April 2020 we started our first purely online project, which was an Instagram “exhibition” by Francesco Vezzoli. In those same days, we produced free podcasts, organized a cinema program with MUBI and made short visual essays for Youtube. We have taken the challenge since the very first days of the pandemic. The need was not to remain silent, to keep a relationship with our audience – an audience that we could not physically see, so we knew nothing about them.
We had to experiment a lot to understand how to speak. It was challenging, strange, and I think it completely changed how we approach our work. So, it is going to be part of our future for sure because everything has changed, it’s impossible to go back. And of course, we are still active with our online lessons within Human Brains, available for everybody at https://humanbrains.fondazioneprada.org.

“Who the Bær: Simon Fujiwara”, exhibition view at Fondazione Prada, Milan, 2021. Photo: Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada

I’MF: In a world dominated by fast-paced social media, it is hard for a field like art – where a message requires time and patience before it sinks in – to speak to a new audience properly. How do you think a cultural institution can impose itself during this challenging time? How can it show its relevance to the public and potential visitors?

CC: I’ll be very straightforward and honest about this: the way everybody communicates is changing every six months nowadays. Nobody would talk about metaverse or NFTs just three years ago, while now it’s just normal. It goes fast. You can’t just rely on technology. I still think the aim is to provide food for thought. Quality food. Even if our topics may seem ‘difficult’, never underestimate the audience’s potential: if they are there, they are not just interested; they want to become interested. 

Human Brains. Culture and Consciousness, 2020. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada

I’MF: The Venice Biennale is getting closer and will surprise us this spring. How are Fondazione Prada and its Venetian site getting ready for this event?

CC: This spring, we are opening two exhibitions that seem about two different topics but are actually about the same one. One is “Useless Bodies?” by Elmgreen & Dragset in Milan. The exhibition explores the present condition of the body in the post-industrial age; it seems that our physical presence is losing its central role or is even entirely superfluous. This shift impacts every aspect of our lives – our working conditions, our health, relationships, and how we retain information.
The other is taking place in Venice as part of the two-year project Human Brains, a show on how the brain has been studied over the centuries and what scientists think about it. The idea behind both exhibitions is that the body and brain are part of the same complex entity that is the human being.

Fondazione Prada, Venice. Photo: Agostino Osio. Courtesy of Fondazione Prada

Chiara Costa is the Head of Programs at Fondazione Prada.
Giulia Piceni and Elena Tortelli are undergraduate students of Arts Curating at Istituto Marangoni Firenze.

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