MAXXI museum building - day view
In conversation with

Meet MAXXI artistic director Hou Hanru

August 11, 2021

Hou Hanru is the artistic director of MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Art in Rome. We’re delighted to chat with Hou about his career, his favourite MAXXI exhibitions and life in Rome.
Hou Hanru Creative Director at MAXXI Museum Rome
Photocredits:©Musacchio & Ianniello

What brought you to MAXXI?

Prior to 2013, when MAXXI offered me this job, I had been living in San Francisco. Coming to Rome was a big challenge. MAXXI was a new museum, and it was in the very early stages of creating its own identity as an institution, as well as establishing itself as a platform for contemporary creatives. To me, this was particularly interesting because it was happening in Italy, in Rome, in such a historic city, and the question was how to reinterpret contemporary art in such a context.

Tell us about MAXXI’s main focus

We focus on what’s relevant to our current times: the construction of Europe; continuing to defend humanistic values; and how to promote participation so everyone can enjoy the creative experience. These are the kind of issues that we try to develop, and they’re so important to us.

What are the main challenges you face?

We face many challenges, especially in this era of technological progress, which is posing a lot of questions about who we are as human beings and how much we can do. A major issue now is the environment and how human intervention has had both positive and negative impacts. I think it is so important to reflect critically through art on today’s political scenario.

What makes Rome so special?

There are so many enjoyable things about Rome. Of course, there’s the food, the nice people and it being a city full of traces of different periods of history. But we can also actually slow down a little bit here and take some distance. Rome provides a very interesting historical context for us to think about, which opens up so many different possibilities.

Huge building with the inscription " more than meets the eye" on it
Photocredits: ©Musacchio&Ianniello
View of Rome with bridge and St. Peter's Cathedral

How do you explore the city?

I live in the centre of the city, and on my way to work I go through both the old and new parts and encounter interesting things every day. But I think it’s equally important to go to the peripheries, to suburban areas, where you have different communities living together and restaurants from all kinds of cultures and different festivals going on.


What do you most like about Flaminio, the MAXXI neighbourhood?

Flaminio is a modern district, and we have a very direct connection with the streets. That brings in different communities and different social classes. We aim to turn this museum into a new Roman forum: a place for public participation, discussion and exchange. This is a very interesting location for us to continue to question contemporary society. A few years ago, I curated a project with the team called Open Museum, Open City. We completely emptied the museum for a couple of months and invited artists to create sound installations which were invisible, to bring the noises of the street into the museum.

How would you describe the building (designed by Zaha Hadid)?

The museum is a very fluid, very open space, and sits somewhere between the Russian avant-garde and the neoliberal vision of things.


How has growing up in communist China affected the way you work?

I left China a long time ago, but I keep going back and forth, and what is really important to me is how art can help society and the individual to reinvent itself. We have been going through constant revolutions in China, which implies a continual search for freedom.

MAXXI museum building - day view
Photocredits: © MAXXI
MAXXI art director Hou Hanru inside the museum
Photocredits: ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

How would you say the exhibition Heroic Voices from ex-Yugoslavia relates to our current times?

The restructuring of Europe is still very much an ongoing challenge, and our upcoming exhibition involves 54 artists dealing with this issue. This is extremely relevant, especially during the pandemic and amid this generalised feeling of fear.


What can you tell us about the other current Aldo Rossi show?

I think it’s important to look at a master like Rossi, who designed postmodernist buildings through his own unique language. Around 800 drawings and tens of models in our current Aldo Rossi exhibition are from our own collection. In a broader context, we also need to reflect on the important interactions among the city, architecture and urban life.

What exhibitions can we look forward to?

We have several interesting architecture exhibitions coming up next year. One is called ‘Good News’, which looks at how women changing contemporary architecture. Another one deals with the technology and structures behind buildings.


How is the museum celebrating its tenth anniversary, and what have you learnt in the past decade?

Our 10th anniversary show, A Story for the Future, sums up the museum’s activities over the past ten years. Ten years is a good reason for a great celebration but to adapt to lockdown, we’ve developed online programmes, meetings, conferences and discussions. I think the biggest take-away from ten years of activities is the institution’s strong experimental approach.

MAXXI museum architecture
Photocredits: Francesco Boliaticket
MAXXI art director Hou Hanru inside the museum
Photocredits: ©Musacchio, Ianniello & Pasqualini

What challenges lie ahead?

I would say the main challenges ahead are developing a digital platform and an urban development platform. Although we’re open to new technologies, we believe the physical experience is still so much more important. So, we keep the museum running as a living body and not only digitally. It’s important not to be hidden behind the screen to feel alive, and MAXXI is one of the best places to experience this feeling.

Beyond Rome’s rising contemporary art scene there is much more to discover, including Rome’s stunning Baroque architecture, all within easy reach of Hotel Eden.

Header image courtesy of MAXXI

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