Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Francesca Pola, IES Abroad Milan

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Dr. Francesca Pola has been teaching at IES Abroad Milan since 2003. An art historian, curator, and contemporary art critic, Dr. Pola also teaches and conducts research at Università Cattolica in Brescia and Milan, Italy. In Fall 2015, she gave the Harold E. Dickson Memorial Lecture in Art History at Penn State University, and is currently serving as the Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer Chair in Italian Studies at Northwestern University. Dr. Pola’s many books and essays have been published by major Italian and foreign publishers and institutions. She was the Curator of MACRO Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, and has been the Curator of Multimedia Projects for Gallerie d’Italia at their museum venues in Milan and Vicenza for the last four years. She is also a contributor to Artforum magazine.

IES Abroad: What courses can IES Abroad students take with you in Milan, Italy?

Dr. Francesca Pola: I have been conceiving and teaching different courses at IES Abroad Milan during my 13 years there, but I always try to develop new ideas.

The course I am teaching now is AR/CM 260 Multimedia and Interactive Communication for Art: Italian Case Studies. I conceived this course with Simona Staniscia, an amazing art director who co-teaches it with me and can offer a real hands-on perspective in the field. The best thing about this creative course is the experiential learning it offers—not only do students learn cutting-edge, interactive, multimedia communication strategies and tools for art, but each of them applies his/her learning by realizing an individual, interactive multimedia project. Students then present at the end of the semester to the whole IES Abroad Milan community in a public event, which they organize themselves.

IES Abroad: Where did your appreciation of art and art history come from?

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FP: A big part of it is in my Italian DNA. But, it grew from the unique experience of the Italian cultural landscape that anyone can have in Italy. It is this kind of incredible stratification of meanings, beauties, and histories that I also try to convey in my teaching. The physical relationship with “the real thing” is not something you can understand only from books and photographs, and this is exactly the reason why I so strongly believe in IES Abroad’s mission and strategy. It enhances intercultural understanding through a complete and deep immersion in the culture of the country.

IES Abroad: What has been the most interesting question you’ve received from an IES Abroad student in your course? What was your response?

FP: I remember a very ambitious student, who wanted to become an art curator, asking me if I considered my teaching as a possible tool for my curatorial career. I replied that both teaching and curating are parallel ways that I try to develop a kind of mutual understanding among human beings belonging to different cultures—and this is my small contribution to making the world a better place. Her question also made me reflect on the importance of developing a teaching approach that can make my role continuously relevant and useful to the real challenges students face in their present and future life.

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IES Abroad: You use a multimedia-heavy teaching approach. Tell us more about how you do this and why you feel it’s important.

FP: I have been developing interactive and multimedia practices for museums and exhibitions in my curatorial activity for many years. The space we live in today is not only the physical space of our experience of places and objects, but—even more than that—it’s the space of our relationships with other human beings, enhanced and co-determined by media and networks of any kind. I believe it’s important to develop a real awareness of this multimedia and interactive reality we are immersed in. And, to know that we can use this awareness to communicate with others about crucial and important values and contents, such as art and creativity, which have always been at the core of cultural and human development.

IES Abroad: You were the guest of Penn State University through IES Abroad’s Faculty Development Program and are now serving as the Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer Chair in Italian Studies at Northwestern University. How has your experience teaching in the United States differed from teaching in Milan?

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FP: My experience at Penn State was a tremendous enrichment for me. Not only was I able to meet faculty and students with many different methodologies and backgrounds, but also lecture about a wide range of topics. In addition, I took advantage of precious unpublished materials for my own research housed in Penn State’s archives.

At Northwestern, thanks to the Fulbright program, I have found an incredibly vital environment and community. It is strongly interdisciplinary and amazingly engaged, completely open to ideas and experimentations, and widely interconnected with other institutional and academic realities of Chicago and the Midwest. Not to mention, the fantastic Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, whose program is totally outstanding.

It is this multiplicity and concentration that makes my U.S. experience so incredibly interesting for me, and which is also reflected in my teaching here. However, I have to say my teaching at IES Abroad Milan allows me to deliver a kind of “live” experience of my own culture that still is, and will always be, irreplaceable.

IES Abroad: Last fall you led IES Abroad Annual Conference attendees through the Art Institute of Chicago, highlighting international and Italian art of the 20th century. What is the most quintessential Italian piece at the Institute?

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FP: I think it is a painting by Giorgio De Chirico from 1913-14. It is one of his famous “Piazze d’Italia”, with the symbolic title The Philosopher’s Conquest. The most amazing thing about this painting is the co-existence of classical and experimental, familiar and surreal, recognizable and mysterious. This is what Italy is about—a country where the past meets the future, rich in its history, but creatively open to innovation, where the continuity of tradition is the everlasting fuel for new ideas.

IES Abroad: You write extensively and have been working on many exhibitions concerning Italian artists of the 20th century. From an international perspective, what is your favorite piece of Italian art and why?

FP: I have a special connection to the art of the Italian sculptor Mauro Staccioli, whom I have also been able to involve in my teaching at IES Abroad Milan for many years. Since the early 1970s, Staccioli has been realizing all over the world what he calls sculture intervento (sculptures intervention), created as a means to interpret places and contexts, and produce social change. His work is an ongoing lesson about the kind of active responsibility art has towards society, also through education, which is very important to my mission and work.

IES Abroad: What has been your proudest teaching moment or career achievement?

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FP: The Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer Chair I have been awarded this year at Northwestern University is certainly the most important academic acknowledgement of my intercultural teaching. Another very special moment for me occurred last year. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York invited me to lecture about Italian Postwar Art in their famous Frank Lloyd Wright building, on the occasion of the ZERO show curated by Valerie Hillings. Valerie, like me, strongly believes in intercultural networking.

Without my ongoing experience with American students at IES Abroad Milan however, I am sure all this would not have been the same. I’m really looking forward to going back in fall to meet the new IES Abroad students studying in Milan!

Study abroad in Italy this fall and learn from Dr. Pola in Milan!

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