Changing the world, one exhibition at a time

Jack Smurthwaite, Senior Content Designer at Event, meets Andrea Garbetta, Head of Exhibitions and International Projects at Skira, and finds out about his love of beauty, romance, music and art.
September 6, 2023
Reading time
5 minutes

As a child, Andrea Garbetta moved across Italy from Milan. Verona, a city, in his words, “of love, and Romeo and Juliet”, cultivated a romantic, restless feeling in a young Andrea, and sparked the classic teenage dream “to change the world”, travel and explore different avenues into culture. For Andrea, this avenue was music.

“I was a guitar player, dreaming to become a legend like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton”, he says. Travelling in the back of a van with friends from Seville and Barcelona, he played music in London with a girl who later became his wife. Andrea calls her “the best shot I ever made” – a big statement from someone who used to knock a football around with Hellas Verona FC.

In many ways, these early choices aren’t surprising. Andrea grew up in a house full of interesting people and instruments – drums, piano, “and everything” – with a mother who painted in her spare time while raising him and his two siblings. The three of them have grown up to become a film producer, a philosopher, and, in the case of Andrea, an exhibition producer. Diving headlong into music and art, and having lively conversations with interesting people, is what has driven his career in exhibitions.

His breakthrough came while working at MondoMostre, overseeing the project management of the global Pink Floyd exhibition Their Mortal Remains as it travelled from its debut at the V&A in London to MACRO in Rome. Andrea’s passion for the subject matter shines through (“it was like being in the 60s or 70s!”). “Behind every profession is a human”, he says, and in this case one of those humans was Aubrey Powell, the legendary designer who – with Storm Thorgerson – designed the iconic covers of Pink Floyd’s albums. Powell floated a pig over Battersea and set a man alight for a photo; “every night [Powell would come] with something interesting, stories about the band,” he says. Andrea remains friends with Powell, as he does with Jimmy Nelson, the British photographer whose retrospective with Skira Editore has just opened at the Palazzo Reale in Milan.

Andrea invited Nelson to have dinner with his family to discuss the exhibition and the presentation of his work in an a more informal setting. His description of the leading international photographer playing and making pictures with Garbetta’s 3-year-old daughter paints a touching picture, one that brings together the curiosity and love of art that makes exhibition-making such as a gloriously diverse profession. This child-like curiosity is obviously still close to Andrea’s heart. The best thing about the job, he says, is meeting artists, museum directors, curators; “you learn every day”.

His romantic Veronese childhood comes to mind when Andrea speaks of the mechanisms of putting on an exhibition: “you have to open crates…and these objects come out. That moment is really magic.” He loves it – but he doesn’t want to keep it to himself. “Really, I wish one day you can see it. I want to share this moment because it really is fantastic.” He always wants to share, to learn - to open up spaces, to convene with culture. And, I suppose, this is what all of Museum Studio’s projects are about.

Skira’s illustrious archive starts with Picasso and leads everywhere, from fashion to photography; Andrea says he is “lucky” to be surrounded by beauty. “Beauty gives me a lot of energy”, he says, “and I’m a curious person, so when I see beauty, I want to know more, find out more.” Like the conversations that bring shape to exhibitions, beauty for him, is a process. “It is not objective beauty” but finding the “beauty behind many things, behind humans” that he says helps him “develop”.

This quest for ‘development’ recently led Andrea and his family to Japan. What was planned as a honeymoon turned into a retreat for the newly married couple and their two young children – an excuse to combine his natural curiosity with his family life. “For a 3-year-old, everything is new, and everything is the best thing”, and that in itself is “beautiful”. In fact, this is a sentiment that runs through all of Andrea’s creative projects.

Just as he did with Jimmy Nelson, Andrea says “it is important to bring people to your table” to generate an atmosphere of enthusiasm. “Everybody need to be excited around that, because the success of a projects begins in your home, in your place”. This hospitality comes from a place of generosity - “when I start a project, it is because I want to share it. When I work with an artist, I want to share. If it is a curatorial idea, I want to share”. These relaxed, dinner table sessions retain a little bit of Verona in them as well; nothing is worth doing if there isn’t passion behind it, and as Andrea says, towards the end of our conversation, “I am always the first person to fall in love with my projects”.

I ask if Andrea has succeeded in his quest to ‘change the world’ - and it seems that he is doing this, one exhibition at a time. Andrea sees the exhibitions he is involved in as arenas where visitors “learn…receive…feel goosebumps. So, in in a way maybe I'm trying to change the world in a way that isn’t revolutionary, but I do want to bring something. And I want to leave something”.

And what about the music that first inspired his dreams and ambitions? Once a week he goes to his uncle’s place – a man with “an acoustic guitar and a bluesy mood” – to have a couple of drinks and play music together. “It is beautiful”, he says, once again coming back to a word that, for Garbetta, always seems to be wrapped up with being with people; hopefully getting some good energy out of it – and, where he can, transforming that into something beautiful to share with the world.

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