There comes a time in every Germans life when he has to choose between a BMW and a Mercedes. For me it was the same with Athens and Rome, says Joachim Blher, who took over as director of the German Academy at Villa Massimo in September last year and oversaw its re-opening in May.
But Blher, an amateur drummer whose first band was called Foro Romano, was always likely to choose Rome. He lived in the Eternal City for a year at the end of the 1970s and has always felt it was completely perfect. So determined was he on his fate, he first applied for the post of director at Villa Massimo more than a decade before his eventual appointment, coming second to his predecessor Jrgen Schilling.
An art historian who specialised in mediaeval architecture, and 12th-century Romanesque in particular, Blher describes his career path as winding. A former restorer of ancient glass, he learned all about directing an institute at the Michael Werner Gallery in Cologne, where he began working in 1989. After coming second in the battle for the directors job at Villa Massimo in 1991 he decided he must be good enough to set up on his own, and subsequently opened the Galerie Joachim Blher, a contemporary art space, also in Cologne.
He was eventually chosen to direct the German Academy, just off Via Nomentana, because, he believes, he is an academic who is also an efficient manager, has worked with big names in the past, and has shown that he can attract young people to exhibitions.
In addition, he says candidly, his bosses in the German government wanted to put an end to the little scandals which have plagued Villa Massimo in the past. His predecessors controversial departure in January 2000, almost a year before his contract was up, amid a controversy over the buildings restoration, made him the second director in a row to leave the academy prematurely.
Founded by banker and industrialist Eduard Arnhold in 1910, the German Academy at Villa Massimo includes a space for concerts and conferences, and has ten studios in its grounds in which fellows live and work. There are also two apartments for guests of honour: artists, poets and philosophers who, unlike the fellows, are chosen by Blher himself. In addition, three interlinked rooms previously used for administration have been converted and are being used to house exhibitions.
Blhers appointment was made as part of a drive by the German government to improve the academys reputation as a promoter of German artists, architects, writers and musicians, and to integrate it more closely with the cultural scene in Rome. He aims to do this, he says, by doing something a little bit unusual. And despite his background in the art world, the cultural programme will be built on the four pillars of the visual arts, music, architecture and literature.
Im trying to seduce the public with little things, Blher says. An example is a show running 17 September-25 October consisting of one work by the German Neo-Expressionist Georg Baselitz, a nude of Frieda Kahlo in a 17th-century Italian frame, and one by Italian artist Enzo Cucchi, a central figure of the Transavanguardia. Another plan is to have ten different people translate the same German poem into Italian to demonstrate the richness of the medium.
When he first arrived in Rome, Blher made a tour of all the other academies on his scooter, meeting the directors and having a look around. In terms of role models, he says the first look of a German is always to France, and he admires the strong support given by the state to French culture. He says he has most emotional contact with the Americans and the Belgians, but he emphasises that in the end it will be his own personality that shapes Villa Massimo.
If I have an example, its Heinz Beck, the best cook in Rome, he says. He came here and didnt know what al dente meant, but he was respectful and paid attention.
Blher has persuaded Beck, chef at La Pergola, the rooftop restaurant at the Cavalieri Hilton, to give an excursus on cooking at Villa Massimo. Comic poet Robert Gernhardt will be taking a look at German and Italian identity, and Blher would also like to have a football player at the academy. This should be a very lively place; it should be another means of seducing people, he says.
Blher is on a five-year contract, which he has the chance of extending. At the end of his term, he says, one of the things he hopes to have achieved is happy fellows.
His other ambition is for Villa Massimo to play a leading role in the cultural life of Rome, a city he describes as rich in intellectuals, and to help create a positive German cultural identity, which he believes has been lacking since the second world war. At the end I would like people to say that for cultural life in Rome, you have to look to the Germans, he says.
Villa Massimo, Largo di Villa Massimo 1-2 (off Via Nomentana),
Picture: Joachim Blher, director of the German Academy at Villa Massimo.