This Law Firm Quietly Supports Cutting-Edge Projects in Contemporary Art

Nctm law firm fosters the encounter of lawyers and artists by supporting trailblazing projects and funding public interventions.

Francesca Marconi, Internazionale Corazon (Adriquielly), 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Nctm, Milan. Francesca Marconi

The Milan-based law firm Nctm, founded in 2000, is well-known in the legal and tax sector. Over the years, the firm has expanded considerably with offices in Milan, Rome, London and Shanghai, and in 2020 founded ADVANT, a network of European law firms with offices all over Europe.

What is less known about this law firm, however, is its significant effort to support research in contemporary art. “nctm e l’arte,” the art programme launched by the firm in 2011, is a rich and sophisticated initiative in terms of both financial effort and content, and with a pragmatic and reserved — some would say very Milanese — approach, it accompanies and supports the production of some of the most well-known and visionary contemporary artists: acquiring works, financing scholarships, organising meetings and exhibitions, and orchestrating celebrated public art projects.

“Our firm has always tried to open itself up to the outside world,” Gabi Scardi, the artistic director of the programme, told me when I met her on a Saturday morning in April at the Milan office of the law firm, a stone’s throw from Milan’s cathedral. “And art is a way to make it porous, in so many ways,” she said. “We open it up physically so that people can come in and engage with the artists.”

Born out of a belief that art is a privileged point of view on the contemporary world, “nctm e l’arte” testifies to the importance the firm places on research and aims to cultivate critical sensitivity, and in-depth thinking, centring their work around sustainability, social equity, rights, and justice.

One of the main activities of the programme is an extensive calendar of initiatives to activate exchanges and confrontations between the artists and the public. Each time a new work enters the collection, the firm organises a talk with the artists to explore their research and works. In the lobbies, stairwells, corridors, and meeting rooms, other works by the artist are set up so that the work is contextualised.

“The idea was to bring artists into our firm,” said Alberto Toffoletto, a professor of law at the University of Milan and founding partner of ADVANT Nctm. “More than the collection, what I find interesting is to create movement, if it is then necessary to invest by acquiring works, that is fine, but what fascinates me is the process,” he said.

“When we can, we do not acquire finished works. We always try to support the artists during production,” said Ms. Scardi. She also revealed that the firm has financed a number of pavilions at various editions of the Venice Biennale.

The supported projects go beyond the financial interest. “The collection is only one part,” Ms. Scardi pointed out. “The idea is to have long-term relationships with the artists, each one is a window on the world. Whenever possible we privilege the relationship with the artists and their projects.”

Better Lawyers

Mr. Toffoletto told me that he became interested in art thanks to his wife and that he approached this world by first meeting gallery owners, and then artists. “I realised that there was a very different world from ours,” referring to lawyers, “completely different in many ways.”

Artists fascinate him a lot, in particular, because of their talent for synthesis, their ability to look at things from a different angle than the rest of the world, and the fact that artists, “the real, sincere ones,” have little interest in the economic consequences of their acts, he said.

“I find these aspects quite unique living in a world where only money matters and where everything is instrumental to achieving an economic goal. Seeing people coming out of everything and not caring what goes on around them immediately made them an object of my attention.”

Together with Ms. Scardi, they started to structure the programme so that the people working in the firm could have the same dialogue with artists.

Professor Alberto Toffoletto. Photo by Marco Craig.

Before visual arts, Mr. Toffoletto shared that he used to organise book presentations.“Not law books,” he insisted. His guests included Alberto Franceschini, a founder and former leading member of the Italian far-left organisation, the Red Brigades. “I am reading the last book, published posthumously, by Gino Strada,” he revealed. “As I’m reading it, I’m thinking what a great opportunity it would have been to have been able to invite him.”

Mr. Toffoletto is in love with creatives and creativity, and he revealed that one project that particularly struck him was a video by the Italian artist Salvatore Arancio, a 16-minute excerpt from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001:A Space Odyssey”, from which the artist erased, frame by frame, the monkeys that starred in the opening sequence. Another work by Mr. Arancio later joined the firm’s collection and is now on display in the Rome office.

Mr. Toffoletto is a charismatic character. From our conversation in one of the office meeting rooms, his sincere and unconditional fascination for art-making and the work of artists shines through. Thinking of Mr. Arancio’s work, the fact that “it took months to make something that has no relevance apart from satisfying the artist’s desire to see the empty landscape without the monkeys,” amazed him.

“For me, those who have a passion for what they do think about using their passion to establish themselves,” Mr. Toffoletto said. “In a law firm, this has an immense value.” Lawyers “have to be passionate because otherwise, we can’t defend someone else’s interests,” he added.

For him, this is important to pass on to the younger professionals in the firm. “They must understand that you should not do this job for the money but for the passion for law. It is not easy. But it is not easy to be like Salvatore Arancio, in fact, it is even more difficult.”

According to him, the key aspects are: “a different point of view, lack of relationship with money, endless passion.” He believes that taking inspiration from artists can make his colleagues better lawyers. “Put them inside a law firm and you will see that they become better lawyers because they have a different example in front of them,” he said.

“Our game in every professional affair is a fight, there is an opponent. You have to win by lawful means, and to succeed you have to come up with ideas.” He told me in the past lawyers came up with better ideas by studying more, because they were able to find more information, for example, a judgment needed to win. Today we all have the same information in a second, and he believes we need different qualities. “As Steve Jobs used to say: ‘Think different.’ You have to think different. In our profession this ability is immensely valuable,” he said.

He revealed the artist who has impressed him most is Adrian Paci, a Milan-based artist born in Shkodër, Albania. “He is an amazing person. Sometimes he phones me and asks me to meet him in peculiar bars in some corner of the city at 8.30 in the morning to drink coffee and we end up talking until noon. I would never leave, I would listen to him for hours. I find him emotional, for his path, his reasoning, and the depth — and also the calmness — of his manifestations. He is a special person.”

The firm has always been close to Adrian Paci’s work. Mr. Paci’s iconic 2007 work “Centro di Permanenza Temporanea,” a powerful take on the political themes of displacement, is in their collection and they also contributed to support “The Column,” a video installation created by the artist in 2013, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Kiki Smith, Pyre Woman Kneeling, 2002. Photo by Andrea Rossetti.

The very first works acquired by Nctm are a large-scale installation by Carlos Garaicoa — a Cuban contemporary artist known for his intense investigations into urban spaces and the forms of architecture — and a sculpture by New York-based artist Kiki Smith, depicting a woman on a pyre, with her arms outstretched. The works of Emma Ciceri, Adelita Husni-Bey, Yael Bartana, and Anri Sala followed.

“In recent years, all the activity of ‘nctm e l’arte’ has been oriented around the theme of rights. In particular, how the subject of rights is read through the filter of artists’ eyes, with very different perspectives and points of view,” said Ms. Scardi.

Patronage of The Arts

Among the various initiatives the firm ventured in to support artists, “nctm e l’arte: Artists-in-Residence” is a grant that aims to encourage international mobility and training of artists residing in Italy, and allows them to participate in art residency programmes around the world. The grant is now in its fourteenth year and a new group of selected artists was announced at the end of June.

With the same spirit, in the very first months of the pandemic, in 2020, Ms. Scardi felt they had to do “something to support artists, to be close to them,” she said.

Around Europe, countries were doing a lot on a public level, “in Italy less so,” she said. She also shared that, at the same time, artists were expressing this need. “It is fundamental to hear their voice in crucial and dramatic moments like the one we have experienced,” she added.

Ms. Scardi proposed launching a call to invite artists to come forward and present works that in some way had to tackle what they were experiencing, interpreting the world around them and their everyday experiences during the pandemic. A year later, the “Essenziale” (Essential) project was in full force.

“It also investigates what was essential for artists in those very different times,” said Ms. Scardi. “All the artists presented finished works they had created in that period relating to what was essential to them, or a project to be realised.”

The call was aimed at artists residing in Italy, although, Ms. Scardi emphasised, they “never put limits on nationality or age, in this case, it was an attempt to give a message to artists from Italy or residing in the country.”

Hundreds of applications were received and, through this call, sixteen new works, installations, and projects by artists — selected by Adrian Paci, Matteo Lucchetti, Ms. Scardi and firm representatives — entered the collection. To select every work of art to be acquired, the firm usually invites at least one independent expert, often a curator or a critic, and one or more artists who participated in the residency programme in the previous years. “We always try to have as many different points of view as possible,” said Ms. Scardi.

Among the projects selected by the curatorial committee are works by Atelier dell’Errore, a visual arts collective and a workshop founded by Luca Santiago Mora for the Reggio Emilia Child Neuropsychiatry Unit  that later developed as an independent project, artist Elena Mazzi, who presented a work on fragility, the fragility of the body and the need for a relationship with the natural context, and Neapolitan artist Effe Minelli who explores queer aesthetics in his work. Minelli’s works made of biscuit porcelain, a Bourbon technique typical of the Capodimonte area, “on the one hand are very refined; he fills them with organic elements such as shells, egg shells, mussel shells, pieces of hemp, fibres of various kinds, and displays them so that the back side can also be seen,” explained Ms. Scardi. “The work explores the idea of what is concealed, removed, of an identity that is there but not exhibited. In this sense, it is a very interesting work because it does not play on showing, but on what is little seen and on extreme fragility, which also emerges from the delicacy of the sculptures.”

The Dominican-born artist Raziel Perin, whose work revolves around the body as a source of energy but also as a repository of memories, produced twenty-eight drawings. Margherita Moscardini presented a large project on deep oceanic waters, on which there are no legislation — non-national and free waters — to start a conversation about control and rules, suggesting a possible idea of belonging to the world without nationality.

For three years, Francesca Marconi has worked in Via Padova, in Milan, where she knows everybody, from the shopkeepers to the sex workers. “She has a deep love and understanding for this neighbourhood, and a great interest in the liveliness and interculturalism of the area,” Ms. Scardi said. The artist created a performance inspired by dances of Andean origin but practised in Milan with costumes that are commissioned in La Paz and different areas of Chile, Bolivia and Peru. In the video, she invited professionals and people from different backgrounds to dance. “It is a celebration of the reality that changes and is transformed by migrations.” A cross-cultural intersections where different traditions meet. The protagonists of the video — which is set in the parking lot of a supermarket — are residents of the area, some of them sex workers, queer dancers all dressed in colourful costumes embroidered with beads and sequins.

Binta Diaw, Black Powerless II, 2021, featured in the exhibition “POESIA E RIVOLUZIONE” curated by Leda Lunghi, at the Galleria Giampaolo Abbondio, in Todi. Photo courtesy of the artist and Nctm, Milano.

Among the selected projects, Binta Diaw, an artist of Senegalese origin living in Italy, reflects on back powerlessness with a sequence of casts of forearms of people she has met, friends and acquaintances, with their clenched fists facing downwards. The work directly recalls questions about the laws in Italy for second-generation immigrants. “It is a direct work, simple but at the same time it says a lot,” commented Ms. Scardi.

Raffaella Crispino is a Neapolitan artist living in Brussels. Her work deals with the legacy of Belgian colonial history starting from a Botanical garden, a symbol of the result of distant journeys. Rossella Biscotti’s work revolves around the Mediterranean routes linked to the trafficking of materials and humans.

The firm also acquired works by Camilla Alberti, Fabrizio Bellomo, Francesco Bertocco, Linda Fregni Nagler, Riccardo Giacconi, Rachele Maistrello, and Marco Maria Zanin.

Public Projects

Over the years, the “nctm e l’arte” programme evolved from an opportunity to enrich the skills of the professionals who work for the firm to a commitment to the area in which it operates. Notably, financing a number of public art projects. “The one that impressed me the most is Burri,” revealed Mr. Toffoletto, referring to the reconstruction of the Teatro Continuo by Alberto Burri, a large-scale installation located in the park behind the Castello Sforzesco. The work had been created by the renowned Italian artist in 1973 on the occasion of the 15th Milan Triennale and then demolished in 1989 by the city administration.

The story of this project, Mr. Toffoletto told me, really marked him because he remembers the structure as a child, when he played football with friends, and even then he was fascinated by it. “To me they seamed perfect lines, and the idea of framing the Arco della Pace” — according to Burri’s design the theatre must be perfectly aligned between the castle tower and the triumphal arch on the opposite side— “was something that struck me as unbelievable.”

In 2008, when he visited a retrospective of Alberto Burri’s work, organised at the Milan Triennale and curated by Maurizio Calvesi and Chiara Sarteanesi, he discovered the history of the work, which ended with its demolition. 

“After the exhibition, I promised my wife to rebuild it,” he said. Mr. Toffoletto apparently wanted to right the wrong done to the community, and the artist, by destroying the work. “[Burri] never set foot in Milan again after that,” he told me. So he set to work so that in 2015, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth, Burri’s ‘theatre’ would be returned to its legitimate owner: Milan and its citizens.

“The theatre turned out just as perfect as Burri had made it, in fact, more beautiful from a structural point of view thanks to new technologies,” Mr. Toffoletto said. One of the problems of the original theatre was its structural stability, the new one “is the same as the artist’s plans, but the floor does not have the same weight because it was lightened internally with polystyrene.”

With this work, conceived specifically for the city of Milan and as an expression of it, Burri expressed his interest in theatre by extending the notion of the stage to urban space and manifested a decisive consonance with the cultural temperament of the time, characterised by a tendency towards dialogue with the public and a shift of artistic activity from the firm to the outdoors. Becoming an integral part of Parco Sempione, Burri’s theatre offers itself as a scenic machine always ready for use, a free venue in the heart of Milan for artistic activities and performances, for everyone.

“Instagram, Tiktok and Facebook are a constant public theatre,” Mr. Toffoletto said. “People regularly put themselves on display and Burri understood that. We should pay attention to those who have these kinds of ideas. You have to listen to those who are ahead, not those who are behind.”

Paola Di Bello, Teatro Continuo di Burri, Parco Sempione, Milano, serie, 2015. Photo by Paola Di Bello.

For him, the value of doing public art projects is very high. “That project gave me a lot because I realised that you can do fantastic things. You can activate extraordinary public projects.”

He believes the context in which one operates is the reason behind success. “Entrepreneurs have to realise that what they have around them is not their merit, but rather they have to ask themselves how to make sure that those who come after have more and more.”

“The extraordinary thing,” continued Mr Toffoletto, “is how easy it is. You need very little money and you achieve extraordinary results. Everyone thinks it’s complicated. You have to take care of it, that’s true. But it is simple.” He confessed, however, that you have to build consensus, build the idea, find the right people, “and go and persist.”

“I don’t want to sound like the Good Samaritan, but I would like everyone to think about what they can do.”

According to him, there is a favourable wind. “So many are eager to do tangible things with the pleasure of trying to do well because they realise that there is a great need for it.”

Not only visual arts projects pass through Mr. Toffoletto’s office. So many need support and thanks to his network of influential friends he can ask others to help in financing cultural enterprises and activities.

“For example, the FIL Orchestra brings music to the suburbs: it is a very important work,” he said. He mentioned the Pirelli HangarBicocca, located on the edge of the city, for him “is a wonderful thing” because of the exhibitions they organise, and free admission. But he also talked about the Fondazione Prada, located south of the city in a suburban area, and the PianoCity festival. “Any of the numerous concerts around Milan are all wonderful, that’s the real value. Nobody is immune, it’s impossible not to notice it. Even people who don’t care about anything, can hear a piano playing and stay even only for ten minutes.”

Mr. Toffoletto believes “people can feel all this cultural offer, they breathe it.” According to him, it is enough for even one person to understand the spirit of the initiative to consider it a success. “All it takes is one,” he said.

“I detest self-praise.” He revealed that he only agreed to do this interview to “inspire someone” by telling his story. “Otherwise you can trash it,” he told me.

Although he continually emphasized that the effort is choral, Mr. Toffoletto is a magnetic character. His passion and determination are certainly a driving force behind the initiative, but the commitment of the entire firm is necessary. “Would communicating more, perhaps, help you with your partners to convince them to continue in the venture?” I asked. “Yes, maybe, but they have to get it by themselves,” he replied.

“I don’t believe in the kind of communication made up of announcements and advertisements,” he said. In his opinion, the outside world can find out about Nctm’s activities because they share its vision, “not because they see it in a stylish magazine.”

Although it may seem unusual, actually few people know great details of the valuable effort that this firm discreetly makes for art in Milan and beyond. Nctm’s annual funding budget for art undertakings alone is 150,000 euros. In the twelve years of the programme, the firm has supported projects worth almost 2 million euros.

They recently financed the restoration of Arman’s “Musical Accumulation and Seating” — another overlooked work by a contemporary artist in the Parco Sempione. “I don’t know when the works will start, but we won the tender and financed the restoration,” Mr. Toffoletto said.

The sculpture, also created as a work of public art in 1973 for the same Milan Triennale of the Burri’s Teatro Continuo and located close by, was conceived as an open air concrete auditorium for all, with trumpets and musical instruments that emerge from the podium, a parallelepiped placed in front of the seatings.

Mr. Toffoletto appeared visibly pleased by the initiative, Arman’s work for him “is a fantastic idea,” he said, and his enthusiasm is contagious. The work, although little celebrated, has always drawn a diverse array of people and almost every day hosts concerts and gatherings on the concrete steps.

Mr. Toffoletto thinks many people undervalue art “because they don’t want to understand it,” he said. “I would like to convey to all the people who work in the firm that it is worth spending some time on. It is not a waste of time. There is so much more.”

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.