The Uffizi Gallery, bastion of tradition, evolves (slowly) over time

FLORENCE, Italy – Passing the Botticelli, Raphael and Michelangelo in the Uffizi Gallery , one might naturally be surprised to come acro...


FLORENCE, Italy – Passing the Botticelli, Raphael and Michelangelo in the Uffizi Gallery, one might naturally be surprised to come across self-portraits by Ethiopian artist Tesfaye Urgessa and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

At a time when museums around the world have grappled with how to tell a more inclusive story about art, the Uffizi has been slower to catch up, crippled by its legacy as one of the leading museums European classics and by tourists who expect to see the greatest museums in history. shots.

But since becoming director in 2015, Eike Schmidt has been slowly trying to incorporate more contemporary art, increase the presence of female artists and artists of color, and reach a younger, more diverse audience.

“The Uffizi very rarely in the past had exhibitions of contemporary art,” Schmidt said in a recent interview with the museum. “It was considered an intrusion into these hallowed halls.”

“For me, it’s been really important to dust off,” he added, “and show what’s relevant.”

Other museums in Florence are engaged in similar efforts to broaden their reach, in part by juxtaposing the old with the new and looking at historic works of art through a modern lens to foster dialogue across genres and cultures. eras. The Palazzo Strozzi has just closed an exhibition by Jeff Koons and the Museo Novecento, dedicated to more recent works, is currently showing British painter Jenny Saville.

Changing the public’s perception of art in Florence has not been easy, said Arturo Galansino, director of Palazzo Strozzi. “Most people prefer to see contemporary art,” he said, “In Italy it was the other way around. People felt more comfortable with the past than the present.

That started to change in 2015, Galansino said, when Koons’ golden steel sculpture “Pluto and Proserpina” was installed right in the center of Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s medieval town hall, between copies of masterpieces by Donatello and Michelangelo as part of the International Antiques Fair of the Florence Biennale. “It was a symbolic moment,” Galansino said.

Koons said he felt welcomed by the Florentines and saw the city as an ideal place, “where you are rooted in the Renaissance, but you can also engage with contemporary art.”

“That’s what art does,” he added. “It draws connections between our own situations and others and shows how everything is intertwined.”

In challenging traditional expectations for the presentation of classical art, the Uffizi Gallery has also joined museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick in New York, who both revamped the Old Masters exhibit as part of the Brutalist Breuer building on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

“Every living artist would love to engage with the Uffizi,” said Met manager Max Hollein. “It’s a paradise.”

The Uffizi Gallery recently opened an exhibition by one of these living artists, Koen Vanmechelen, a Belgian multidisciplinary artist who focuses on the relationship between nature and culture. The show, “Seduzione”, which runs until March 20, features 30 works of art, including huge horned iguanas, a crouching red tiger and a reimagined Medusa topped with an open beak and sharp teeth, all of which were created expressly for the sacred rooms of the Uffizi. .

The museum has also recently featured exhibitions by living artists such as the British sculptor Anthony Gormley, the figure of Arte Povera Giuseppe Penone and Urgessa, whose work focuses on social critique, race, and the politics of identity.

While he felt out of place at the Uffizi at first – especially given the preponderance of art over biblical content – ​​Urgessa said in a telephone interview that he was welcomed there by visitors and that the institution seemed to change from “something of the past, like the pyramids.

“People these days want to hear about a new story,” he added, “a story related to their life.”

Schmidt said he is committed to devoting at least two exhibitions a year to female artists. Last February, for example, the Uffizi Gallery presented “Lo Sfregio” (“The Scar”) a show that took a stand against violence against women by presenting the disfigured bust of Costanza Piccolomini Bonarelli by Gian Lorenzo Bernini alongside the photographic exhibition “Pain is not a privilege” by Ilaria Sagaria which depicts victims of acid attacks.

With exhibitions, the Uffizi Gallery also tries to push the boundaries of its white, masculine and Eurocentric history. With “On Being Present” in 2020, the museum explored black identity in paintings, like Dürer’s sage”Adoration of the Magiand the portraits of Ethiopian kings in his Giovio series. The same year, the Uffizi presents an exhibition on women, power and emancipation in ancient Rome.

“In a dramatic departure from the norm,” said Lisa Marie Browne, the nonprofit’s executive director. Friends of the Uffizi Gallery, Schmidt “transformed the Uffizi from a Renaissance museum into a 2022 renaissance”.

In its acquisitions, the Uffizi Gallery has diversified, adding last autumn a work by Street artist Endless, who donated it and 52 self-portraits by Italian comic artists to its collection.

With the goal of reaching “as many people as possible,” Schmidt said in a statement at the time, “I’m confident this will lead to great results and be the precursor to many more ‘crossovers’.” .

In redefining what constitutes Uffizi territory, the museum has unbuttoned its collar in its outreach efforts, a process accelerated by the demands of the pandemic. It started onDistributed Offices“, which takes the art out of storage and sends it to various locations in the surrounding Tuscan region in a series of thematic presentations.

Although it didn’t have a website until 2015 – Schmidt said the museum was “in the Stone Age” – the Uffizi has become an unlikely social media phenomenon, with almost 700,000 followers on instagram; more than 100,000 on ICT Tac and nearly 128,000 on Facebook.

He also recently launched a cooking show on YouTube titled “Mangiare Uffizi» (or « Offices on the plate ») which features chefs preparing meals inspired by the works in the collection.

Schmidt said he sees results; visitors aged 19 to 25 had “more than doubled” in the year to 2020, he said.

Similarly, Galansino said that by showing contemporary artists — like Ai Weiwei and, next fall, Olafur Eliasson — his museum has attracted new audiences, more than 30% of whom are under 30.

Given the efforts of museums like the Strozzi and the Uffizi Gallery, as well as Florence’s ideal location between the cosmopolitan centers of Rome and Milan, Galansino said he was convinced that Florence could become “a city of ‘contemporary art”.

“I think we’ve convinced the public that contemporary art is as important as the old masters,” Galansino said. “People have lost the perception of Florence as a place to live, but it’s still a place to live. It’s not just about living in the past.



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