FLORENCE, Italy – Passing Botticelli, Raphael and Michelangelo at 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 historical works of art through a modern lens to foster dialogue across genres and cultures. eras. The Palazzo Strozzi has just closed a Jeff Koons exhibition and the Museo Novecento, dedicated to more recent works, is currently showing the 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 began to change in 2015, Galansino said, when Koons’ gilded steel sculpture “Pluto and Proserpina” was installed smack in the center of Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s medieval town hall, between copies of masterpieces. works by Donatello and Michelangelo within the framework of the International Biennale of Antiquaries in Florence. “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 grounded 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 of presenting classical art, the Uffizi Gallery has also joined museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection in New York, both of which have revamped the display of Old Masters in the context 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 British sculptor Antony Gormley, arte povera figure Giuseppe Penone and Urgessa, whose work focuses on social criticism, race and the politics of humanity. identity.
Although he felt out of place at the Uffizi at first – especially given the preponderance of art in biblical content – Urgessa said in a telephone interview that he was well received 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 Ilaria Sagaria’s photographic exhibition “Pain is not a privilege”, which features victims of acid attacks.
With exhibitions, the Uffizi 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, such as the sage in Dürer’s “Adoration of the Magi” and portraits of Ethiopian kings in its 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, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Uffizi, Schmidt “transformed the Uffizi from a Renaissance museum into a revival of 2022″.
In its acquisitions, the Uffizi Gallery has diversified, adding last fall a work by street artist Endless, who donated it, and 52 self-portraits by Italian comics 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. He launched the Uffizi Diffusi program, which takes art out of storage and sends it to various locations in the surrounding Tuscan region in a series of themed 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 phenomenon on social media, with almost 700,000 followers on Instagram; more than 100,000 on TikTok and nearly 128,000 on Facebook.
He also recently launched a cooking show on YouTube called “Uffizi da Mangiare” (“Uffizi on the plate”) which features chefs preparing meals inspired by works from the collection.
Schmidt said he sees results; visitors aged 19 to 25 had “more than doubled” in the year to 2020, he said.
Likewise, Galansino said that by showing contemporary artists — like Ai Weiwei and, next fall, Olafur Eliasson — his museum has attracted a new audience, more than 30% of whom are under 30.
Given the efforts of museums such as 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 convinced the public that contemporary art is as important as the old masters,” he 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.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.