FLORENCE, Italy — As you pass the Botticellis, Raphaels, and Michelangelos in the Uffizi Gallery, you might be understandably surprised to see self-portraits by Ethiopian artist Tesfaye Urgessa and Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
At a time when museums around the world are exploring how to tell a more inclusive story about art, the Uffizi has caught up more slowly, crippled by its legacy as one of Europe’s leading classical museums and by tourists expecting the greatest history of the to see history. hits.
But since Eike Schmidt became director in 2015, he has been slowly trying to integrate more contemporary art, increase the presence of female artists and artists of color and reach a younger, more diverse audience.
“The Uffizi very rarely had contemporary art exhibitions in the past,” Schmidt said in a recent interview at the museum. “It was seen as an encroachment on these sacred halls.”
“For me, it was really important to take the dust off,” he added, “and to show what’s relevant.”
Other Florence museums are making similar efforts to expand their reach, in part by juxtaposing the old with the new and by viewing historic artworks through a modern lens to foster dialogue between genres and eras. The Palazzo Strozzi just closed a Jeff Koons exhibition and the Museo Novecento, dedicated to newer works, currently showcases British painter Jenny Saville.
Changing the public’s perception of art in Florence was not easy, says Arturo Galansino, the director of Palazzo Strozzi. “Most people prefer contemporary art,” he said, “in Italy it was the other way around. People were more comfortable with the past than with the present.”
This started to change in 2015, Galansino said, when Koons’ gilded steel sculpture “Pluto and Proserpina” was installed smack in the middle of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s medieval town hall, among copies of masterpieces by Donatello and Michelangelo as part of the Florence International Biennale Antiques Fair. “It was a symbolic moment,” Galansino said.
Koons said that he felt welcomed by Florentines and that he found the city an ideal location, “where you are embedded in the Renaissance, but you can also enter into a dialogue with contemporary art.”
“That’s what art does,” he added. “It makes connections from our own situations to those of others and shows how everything is intertwined.”
Raising traditional expectations of the presentation of classical art, the Uffizi has also joined museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick in New York, both of which have rethought the exhibition of old masters in the context of the Brutalist Breuer building on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
“Any living artist would love to get in touch with the Uffizi,” said Max Hollein, executive director of the Met. “It’s a paradise.”
The Uffizi recently opened an exhibition by one of those living artists, Koen Vanmechelen, a multidisciplinary Belgian artist who focuses on the relationship between nature and culture. The show, “Seduzione,” which runs through March 20, features 30 pieces of art, including huge horned iguanas, a crouching red tiger, and a redesigned Medusa with open beaks and sharp teeth, all of which were created especially for the sacred halls of the Uffizi .
The museum has also recently featured shows by living artists such as British sculptor Antony Gormley, the Arte Povera figure Giuseppe Penone and Urgessa, whose work focuses on social criticism, race and the politics of identity.
Though he initially felt out of place at the Uffizi — especially given the preponderance of the biblical content — Urgessa said in a telephone interview that he was welcomed there by visitors and that the setting seemed to be changing from “something of the past, like the pyramids.
“Nowadays people want to hear about a new story,” he added, “a story related to their lives.”
Schmidt said he is committed to dedicating at least two exhibitions a year to female artists. For example, last February, the Uffizi presented “Lo Sfregio” (“The Scar”), a show that took a stand against violence against women by presenting Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bust of the disfigured Costanza Piccolomini Bonarelli alongside Ilaria Sagaria’s photo exhibition “Pain is not a privilege” , portraying the victims of acid attacks.
With exhibitions, the Uffizi also tries to break the boundaries of its white, male, Eurocentric history. With ‘On Being Present’ in 2020, the museum explored black identity in paintings, such as the wise man in Dürer’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ and the portraits of Ethiopian kings in the Giovio series. That same year, the Uffizi presented an exhibition on women, power and emancipation in ancient Rome.
“In a dramatic shift from the norm,” said Lisa Marie Browne, the executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Uffizi Gallery, Schmidt has “taken the Uffizi Gallery from a Renaissance Museum to a 2022 renaissance.”
In its purchases, the Uffizi has branched out, adding to its collection a work by street artist Endless, who donated it, and 52 self-portraits of Italian comic artists last fall.
With the goal of reaching “as many people as possible,” Schmidt said in a statement at the time, “I’m confident it will deliver great results and be the precursor to many other ‘crossovers’.”
In redefining what Uffizi territory is, the museum has unbuttoned its collar in outreach efforts, a process accelerated by the needs of the pandemic. It launched the “Uffizi Diffusi” program, which takes art from storage and sends it to various places in the surrounding region of Tuscany in a series of thematically arranged presentations.
Despite only getting a website in 2015 – Schmidt said the museum was “in the Stone Age” – the Uffizi has become an unlikely social media phenomenon, with nearly 700,000 followers on Instagram; over 100,000 on TikTok and nearly 128,000 on Facebook.
It also recently launched a YouTube cooking show called “Uffizi da Mangiare” (or “Uffizi on the Plate”) in which chefs prepare meals inspired by works in the collection.
Schmidt said he is seeing results; visitors aged 19 to 25 “more than doubled” in the year leading up to 2020, he said.
Likewise, Galansino said that by displaying contemporary artists — such as Ai Weiwei and, next fall, Olafur Eliasson — his museum has attracted a new audience, more than 30 percent of whom are under the age of 30.
Given the efforts of museums such as the Strozzi and the Uffizi, as well as Florence’s convenient location between the cosmopolitan centers of Rome and Milan, Galansino said he is confident that Florence can become “a contemporary art city.”
“I think we’ve convinced the public that contemporary art is just as important as old masters,” Galansino said. “People lost the perception of Florence as a living place, but it is still a living place. It’s not just living in the past.”