“In Florence exhibitions on old masters are more successful than exhibitions on contemporary artists!”
Eike Schmidt was appointed Director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence by Dario Franceschini, the Italian Minister of Culture. He is the first non-Italian to be Director of the Uffizi since the museum opened to the public in 1765.
You are Director of the Uffizi since one year. What has changed?
I was nominated exactly a year ago, and I started in early November last year. My project is the reform of a group of about a dozen museums that are in the process of merging into one museum.
What do you mean by that?
Minister Franceschini decreed that the Uffizi and the various museums of the Pitti Palace should all become one museum: including the Galleria degli Uffizi, the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, the Vasari Corridor, and in the Palazzo Pitti the Galleria Palatina, the Museo degli Argenti (recently renamed Il Tesoro dei Granduchi), the Porcelain Museum, the Fashion and Costumes Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Carriage Museum (Museo delle Carrozze), the very important collection of Tapestries (now called the Museo degli Arazzi), and the Boboli Gardens.
How do you manage this change?
Over the past nine months, step-by-step, all these museums have merged into functional units, and offices with overlapping tasks have been streamlined into one central administration. This work is behind the scenes, but soon visitors will see the results as it will have been completed by the end of this year. We will have one exhibitions department as opposed to several – it has happened in the past that a painting was promised to different exhibitions at the same time, and that is not a risk any more! A new division I founded earlier this year is the digital communications department. We had to get back the web address www.Uffizi.it as it was being used by someone else, and we repurchased the domain name at a very low cost. We put up a simple basic website immediately, and are working on a fully developed state-of-the-art website which shall be launched in the coming winter. To connect with younger audiences especially we have just launched @UffiziGalleries as Twitter and Instagram accounts, and immediately got over 2000 followers. It’s a great start, and we will be continuing from here on.
How many visitors come every year?
3.4 million visitors each year, of which almost 2 million come to the Uffizi on the northern side of the Arno River, and a little more than 1.4 million come to see the Boboli Gardens and the Pitti Palace.
Will a visitor be able to have a single ticket to see everything?
Yes, but you can spend an entire day in the Uffizi and not see everything, so we will create individual destination tickets. Now tickets at the Pitti Palace are complicated and confusing, and we will have one ticket for the Pitti Palace and one ticket for the Boboli Gardens, and also in future one ticket for the whole thing.
The entrance queue is often intolerable, sometimes over two hours?
Even worse – it can be more than three hours! This is a problem that has grown since the 1990s, and is based on an old fashioned system of lining up for your ticket that was used on the trains in the 60s and 70s. With modern technology it can be resolved. We are working with the IT Department of the University of L’Aquila on a model to electronically manage the flow of people. It is a comparable system to those used on mass transportation systems such as for planes.
Why is the queue so long?
It is due to the fact that, together with the Accademia Gallery, we are the most visited museum by square footage but the corridor structure with rooms adjacent to it is not a museum structure. It was planned as ‘Uffizi’, for offices, and simply was not built for mass tourism. But it is adaptable and can be better managed using the modern people flow technology which we hope to start rolling out experimentally next summer and to implement in 2018. The IT Department at L’Aquila has one of the best teams in the world for this kind of task.
Do you plan to add exhibition space?
We are in the process of adding a lot of exhibition space that comes from the inside of the old building. The ‘Nuovi Uffizi’ project started in 2006 and is a bit more than half way through, but now we will be going much faster thanks to receiving 58 million Euros from the government in order to complete it.
Museum visitors go to see icons, for example ‘La Gioconda’ in the Louvre. What are the icons of the Uffizi?
There is nothing wrong with going to see icons, but one really hopes that people go to watch and see and look and not just to take a selfie in front of an icon, which is a wasted opportunity. Our foremost icons are works by Botticelli (‘The Birth of Venus’ and ‘Primavera’), together with works by Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo. Also Piero della Francesca’s portraits of the Duke of Urbino and his wife are true icons, not just of our museum but of art history altogether. On the art market we see individual masterpieces sell for tens of millions, whereas entire categories sell for a very low price. This tendency is far beyond a particular period of time, and we see it every day as people rush to see the bucket-list masterpieces. We want to slow visitors down in front of these masterpieces, to try and motivate people to actually study them.
The queues will grow even longer?
Not necessarily, because we have so many masterpieces. Right now everything is in one viewing chain. You get in through one door and everybody goes on the same route within the museum, and along the way you can’t get out even if you are tired and hungry. In future we will have multiple doors and stairways created in the ‘Nuovi Uffizi’ construction project, and some people will be able to start with one masterpiece and some with another. What happens now creates a bottleneck, and the first rooms are crammed but other rooms that come later are half empty.
With so many visitors do you need to plan exhibitions?
In the past the big shows were always on view in the summer, when it is already too crowded. I will programme the major exhibitions for the autumn and spring. There is a mid-season and low-season even in Florence, so the shows can be seen at non-peak times. Moreover a separate exhibition space is being opened this winter, and people will be able to get into that directly with a separate ticket.
Is the Uffizi up to the standard of other great European museums like the Louvre, the Prado, the National Gallery, the Kunsthistorisches?
As far as enabling the visitor to have a great museum experience, the Uffizi is far away from that and there is a lot of work to be done. It is a visitor unfriendly museum, and that needs to be changed. Otherwise, in terms of scholarship, conservation and research, it is entirely on a par with other museums worldwide. The issue is where the museum encounters its public audience, but the good thing is our world renowned scholarship, and for conservation and restoration we are state of the art, top world class.
As a scholar and an intellectual are these practical responsibilities difficult for you?
No. There is a risk that comes from separation of the managerial and scholarly roles, just as in any field of human endeavour. If you run a company, it is good that as a manager you also have a deep knowledge of the technology. My arts background means I do not have to ask other people for this. In the past I was a Director at Sotheby’s and I was also a Department Head in a museum, and it is really an advantage to put both fields together. Pure management without artistic knowledge might make decisions that work on paper but not in fact. And purely scholarly decisions might make sense to other scholars but not to those who come because they love art and want to enjoy it.
Will museums have a different role in society because of the new technologies?
We should not close our eyes to the technological revolution, but it is how you use this technology that is really important. In museums we have the works actually present. This new concentration on individual masterpieces has something to do with the digital revolution, readily available images on the worldwide web leads to this cult of the masterpiece. Walter Benjamin wrote about this in his 1936 essay on the photographic reproducibility of works of art, and what we experience now confirms that we can use technology to get people’s attention back to the works of art.
Contemporary art has the leading role all over the world. How do you explain the crowds at the Uffizi?
Waves always evolve in different ways. Early Victorians focussed on now completely forgotten contemporary artists, and at that time people could put together fabulous collections of old masters. In a way we are in a comparable situation. New money defines itself through contemporary art, especially in America, but in the 19th Century interest in old masters grew back very quickly. Famous contemporary artists visit the Uffizi practically every day and they have the highest respect for old masters. In Florence exhibitions on old masters are more successful than exhibitions on contemporary artists. Florence is one of the few places on the planet where we see this astonishing phenomenon.
Why is the Metropolitan Museum in New York so involved in developing its contemporary art collection?
This is not a surprise in places where contemporary art is being collected and new money is being made. New York has been the centre of collecting contemporary art since the 1950s because of the volume of money. Museums cannot ignore that.
The same is true in London, where we see the recently opened new wing of the Tate Modern?
Yes, absolutely, and from the middle of the 17th Century the Uffizi has collected contemporary artists’ self-portraits, from Annibale Carracci and Raphael to John Singer Sargent, Giorgio Morandi and Robert Rauschenberg, and I am continuing to do this. It is a shame that these artists’ self-portraits are not regularly accessible because the Vasari Corridor is only open to one per cent of our visitors, but I am hoping to showcase these works in future.
Will you sell some of the many great works you have in storage?
To sell works of art because of a need for money is wrong. Selling major assets is self-destructive, and there is a kind of urban myth about our works in storage; the best of the best is on view and the second best is somewhere else. Particularly since World War 2 the second best works of art of the Uffizi go to decorate government offices, embassies, police stations. It is the third best that are in storage, and these are often heavily damaged works.
Do you want to buy works and add to the collection?
Yes, we do. The first purchases I made were three drawings on the market earlier this year, and now we are about to buy a painting and a sculpture. It is not easy to find the same level of quality that also makes sense to add to the collection. In private collections in Florence and in Italy there would be perhaps a dozen or more works of enough historical and artistic importance to be in the Uffizi. Even if we had all the money in the world we could not necessarily add much.
It would be too expensive to buy a Caravaggio or a Rembrandt?
Right now we can’t, but we pay our bills with our income and are already self-sustaining, and one of my tasks is to make it even more so. I hope in future to build up an acquisition fund to acquire these rare works when they very occasionally come up on the market.
In Italy works of art over fifty years old cannot leave the country?
To leave they need to be vetted through the exportation committee, and if they are sold within Italy it needs to be reported. This is rigorous compared with other countries, but recently Germany and Switzerland have introduced firmer exportation laws compared to the past. The UK’s system is very pragmatic and I like and admire it.
What about making loans?
We lend several hundred works of art to exhibitions all over the world every year. Transportation gets more and more expensive and the conservation state of some works suffers. The digital revolution will bring change, as nowadays you can have digital exhibitions even on your own screen. Compare this to fifty years ago, when the only possibility was to see exhibitions in your own town. Now people can easily hop on an aeroplane to see them elsewhere, and thanks to high definition technology in future you will be able to see such detail of a great work on screen that we won’t have to send the actual painting.
Will the new museum reforms in Italy make a real difference to the way you can operate? Is there some hostility?
I am very optimistic. The opportunity we have here as new Directors is absolutely fascinating, but with freedom a greater responsibility comes on our shoulders. We now have advantages that none of our predecessors had. We are not copying a model from one country to another country, but opening up procedures that have worked very well in other countries and are adapted to make a specific solution for each museum.
Is security one of your major concerns at the moment?
Of course we are very mindful of security issues. The Uffizi was already on a very high level of security, and after the Paris attacks I asked our engineers and architects to see where we could further improve. We are in constant contact with law enforcement agencies, and the Carabinieri have their Tuscan base within the Pitti Palace, which is one of our buildings. An excellent thing! Communication is rather quick and we can collaborate on these issues very closely. Through the Ministry of the Interior we have armed forces on the Uffizi square 24 hours a day, especially trained for anti-terrorism. It is essential to have them there in order to prevent any attacks. 100% security is never possible, but it is crucial to really do everything that can humanly be done.
Enjoy this interview? Share it with your friends.
All images supplied and used by kind permission of the Uffizi.