Eike Schmidt speaks: this is why I chose Vienna. But now there are the Uffizi

Interview with Uffizi Galleries director Eike Schmidt on his future move to Vienna and upcoming projects in Florence.

In recent days, Austrian Culture Minister Thomas Drozda announced that the current director of the Uffizi, Eike Schmidt, will be the next director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Eike Schmidt will therefore leave the Florentine museum at the end of his term. We caught up with him to find out the reasons for his decision and to take stock of what has been done at the Uffizi and what still needs to be done. Interview by Federico D. Giannini, editor in chief of our newspaper.

Eike Schmidt
Eike Schmidt. Courtesy Ufficio Stampa Uffizi

FDG. Dr. Schmidt, what aspects influenced your move to Vienna the most?
ES. The first is the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It is one of the largest museum centers in the world, comparable in importance and richness to the Uffizi, the Vatican Museums, the Louvre... but it is still difficult to make comparisons, considering the fact that the museum in Vienna contains the imperial collections of the Holy Roman Empire, and then of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. It is a collection that has grown over the span of a millennium, and moreover, it is strong from a period of more than one hundred and fifty years of harmony with the Uffizi. There is no other museum in the world so strongly linked to the Uffizi’s collecting history: from this point of view, therefore, I see it as a logical continuation of my work in Florence. The other important factor is the role of the Kunsthistorisches Museum as a research center. Unfortunately, in many museums around the world, less and less research is being done. In contrast, the Kunsthistorisches Museum is one of the great research centers, like the Louvre, which is on the same rank as the Viennese museum, or like some American museums, starting with the Getty and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. So I would say that the main aspects are just these two: the collections and the research activities.

On the other hand, how much did certain bureaucratic vicissitudes weigh on your decision (I am thinking of the Lazio Regional Administrative Court affair) and, on the other hand, political instability on which, moreover, the question of the 2018 elections hangs?
I would say little. It is no secret that there is this possibility of a one-time renewal of the mandate: so says the text of the legislation. I would say that this needs to be emphasized well, because it goes beyond any election. It is a structural aspect: I think the principle of rotation is a healthy principle. It has been practiced for a long time in other fields (I’m thinking of the carabinieri, the fire brigade, diplomacy... indeed: in diplomacy it has been a principle introduced since the eighteenth century) and it helps to bring fresh air into institutions. That is why I was very surprised by certain reactions, such as those that would have me unhappy with Italy. It was clear to everyone that mine is a pro tempore mandate, an expiring mandate. I see nothing wrong with that, and in my opinion it is good that it is so.

About the reactions: the disgruntled were really many. Here: could this cloak of negativity, in your opinion, create a climate of distrust around the new directors?
Well, this climate of distrust has existed since day one, and it is nothing new. In fact I think it’s also quite amusing to observe that those who think it’s a scandal that Eike Schmidt is leaving are the same people who, in 2015, thought it was a scandal that Eike Schmidt was coming... ! So this climate is there, but not only that: now as then there is also a strong polemical vein. However, I don’t see this polemical streak as an entirely negative aspect. I am very much in favor of public discussion of everything, even if the tones are sometimes disliked, because interesting new things often emerge. This is a dialectical principle that I think is very good and necessary for a functioning democracy.

Do you fear that your decision may have repercussions for your work at the Uffizi? I am thinking, for example, of the relationship with the employees, the relationship with the unions and, indeed, also the relationship with those who continue to be hostile to the new directors...
It is very ironic in my opinion that a mayor, whose term of office will end in May 2019, has asked on this grounds that a new director for the Uffizi Galleries be appointed immediately, even though my term of office will end only in November 2019, six months after his. One must realize that I have not even done half of my term: I have been at the Uffizi for twenty months, and I have twenty-six months ahead of me. So I would say that those who thought I was going to nail myself to the seat, among those who were against museum reform, should be quite happy that someone else is coming.... ! But perhaps they fear that someone even stronger, fresher or with more energy will come, although I must say that I am already so committed that it is hard to imagine such a thing. However, it is still speculation. I still have the same energy that I had at the beginning and I have the same will to carry out the program of renewal of the reform of MiBACT, in accordance with the ideal of the first museum reform in the world, made at the Uffizi in 1769 by Peter Leopold of Tuscany. A reform that even then intended to put research, education and outreach at the center of the museum. This is how museums were founded, this is the sense of museums, and this is true all over the world. And this sense, in the last few decades, has been somewhat lost: but this is true all over the world, and my criticism is not meant to address specific institutions.

The move will take place at the end of your term: it is true that in Austria there is a propensity to do planning with the long term in mind, and no one questions that. But why do you think the announcement was made so far in advance? Planning is one thing, announcing is another....
I read your article on Saturday, I found it very well written and also very convincing, however I do not agree with the basic premise, and I will tell you why right away. Minister Drozda has appointed several new directors for the most important cultural institutions inAustria. This year, in addition to the director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, he has appointed the director of the Staatsoper and the Burgtheater, and this was a few months ago, long before there was any thought of elections in Austria. And even in those cases, my future colleagues will start their terms in 2019 and 2020, so I don’t see it as taking the form of an operation in view of the Austrian elections. It is, if anything, a political strategy that Drozda has been pursuing since the beginning of his term, because he has been doing that with other executives as well, that is, announcing two or three years before the start of service. Then, another argument that contradicts the alleged connection of the early appointments with the upcoming elections in Austria, is the fact that in Austria and Germany it is a very common practice to plan (and announce) the winner already two or three years in advance. It was also done this way in Berlin--in short, it is not an oddity.

There is, however, to be said that no consideration was given to what might have arisen in Italy as a result of such an announcement....
Well, for me, personally, it would have been much easier if the announcement had been made later, that’s clear. And anyway now you know, the announcement was given with great transparency, and I believe that sometimes you need to be very transparent even if it makes life a little less easy...

We conclude with a couple of questions about future projects at the Uffizi. In your opinion, what are the priorities between now and 2020?
Our priorities do not change from those already announced when I was appointed inAugust 2015. I would say that the main priority is the fact that visiting the Uffizi is often a torture, even before it begins: visitors, because of the queues, often arrive at the entrance to the Gallery already exhausted. On this we have started a research project together with the University of L’Aquila. Professor Muccini is considered among the best international specialists in the field of flow management. At the time I also sounded out the possibility of turning to American specialists, but in the end the choice fell onAquila precisely because they have gone beyond what others have done, and moreover they are also close by, fromAbruzzo to Florence you can get there much more easily than fromAmerica. What’s more, the Aquilans have a deep understanding of the Italian situation. It’s not about writing some new software-it’s really about new sociological and socio-economic research. It is true that the social sciences are not exact sciences, and you always have to experiment, but we have put some of the components of the future system to the test precisely during these months of free Sundays, and we have seen that with a few variables you can actually shorten the queues substantially. To give you an example, during the last free Sunday, the one three days ago, no one waited in line for more than an hour, while on paid admission days in the past months, we sometimes even recorded waits of about three hours. Therefore, shortening the queues remains the top priority.

One last question: if you were to take stock of these first two years at the helm of the Uffizi, what would you most like to emphasize?
I would like to put the emphasis on cultural programming, which is often forgotten, especially by those who look at the museum with this somewhat housewife-like attitude, attentive to the drop of water that falls, but without looking well at cultural programming, at exhibitions. We’ve had some extraordinary exhibitions: I’m thinking, for example, of Splendid Minimum, one of the most beautiful exhibitions we’ve seen, and based on research, an aspect that for me remains an indispensable principle in evaluating an exhibition. I always look to see if there are strong elements of research and scientific disclosure, created specifically for the occasion of the exhibitions we program. Then I also think about the dialogue that cultural programming can establish, and here I would like to give the example of contemporary art, but also of the introduction, in the museum, of dance, theater and music, which do not use the museum as a frame (I think this is a very old-fashioned concept, and yet, unfortunately, also very frequent), but create a dialogue and a content tension between the work of visual art and live art. And I think that getting live art inside a museum is really very important. Similarly, among the exhibitions that are about to open, I would like to emphasize the exhibition on Cardinal Leopold, which will be full of scientific novelties, and then the exhibition on Ejzenštejn, which among other things opens up again towards cinema, also a bit to continue the initiative of outdoor cinema this summer in collaboration with the City of Florence. Another exhibition, extended until October, is the Homage to the Grand Duke exhibition on the plates of San Giovanni: it is an amplified version of the exhibition that is at the Bargello on Doccia. We have covered almost the entire history of Doccia in the 1800s, and it is a very important chapter in the history of Doccia porcelain, which has never been written about until now: seeing these two exhibitions as a diptych makes you realize the full importance of this manufactory, saved as a museum just this year, thanks to the collaboration between the City of Sesto Fiorentino, MiBACT and private funders. I would like to add still other exhibitions that I feel it is important to mention: I would like to emphasize the importance of the cycle on women artists, which are held every year with an exhibition on a woman artist of the past and a woman artist of the present. A project that started this year, which we will continue next year, but we are already defining the women artists for 2019 as well, and we also have ideas for 2020.

It has always been about research exhibitions ...
Yes, this is important. We have never done blockbuster exhibitions in any way. Then, with our exhibitions, art historical officers have always been able to devote themselves to the reason they won their competitions, which is to do research and education. Here, continuing to talk about the aspects I would like to put the emphasis on: from the administrative point of view, I have taken away a lot of responsibilities from the art historical officers, a lot of management time wasted, and given them to the administrative officers. I have founded a legal department, which also deals with contracts so that these matters that, in the past, weighed on the shoulders of the art historical officials, and only took time away from research and education, are entrusted to dedicated personnel. This administrative work that I have initiated in my first two years is not apparent to the general public, but it is nevertheless essential, I see it as plowing work, and only after the plowing work can one begin to sow. And I think that the fruits are already being seen, in the exhibitions but also in the publications: there is also a really large number of scientific publications produced by the officials, which are being prepared, and some of these volumes should come out this year, and others will be published next year.

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