Apollo Magazine

Major leadership changes in Italian museums

Plus: the Academy of Arts in Berlin warns against violations of civil liberties in Germany and the Met returns 14 trafficked artefacts to Cambodia and Thailand

Uffizi director Eike Schmidt in front of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, at the reopening of the gallery’s room dedicated to the artist in 2016. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Uffizi director Eike Schmidt in front of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, at the reopening of the gallery’s room dedicated to the artist in 2016. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

The Italian culture ministry has replaced ten leading directors, several of them foreign-born, with Italian appointees.

The German-born Eike Schmidt (now an Italian citizen) is leaving the Uffizi – a role he took up in 2015 when he became the museum’s first-ever non-Italian director – to join Naples’s Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, where he is replacing the French art historian Sylvain Bellenger. Schmidt is being joined in a supporting capacity by Cecilie Hollberg, a German national who is approaching the end of her term as director of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.

Schmidt will be succeeded at the Uffizi by Simone Verde, who is currently leading Parma’s Pilotta Monumental Complex. In Milan, at the Pinoteca di Brera, the British Canadian James Bradburne is being replaced by Angelo Crespi, president of Museo MAGA in nearby Gallarate.

Not all of the switch-ups see Italians replacing non-Italians – Renata Cristina Mazzantini is taking over from the Italian-born Cristiana Collu at the head of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, for example – but the preponderance of foreign citizens in leading positions at many of the country’s museums came at the behest of the previous culture minister, Dario Franceschini; seven of the 20 museum directors he appointed in 2015 were not Italian.

Franceschini modified his approach in 2020, as part of a coalition government with more prominent right-leaning elements, when he appointed 13 new museum directors, only one of whom was from abroad: the French-born Stéphane Verger, who is nearing the end of his first term as the director of the Museo Nazionale Romano.

The approach being taken by the current administration – which earlier this year brought in a bill proposing a fine of up to €100,000 for any company using English words or phrases in official communications – is more explicitly nativist. Culture ministry undersecretary Vittorio Sgarbi said of foreign-born museum directors in August: ‘We arrived, they leave. Why do I have to put a foreign director at the Uffizi? Have you ever seen a foreigner [run] the Louvre?’ The undersecretary later revealed that he had only been joking.

On 15 December, the Academy of Arts in Berlin published a statement by its president Jeanine Meerapf, titled ‘In Defence of Artistic Freedom’ and warning against ‘violations of civil liberties that are unacceptable for a democratic nation’. In recent months, a number of exhibitions have been cancelled in Germany owing to comments by artists or curators on the ongoing conflict in Israel. In November a show of work by the South African artist Candice Breitz, who is Jewish, was pulled by the Saarlandmuseum in Saarbrücken, which said that it would not support the work of any artist ‘who does not clearly recognise Hamas’s terror as a breach of civilisation’. Breitz, who is Jewish and has described the ‘climate in Germany’ as one of ‘McCarthyist zeal’, said on Instagram that the statement from the Academy of Arts was ‘vague and toothless’ – ‘too little, too late’ – and that she was withdrawing her membership from the academy.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has begun the process of restituting 14 sculptures to Cambodia and two to Thailand, thereby divesting the museum of all Angkorian works associated with the late Douglas Latchford who was convicted of trafficking antiquities. The Met reached the decision to return the objects based on information from Cambodian officials and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Several of the works, including a monumental stone head of Buddha (7th century), will remain on view in its South East Asian art galleries while arrangements are made for their return. The Met’s actions follow a number of institutions who have restituted artworks trafficked by Latchford, including Denver Art Museum and the National Gallery of Australia. In June this year, Latchford’s daughter, Julia Copleston, agreed to forfeit $12m from the dealer’s estate in part-settlement of a civil case regarding stolen Cambodian artefacts.

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