MILAN (AP) — Seven foreigners were named Tuesday to run some of Italy's most prestigious museums, including the famed Uffizi Gallery in Florence, after the government opened up top museum jobs to international competition for the first time in what the culture minister described as "an historic step."
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini named directors to 20 of the country's top museums, including seven foreigners and four Italians returning from posts abroad, as part of a general reform of the museum system that he described as being too focused on preservation and not enough on investment and modernization.
The foreigners included German Eike Schmidt as director of the Uffizi — one of the world's oldest museums housing such treasures as Botticelli's "Primavera" and Leonardo's "Adoration of the Magi" — Briton James Bradburne to the Brera picture gallery in Milan and Frenchman Sylvain Bellenger to the Capodimonte in Naples.
Schmidt, a 47-year-old art historian who is currently a curator for decorative arts at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, said he would first focus on the visitor experience at Uffizi and on developing programs for children and teenagers.
"If someone from America and China comes to the Uffizi and starts the visit by standing in line for two to three hours, that is not the ideal way to begin," Schmidt told The Associated Press over the telephone.
Evolving technologies for purchasing tickets online and via smartphones could be part of the solution, he said, but evaluations are needed to see what works in the Italian context. Schmidt has previously held positions at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Between 1994 and 2001 he worked at the German-funded Art History Institute in Florence and he also curated a show at the Pitti Palace in Florence two years ago.
"I will certainly bring international experiences to the process, but I think it is also important, and I imagine that it might have played a role, that I am quite familiar with the Italian system," he said.
Franceschini actively sought foreign candidates for the jobs, publishing advertisements in publications abroad to attract experts from around the world with the aim of making Italian museums more dynamic in both their services and fundraising. He also has pledged to give museum directors more autonomy.
"Modernizing our museums means better protecting our treasures, but also investing in the growth of the country," Franceschini told SkyTG 24, adding that museum visitors today expect multi-media exhibits, cafeterias on site and educational laboratories for children.
Franceschini said the recruitment process was only part of cultural reforms he has enacted, citing also a move to make Italy's 400 state museums free on the first Sunday of the month. He said the policy had boosted visitor numbers to 40 million last year, up by 2.6 million from a year earlier.
Still, Italy's museums are generally seen as being under-exploited: only five receive more than a million visitors a year, including the Uffizi and the Pantheon in Rome.
While the recruitment choices were greeted with diplomacy, some in Italy criticized the process. Vittorio Sgarbi, a former Milan culture official and well-known commentator, said Franceschini had demoralized his troops with the new recruitment system, calling it "a dangerous political act."
"There are capable people among the 20 selected, but I don't believe that the new director of the Uffizi ... is better than the outgoing," Sgarbi was quoted by the news agency ANSA as saying.
For his part, outgoing Uffizi director Antonio Natali told ANSA that he hadn't expected to retain the post after the changes were announced but that he was no longer bitter.
"I was bitter when I understood the script. But I continued to work as always, as if I would remain at the Uffizi until the year 3000," he said.
This story has been corrected to show the correct spelling of Sgarbi's first name is Vittorio, not Vittori.