Florence is renown the world over as the cradle of Renaissance art and culture as well as the city with the greatest worldwide concentration of works of art in proportion to its size, but its contemporary art program getting richer by the year is perhaps not generally known. We talked with Tommaso Sacchi to highlight how enlightened administrators may lead a city to growth and development by enhancing its history while driving it towards contemporary arts, turning culture into a growing strength that becomes a source of social and economic benefits for the whole city. During our conversation, Sacchi told us about the relationship that an artist of such calibre as Antony Gormley established last year with the city of Florence while developing his site-specific project at the Forte Belvedere. He also named the artists that will be interacting with the Tuscan regional capital in the current year, among whom Jan Fabre, Erwin Wurm, Ai Weiwei and Tino Sehgal. Florence should become a model for the still too many institutions believing that culture doesn’t pay the bills.
Florence turning to contemporary
A conversation with Tommaso Sacchi, Head of the Cultural Department Secretariat of the City of Florence and Curator of the Estate Fiorentina Multimedia Art Festival
Conversation transcription below
Tiziana Casapietra: How do you think an international city such a Florence, acknowledged the world over for its extraordinary history, can characterize itself as a contemporary art city?
Tommaso Sacchi: I’m glad you thought of Florence. Let’s take a few minutes to talk about the imprint it received firstly from its mayor, Dario Nardella, who decided to invest rather strongly on visual and performative contemporary art in a city where — historically — it wasn’t always easy to talk about contemporary art authoritatively, perhaps also due to a sort of prejudice. The Florentine people’s strong self-esteem and pride — which at times can almost seem exaggerated — in this case translate into great care for the city.
Florence boasts 100 museums in little more than 100 Km2, an extraordinary figure; I recall the initial talks about the Firenze Card, the tool that connects them all and allows visiting 72 museums in 72 hours with 72 Euro. When I got to know the city better, I realized that museums, house-museums and private foundations, together with the heritage and the civic and national museums, add up to more than 100. The civic Florentine museums alone attracted this year more than 1,450,000 visitors, mainly to the Palazzo Vecchio, which attracted almost 700,000 visitors alone in 2015. These are very large numbers. Culture plays a key role in Florence, especially in the community’s economic system. The Estate Fiorentina’s (Florentine summer) budget this year will reach 700,000 Euro, a start-up budget that allows almost 100 associations — as was the case in 2015 and as we want it to be in 2016 — to activate co-financing, ticketing and sponsorship systems.
The economic multiplier exceeds 2.5-3 points, which means that the resources invested in an event and a program like the Estate Fiorentina are tripled.
Let’s now talk about the contemporary art names that helped us with strength and conviction in working on the contemporary theme. You referred to revamping, which may be too strong of a term, but it gives a proper idea of the operation we organized last year with several protagonists of the international art scene.
Above all, I will definitely mention Antony Gormley and his large solo exhibition (Editor’s note: “Human”, April the 26th – September the 27th 2015) at the Forte Belvedere, which exceeded 170,000 visitors. It gave back to this enchanting, magical and extraordinary place a primary role in the geography of national public art locations.
Nowadays, the Forte Belvedere is sought after by several artists on the global scene, both for its charm and its privileged position with respect to the city, on which it offers a really breathtaking 360° view, as well as for the leading role played by great artists and great works of art — such as Antony Gormley’s anthropomorphic figures — in making it very special.
Those metal bodies and the layout of the agglomerated human figures gave an even more dreamlike sense to a place that is in itself a privileged setting above the city of Florence.
When Antony Gormley got to the Palazzo Vecchio, he asked mayor Nardella for a meeting which was attended by me, the exhibition curators Sergio Risaliti and Arabella Natalini, the mayor himself and the MUS.E staff — the municipality’s subsidiary association that takes care of the main contemporary art productions.
I recall that he came to Florence with a miniature of his works in which he showed a very precise idea. He immediately closed the debate on the where and when, thanks to his consistency, his unique knowledge and the great elegance of the layout, while describing what he expected from the Forte Belvedere to the mayor. The preview created by his studio with plastic human figures gave us an idea of how great artists such as Antony Gormley can interpret a location like that without being predictable, showy or too flamboyant, using the location rather than interpreting it. Gormley succeeded instead in interpreting the location and managed to read it in a completely new way; everybody agreed — I received no negative opinions on this — that he managed to create an absolutely unique context that attracted people from all over the world.
I would like to immediately connect to the next protagonist at the Forte Belvedere, whose approach to such a location will not be easy but who definitely has all it takes to succeed. We called in Jan Fabre, whose exhibition will begin at the Forte Belvedere in April also with a presence in Piazza della Signoria. He is currently working both to interpret the Forte Belvedere and to connect the above with the below in Florence’s civic, public and political centre, which is the Piazza della Signoria, the Palazzo Vecchio’s location. The exhibition will last until October 2016. This year, Fabre held a precious retrospective (Editor’s note: “Knight of the night”, by Bruno Corà, October the 2nd – December the 18th 2015) at the Il Ponte Di Firenze Gallery, therefore I could meet and talk to him. He is taking care of an extraordinary production as well; and I’m not using this adjective to describe what I hope will be the magnificence of Fabre’s operation but rather to define a site-specific work dedicated to Florence.
This is the interpretation key we want for large contemporary art exhibitions: to avoid working on touring exhibitions that move all over the world and then reach Florence, or in any case that start in Florence and then tour the world over. Before the exhibition installation and inauguration, important exhibition events — as Florence can only be connected to very important and relevant projects — must undergo a design process aimed exclusively at the location and the small part of the city allocated to the artist. Erwin Wurm — maybe the greatest Austrian contemporary artist in terms of fame and a completely different one from those we mentioned up to now — will also be in town in September. The production of Wurm’s solo exhibition will see, besides the Novecento museum as the main exhibition location for his works, a central installation of public art in Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, the square where the Novecento museum is located. He will also be present in what we consider a sort of narrow laboratory on the arts and the contemporary: the Murate di Firenze, a location that currently hosts the Le Murate Progetti di Arte Contemporanea (PAC) and that includes several subjects: they partly pertain to the world of culture, including the municipality’s cultural departments, but also include some living quarters on the upper floors as well as the Caffè Letterario, where book presentations and a multitude of various debates are carried out on a daily basis and which is also one of the locations of the Estate Fiorentina. It’s a unique spot for the city that nurtures this district-based dimension. Although a former prison, therefore a place of duress, it is today set to become a place of debate and exchange, as well as an exhibition location enriched with a great turnover of ideas. The space dedicated to contemporary art within the Murate includes for example a residence for artists, which this year accommodated 204 artists and performers in residency. The residence is connected with the Kennedy Foundation, another presence in this large district. When Erwin came to Florence, we visited the Murate with Valentina Gensini, which is the artistic director of the Le Murate Progetti di Arte Contemporanea, and he expressed his desire to place another of his works there. It’s not an easy or predictable choice for Florence, which is a slightly removed location. But it is also a place that makes sense, which is to say where an artist of Wurm’s calibre and intelligence understands that the presence of one of his large works may have a key role: it obviously stimulates thought and creates attention in a socially active and artistically lively environment.
We can close the 2016 review with the large exhibitions that Arturo Galansino and the chairman Lorenzo Bini Smaghi launched for the Palazzo Strozzi season. Two very large events that will be very central and which we expect to achieve great results in terms of numbers are the Guggenheim Collection (Editor’s note: by Massimo Barbero, March the 19th – July the 24th 2016), which will totally invade Palazzo Strozzi and needs no introduction, and Ai Weiwei’s event which will follow shortly in September. Ai Weiwei will bring another work dedicated to this great Florentine institution and the city of Florence. It’s a totally new project, never seen before. This intervention will somehow involve and shake up the whole palace.
I would also like to mention the Estate Fiorentina. In Florence, we have 230 associations working in the cultural segment in general, and these are the targets when we publish the bid for the activities of the Estate Fiorentina, a rather sought-after event for the many cultural stakeholders and players. This year we decided to continue working on the molecular format of important presences in the six months from May to October.
Whatever the bid, which allows the associations to call the attention of the commission that will evaluate the summer event’s artistic convenience and schedule on their proposals, we will bring seven large projects in seven city locations that will in fact be the framework of the Estate Fiorentina 2016. To name one, we considered the virtuous and rather unexplored relationship between the fashion world, which is to say Pitti, and the protagonists of the contemporary scene. Dario Nardella decided to create Pitti Contemporanea, a new cultural brand — to use a term I don’t particularly like but that works — addressing the pair formed by fashion and contemporary art, which we expect to strengthen in the coming years. Pitti Contemporanea brings about a new working approach that will involve the municipality of Florence’s cultural department and Pitti Immagine. We have started talks with Pitti ‘s management, which confirmed its favour for the project right from the start. With Raffaello Napoleone, Lapo Cianchi and the whole Pitti team, we have started to consider what it would mean to call upon the protagonists of the Florentine contemporary cultural scene, paying particular attention to the languages of visual art and working on fresh and previously unexplored locations. We will definitely resume the design of a temporal institution with Tino Sehgal and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who, as a great friend of the city, accepted Stefano Boeri’s invitation on the margins of the Estate Fiorentina 2014 to consider Florence as a city of residence. Hans-Ulrich also said that Florence is the city where extreme forms of contemporaneity can be experimented, and I can see part of my work in his statement.
English translation: Fulvio Giglio