THE FLORENCE OF THE FUTURE. Arturo Galansino is the Director General of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation in Florence since 2015. His impressive career as an art historian and curator had previously taken him to the Musée du Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery and Royal Academy of Arts in London.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Arturo Galansino, what is the Palazzo Strozzi?
The Palazzo Strozzi, a landmark in Florence, is the prototype of the Renaissance palace. It was founded in 1489 by Filippo Strozzi. A banker and trader, at the time he was one of the richest men in the world. An enemy of the Medicis, he wanted a notable return from exile and it took 30 years to build this incredible palazzo which belonged to the Strozzi family for almost five centuries. Sold to the Italian state in 1939, after the Second World War, and after years of restoration, Palazzo Strozzi became an exhibition space and a place for culture. Four institutions are here now: the Gabinetto Vieusseux, the National Institute of Renaissance Studies, a branch of the Scuola Normale, and of course the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation which was established in 2006.
How is the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation structured?
Our governance is 50% public and 50% private. We have three public members on our Board: the Commune Firenze, the region of Tuscany and the Chamber of Commerce of Florence. Then we have three private members: the Foundation CR Firenze, Banca Intesa Sanpaolo, and the Committee of Partners which is a group of about 30 sponsors, both enterprises and individuals. But, in terms of budget, only about 10% of our budget is made by public funding. About 45% is produced by us by ticketing and 45% by private money. This good balance is unique in Italy. Palazzo Strozzi became a case study, because for a cultural institution in Italy it’s very rare to be so economically sustainable.
“Our mission is to bring the most important living artists to work in Florence.”
Carsten Höller at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence 2018 ©photo Attilio Maranzano
Arturo Galansino, what is the purpose of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation?
Our mission is to bring unprecedented cultural events to Florence. In the last years Palazzo Strozzi has become the most successful exhibition centre in Italy, and one of the most successful in Europe thanks to a varied program spanning from old masters to contemporary art. The shift was our contemporary art program, started in 2016. This was totally groundbreaking, because until then Florence was seen as a city linked to the past, reluctant to modernity, where an ambitious contemporary art program could not succeed.
But you did?
Yes. Florence is the cradle of the Renaissance and we think that our glorious history should not be a burden but a great platform to build our future. In the last years we have been able to bring some of the most important contemporary artists to Florence, and in doing so we created a new public for contemporary art in Italy. Thanks to our innovative program Florence has become a destination for contemporary art. Other institutions in this city are now changing to a more modern and contemporary direction.
Earlier in your career you worked on Caravaggio and very important old masters in key museums in London and Paris. Why are you now so taken up with contemporary art?
I still curate old masters shows and Palazzo Strozzi is still organising incredibly important old master exhibitions such as Donatello, The Renaissance which received the Apollo Award 2022 as the best exhibition worldwide. But we felt there was something missing in Italy. Contemporary art was a too niche product, so we wanted to make it accessible to a broader audience and we thought that strategically Florence could play a new role in the Italian cultural scene. We were right because we broke all the attendance records since the beginning.
How much exhibition space does Palazzo Strozzi have?
The main floor is 800 metres square with eight rooms, then we have an underground space which is about 700 metres square. Then we have the courtyard, which is a perfect showcase for big installations and sculptures. Sometimes we also use the facade on the Piazza Strozzi, as we did with Ai Weiwei and JR. We use the facade when we want to make a statement. With Ai Weiwei it was the migration crisis in 2016. More recently in 2021 JR had this incredible trompe l’oeil on the facade. It was the time of the pandemic, when museums and cultural places were closed, and the artist wanted to open these cultural spaces, breaking the walls, and this trompe l’oeil simulated a breach in the wall of Palazzo Strozzi.
How many people work with you at Palazzo Strozzi?
We are a very small dynamic and flexible team of about 20 employees, and then we outsource services like the security guards and others.
“Our projects are always ambitious and groundbreaking, and this is the reason for their success.”
How do you decide which artists to invite to exhibit?
Our mission is to bring the most important living artists to work in Florence. We want these artists to spend time here and to try to challenge their practice, and to make Renaissance art and our history more modern, accessible, and relevant today. For example, Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Höller, and Tomàs Saraceno used our courtyard as a platform for their practices. Their message was about nature, climate change, and our future, and they used Palazzo Strozzi as a vessel for going towards a new humanism, for saying something relevant today.
How do the contemporary artists that you invite from all around the world feel about showing in Florence amidst the masters of the Renaissance?
One of the reasons these artists accept to have these big exhibitions in Florence is because this special place, Palazzo Strozzi, has nothing to do with the modern and contemporary buildings that they normally use. The artists are much challenged and feel very honoured to work in the context of our history, of Renaissance philosophy, of what this palace meant at the time and means today as a symbol of humanism, a symbol of our European cultural values. These are important philosophical values that challenge them and the direction of their work. At the same time it is a unique chapter for their career, because there is no other space like Palazzo Strozzi to display their work.
What are your next shows?
We have Yan Pei-Ming this summer, Anish Kapoor in the autumn and then next year in the spring Anselm Kiefer with big new productions. The next big old master show will be in 2025. We started working on this project more than one year ago. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you what it is because it is still under embargo. We plan our program at least five years in advance, more or less with the rhythm of one big old master show every 3 years and the rest is modern and contemporary. It’s important in terms of organisation and logistics and fundraising to have the right amount of time to put together these big exhibitions, which we want to be unique. Of course, it is quicker to organise contemporary art exhibitions than old masters. It took several years of work and travels and many diplomatic relationships to organise seminal shows like Verrocchio in 2019 or Donatello in 2022, the first comprehensive exhibitions ever devoted to two of the greatest Renaissance masters.
Do visitors to the other major museums in Florence now also come to Palazzo Strozzi?
I think we have different publics. The most attended museums in Florence are, of course, the Uffizi and the Accademia, where the Venus by Botticelli and the David by Michelangelo live and the mass international public mainly visit these important places. We have our own public who come to Florence especially for our exhibitions. 50% is a national public, coming from the rest of the country. 25% is local, and the other 25% is foreigners. Last year we had 360,000 visitors, and more than the half came to Florence just to visit one of our shows. This is a very important social, economic and cultural resource for the town, because it is a more cultivated tourism, who spend their time and their money in a very sustainable way for the city. We also spread our public around Florence as an antidote to the big concentration of people in the same places. We invite our public to go around Florence and Tuscany, inventing some itineraries linking our exhibitions to various other institutions and monuments. This has a very positive effect. It is good for our publics because they discover new things which often they had never heard about, and at the same time we help smaller institutions with less attendance to have more visitors and visibility.
Are these visitors young people?
It depends on the show, of course. Contemporary art are a younger crowd compared to old masters, but schools come for old master shows so then we have a very young crowd coming to visit. But mostly we have a big percentage of under 30 years old, and more than half under 40 years old. Our exhibitions are for everybody and we have different education program for all the publics. In particular we have developed a program of accessibility for people affected by dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s.
The Ai Weiwei Facade of Palazzo Strozzi, Florence 2017 ©photo Alessandro Moggi
Jeff Koons at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence 2021 © Photo Ela Bialkowska OKNOstudio
Verrocchio at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence 2019 ©photo Alessandro Moggi
Donatello at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence 2022 ©photo Ela Bialkowska OKNOstudio
Olafur Eliasson at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence 2022/2023 ©photo ElaBialkowska OKNOstudio
The Man of the Year Award given to Prince Charles in 2017 by the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation USA Chairman Mario Platero
“We never stop working and having this dialogue with our colleagues and peers around the world.”
Arturo Galansino, is it easy for Palazzo Strozzi to bring paintings to Italy on loan from major museums like the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery, the Prado and the Louvre?
We are famous for getting loans considered impossible, but it is not easy for an institution like us to obtain loans because we don’t have anything to exchange. We don’t have a collection; we are just an exhibition space. This is another reason we always start to prepare our shows in large advance. We create power in the strength of the project. We have been able to do miracles in terms of some unprecedented loans that will probably never happen again. For Donatello we had things moved for the first time in six centuries. This has also happened for other exhibitions, both modern and old masters. Our projects are always ambitious and groundbreaking, and this is the reason for their success.
Do you also bring in exhibitions from other museums?
No, we prefer to produce our own exhibitions – sometimes in broad collaboration with international institutions such as the Getty, the Louvre, the National Gallery in Washington, the Tate Modern and others – because we want them to be unique and we put together the best themes, curators and artists to achieve the result.
Is collaboration very important for you?
Collaborations with institutions with great collections such as the Bargello Museum in Florence are pivotal. For Donatello we were a team of four institution – Palazzo Strozzi: Bargello, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the State Museums of Berlin – and we were able to obtain the most important loans from many museum collections. Luckily I had an international career and I have good relationship with many curators and museum directors. It’s easy for me to speak with them to see if our projects are possible with large advance and if the loans we need are feasible. It’s an ongoing process. We never stop working and having this dialogue with our colleagues and peers around the world.
Do you also maintain good relations with the Italian state museums and the Ministry of Culture?
Yes, of course. Although we are not part of the Ministry of Culture, the ministry is fundamental for us because they authorize many of our loans. And we have a great relationship with the local superintendents who have to give us the green light for big endeavours such as the installations in the courtyard. The national museums are often partners in our projects and we collaborate with them. As you can see, even if we are a private foundation we play a major public role for the city because of the importance of our projects.
Do many English speaking people live and work in Florence?
Florence is an international city. There is more and more a wealthy international crowd of people coming to live here and some of them support Palazzo Strozzi and other cultural institutions. Furthermore a lot of young people pass through Florence for their studies. With many American Universities in town, thousands of American students are coming every year to spend a semester here, which makes the city like a university centre. Then many international scholars are coming from Harvard, New York University, Stanford and many others to live and study here, like Bernard Berenson did in the 20th century.
Why did you award the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III?
About every two years we organise the Renaissance Person of the Year Award in Florence. It is given by the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation USA, our American branch, to somebody who embodies Renaissance values. Prince Charles received the award in 2017 and it was a memorable event. We also awarded Leonard Lauder and other important figures of art and culture.
What role does the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation USA play?
The American Foundation is part of our fundraising strategy. As I said at the beginning of this conversation, about 50% of our budget is produced by private sponsors, and in America we have some special friends, philanthropists that help us every year. Mario Calvo-Platero is our Chairman and herald in America, where we try to create a broad awareness about what Palazzo Strozzi is, what our mission is, and also about Renaissance values. Every year the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation USA organises programs for disadvantaged kids from American high school. Every summer a group of them is selected to come and travel in Italy to discover Renaissance art and culture. It is a very important exchange between America and Italy.
Director Galansino, thank you very much for this interview and we wish you great success in your activities.
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