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Meet the new guard: How the Uffizi’s first foreign director plans to modernise the museum

Eike Schmidt has big plans for Italy's most-visited museum, from high-tech ticketing software to new tax breaks

A new generation is taking over the world’s leading museums. In the past six months, more than 50 institutions—including some of the world’s largest—have hired new directors.

Italy’s ministry of culture appointed 20 new leaders for its state museums in August. In London, the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern have appointed or are searching for new directors. In the US, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are among around 20 institutions welcoming new chiefs this autumn.

Although some things remain the same (many of these directors are white and male), the next generation will face new challenges, including shrinking public funds and changing visitor demographics.

We spoke to four directors about their vision for the future, and will publish a new interview each day. — Julia Halperin

When Italy’s minister of culture called Eike Schmidt early one morning in August to offer him the job as director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, “I thought maybe I was still dreaming”, he says. This month, the German-born Schmidt, formerly a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, will become the first foreigner to lead the Uffizi—Italy’s most visited museum.

Schmidt is one of seven non-Italians appointed to direct the country’s state museums as part of a sweeping reform that seeks to bring the institutions in line with their more business-minded peers in the US and the UK. The Uffizi and other state museums will also fundraise independently for the first time; in the past, the culture ministry distributed funds among museums.

“Politicking and diplomacy” Schmidt has never directed a museum, let alone one on the scale of the Uffizi. But he has ties to Florence, where he lived from 1994 to 2001. “In a way, I’m better prepared than someone who has always given orders down the chain of command,” he says. The Italian system is “much more like politicking and diplomacy than running swiftly and fully an independent institution”.

Schmidt inherits the Uffizi at a critical moment. In August, the museum received €18m from the culture ministry for its long-delayed renovation. The project involves enlarging, renovating and rehanging the museum to fix what Schmidt admits may be its greatest problem: overcrowding. (It is around halfway done, with no firm deadline.)

The museum welcomes nearly two million visitors a year, but it “was not built for mass tourism”. Queues during the summer can exceed two hours. And attendance is set to grow: the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, due to be moved under the Uffizi’s purview, will add another 1.2 million visitors a year.

The museum will adopt a two-pronged response: architectural and technological. “The focus on visitor experience in American museums is something that I can bring to the table,” Schmidt says. Over the next two years, the Uffizi will install new exits, a new entrance and a new space for temporary exhibitions. Schmidt also hopes to reopen the Vasari Corridor, which runs along the Ponte Vecchio. In addition, he intends to update ticketing software and launch mobile device programmes to avoid bottlenecking.

Setting trends Fundraising will be another area of focus. New funds will be used to restore works of art and eventually support acquisitions. Schmidt also plans to make use of the new Art Bonus law, which offers corporate sponsors a 65% tax credit in exchange for financing a landmark’s refurbishment.

Schmidt thinks that the reforms will, over time, restore Italy’s reputation as “a trendsetter in museological regards”. Michelangelo’s David was transferred in 1873 from the Piazza della Signoria to the newly constructed Accademia in Florence in a giant wooden crate over five days using techniques passed down through generations, “but the institutional structures have not grown along”, he says. “There is a true opportunity for Italy to regain its leadership position.”

How do you become a director of an Italian museum? A step-by-step application process

1. Schmidt first learned of the 20 Italian museum openings from an advertisement in the Economist magazine, published in January.

2. He submitted a CV, a publication list and a motivational letter to the ministry of culture.

3. Italy, like France, uses a concorso model, in which the committee welcomes an application from anyone who meets the requirements. Schmidt ticked the boxes for three positions and was selected as one of ten finalists for the Uffizi and the Galleria Borghese in Rome.

4. After a half-hour interview with the ministry of culture in Rome in July, Schmidt emerged with a good feeling about the Borghese position. Six weeks later, the phone call—offering him the Uffizi job—caught him by surprise.

Biography: Eike Schmidt Born in 1968 in south-west Germany, Eike Schmidt was most recently the curator of decorative arts and sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, spending six years there. He previously directed the department of European sculpture and works of art at Sotheby’s in London, and worked as an associate curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Schmidt wrote his doctoral thesis at Heidelberg University on the Medici ivory sculpture collection in the 16th and 17th centuries.