Artists' house with a view:
Angelika Stepken on the
Reopening of the Villa Romana in Florence
2005 the Villa
Romana in Florence celebrated its 100th anniversary. Already back in 1905,
the villa on the hills overlooking Florence housed the prizewinners of the
oldest artists' stipend in Germany. It is announced by the Villa
Romana Association wich is sponsored by Deutsche
Bank. Not only Gustav
Klimt and Max
Beckmann found peace and inspiration here, but also Georg
Baselitz and younger stars like Amelie
von Wulffen. Following an extensive renovation, the honorable
institution is now embarking on the future with a new director and
program. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf met with Angelika Stepken and
talked to her about her plans and perspectives for the institution.
Stepken at the opening of
Schorr - Forests & Fields" at the Badische Kunstverein,
Courtesy Collier Schorr
When the Villa
packed their bags in November of 2006, an era had just drawn to a close.
Because with them, Joachim
Burmeister also took leave from the institution that he'd directed for
over 30 years, longer than any of his predecessors. It was thanks to
Burmeister that the house was revitalized in the '70s. Back then, he
renovated and opened guest studios and the exhibition space of the Villa
Romana, the "Salone"; in the villa once purchased by Max
Klinger, he housed artists that made history or that subsequently came
to fame and honor. Markus
Lüpertz allegedly painted his first steel helmet in the villa; Martin
Kippenberger found a temporary home here. Among the prizewinners were Johannes
Brus and Katharina Grosse,
as well as Anne
and Patrick Poirier, Marina
Abramovic, and the video artists Marcel
Odenbach and Ulrike Rosenbach.
a woman has taken over the position as director. When the four new
Markefka, and Michail
Pirgelis arrive in Florence in May, they will be met by Angelika
Stepken. The 1955-born critic and curator looks back over numerous
international exhibitions; she ran the Badischer
Kunstverein in Karlsruhe since 1998, where she attracted considerable
attention even beyond Germany's borders with her discursive and critical
Villa Romana in Florence
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf:
Ms. Stepken, you created a lot of waves as director of the Badischer
Kunstverein in Karlsruhe; you initiated an extremely progressive program
there, such as the series "Critical Societies". You succeeded in turning
the Kunstverein into one of the most interesting locations for art in
southern Germany. How did you decide on the move to the Villa Romana?
Stepken: In practical terms, my contract with Karlsruhe was a limited
one – as is my contract with Florence. And so I had to ask myself where I
wanted things to go from there. When I read the ad for the Villa Romana, I
started fantasizing. I thought that I'd have a chance to recreate an
institution’s program here in Florence, to work together with artists and
to develop a program of art mediation.
the garden of the Villa Romana
interested you about Florence as a location?
On the one hand,
like some other people, I have a little bit of Italian history in my
biography. Thirty years ago, I lived here for one and a half years.
Although it wasn't so much the city of Florence that interested me, but
rather the institution of the artists' house – the long tradition the
Villa Romana looks back on, and the question as to how an institution like
this can be run today.
Your predecessor Joachim Burmeister not
only left behind a life's work, but also a collection of legends primarily
from the '70s and '80s. Markus Lüpertz and Georg Baselitz were
Buthe threw wild parties here, later there were artists like Marcel
Odenbach and Karin
Sander. Despite this, the Villa Romana seemed to have been suspended
in a kind of fairy-tale sleep, particularly over the last few years. For
instance, an Internet site was only recently set up. What parts of this
legacy do you plan to continue, and what will you change?
if I'm very different in my manner of working than Mr. Burmeister, I
profit, of course, from his life's work and his visions – the fact that he
succeeded in making the Villa Romana into a legend to this day. Since I've
taken on the job, I've encountered countless people I'd never imagined
were connected to the villa in one way or another, whether in the form of
a grant, an exhibition, visits, or parties.
And even if things got quieter around the Villa Romana
throughout the '90s, it was never forgotten. What I'd like – and have to –
retain is a certain exclusiveness, which is also one of the institution's
great qualities. The Villa Romana isn't located in Los Angeles or in
London; it's a 19th-century villa in Florence, a city almost entirely
lacking in places for contemporary art. And so particularly because of the
site’s intrinsic qualities, it's important to connect the institution
internationally, with all its various qualities.
Villa Romana in Florence
How do you want to achieve
There are a few different approaches to a redefinition.
They begin with some very practical considerations, which have already
played a role in the renovation. We're going to set up a public area on
the ground floor, for instance. Previously, there was only the "Salone
Villa Romana", where exhibitions were shown. An additional, very beautiful
exhibition space has now been created in the garden hall; my office is
next to it. As a result, it becomes immediately clear to visitors entering
the villa that it's not a closed institution, but a place with an outward
effect, as well. In addition, together with the board, we've decided that
the selection procedure for the prizes will be modified in a kind of
"pilot project" in order to define the prize's profile more clearly.
this will only be the case starting next year.
right. The prizewinners who are coming to us in May were selected with the
old procedure. In the future, there will be a smaller jury that nominates
four young artists for whom it makes sense to work for six to ten months
in Florence and possibly to cooperate with one another. The jurors will
then, over the next year, be invited to hold lectures or workshops in the
villa. And then there's something new. In the future, the prizewinners
that come here will have the possibility to invite international guests.
There are small guest rooms on the second floor that Mr. Burmeister made
available to artists and travelers. These should continue to be used for
guests, but only those more closely connected to the actual work of the
villa. The prizewinners can propose other international artists for
shorter sojourns, but also scientists, architects, philosophers –
depending on what themes or discourses they're involved with in their
work. In addition, they should receive an exhibition in Germany following
their stay at the Villa Romana, whether in a Kunstverein or another
institution. This will not be a matter of showing the prizewinners in a
static way, one after the other, but in project-related exhibitions that
provide a justification for what people are working on here in Florence,
for what is being communicated. Accordingly, the publications should take
on the form of a reader or a workbook.
But there's also something
new that will affect this year's prizewinners – during the stiflingly hot
days of August, they will be able to enjoy a summer break in Bolgheri, a
very small village with around 35 houses and 8 restaurants half an hour
south of Livorno. The grounds of the Incisa Family are here, and they’ve
invited the prizewinners to live and work for several weeks in a small,
remote palace on a mountain overlooking the coast. If everything works
out, we'd like to continue this cooperation next year, as well. It's
great, of course, to be able to work in a little palace and to have access
to a private beach. But it's also about getting connected. Throughout the
summer months, the discreet high society of Tuscany comes to this area,
and if there's a small presentation at the end of the month in the former
village school, then it might make a few interesting encounters possible.
from the terrace
Photo: Michael Danner
And what about the exhibitions at the Villa Romana?
setting new accents with the exhibitions here. I'd like to curate a
relatively autonomous international exhibition program as far as it's
possible within the villa's financial framework.
Can you already
tell us something about the program you have planned?
official reopening isn't until September 7. I have concrete plans, but I
don’t want to talk about them until everything's finalized. The rooms
aren't huge, they're only about 100 square meters in size. But I’m sure we
can put on some very good exhibitions here – with international positions
that I hold in high regard, but which could also make sense in Florence.
There are very few locations for contemporary art here, but a lot of
artists, critics, and of course the art academy. The attention paid to the
Villa Romana is relatively high in a city like Florence – and so are the
expectations. A very ambitious exhibition hall initiated by Sergio
Risaliti had to close last year after only two years running.
Evidently, the commune doesn't have a particular interest in supporting
And so now you have to take over this role?
me put it this way: the Villa Romana isn't an exhibition hall, and I'm a
one-woman business with an assistant – but it's precisely in this
environment that I want to position the exhibitions.