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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.

Angelika Stepken at the opening of
"Collier Schorr - Forests & Fields" at the Badische Kunstverein,
Photo Courtesy Collier Schorr

When the Villa Romana prizewinners 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.

Now, a woman has taken over the position as director. When the four new prizewinners Andrea Faciu, Barbara Kussinger, Silke 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 program.

The Villa Romana in Florence
Photo: Michael Danner

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?

Angelika 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.

In the garden of the Villa Romana
Photo: Michael Danner

What particularly 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 prizewinners, Michael 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?

Even 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.

The Villa Romana in Florence
Photo: Michael Danner

How do you want to achieve this?

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.

But this will only be the case starting next year.

Yes, that's 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.

View from the terrace
Photo: Michael Danner

And what about the exhibitions at the Villa Romana?

I'll be 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?

The 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 contemporary art.

And so now you have to take over this role?

Let 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.