The Uffizi Galleries in Florence will show more work by female artists starting this spring, as one of the world’s oldest art museums seeks to redress a historic gender imbalance in a long-term initiative. An exhibition aiming to revive the reputation of Suor Plautilla Nelli (1523-87), a nun who is Florence’s first-known female Renaissance painter, is due to open at the Uffizi on 8 March (until 30 April) to coincide with International Women’s Day. Two weeks later, the Uffizi’s sister museum across the River Arno, the Pitti Palace, will open a show of self-portraits by the late Austrian artist and feminist Maria Lassnig (24 March-28 June).
The Plautilla Nelli display will be the first in an “open-ended” annual series of exhibitions dedicated to female artists from history, says Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. The German-born art historian, who was formerly a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is one of seven foreign directors appointed in a dramatic shake-up of Italy’s top state museums in 2014. Around a dozen paintings by Nelli, several of them only recently identified in churches and museums across central Italy, will be shown alongside works from her Dominican convent, Schmidt says. The Florence-based Advancing Women Artists Foundation, which has restored a number of Nelli’s works, is funding the publication of a catalogue.
In an interview with The Art Newspaper last year, Frida Kahlo of the Guerrilla Girls warned that “tokenism is more a part of the problem than the solution”. The Uffizi staged an exhibition of around 100 historical and contemporary self-portraits by women in 2010. Now, by giving female artists regular exhibitions and a permanent presence in the collection displays, the museum aims to “avoid ghettoisation”, Schmidt says. “This is not just a special initiative to do for three or five years. I don’t know if I’m still going to be director, but I think we could easily go on for 20 years.”
Other major art museums are also expanding the canon. Exhibitions devoted to overlooked female artists, or “Old Mistresses”, have included Vigée-Le Brun at the Grand Palais in Paris, which last year travelled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Last October, the Prado in Madrid opened its first solo show of a female artist, Clara Peeters (until 19 February). Schmidt says: “Some of the most famous artists of the present day happen to be female, so that alone prompts the question: where did this all start and how did this evolve? I think we are overdue and ready to put great female artists of the past back on view.”