It is not only CODART that is celebrating an anniversary this year. Uta Neidhardt, one of the first CODART members, also has something special to celebrate. She has been working as Curator of Dutch and Flemish Paintings at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden, Germany, for thirty years. For this occasion, she was interviewed by Tico Seifert, Senior Curator of Northern European Art at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. The following interview is a shorter version of the conversation between the two, to be published in CODART’s anniversary magazine, appearing in October 2023.
Tico Seifert: “What would you say are the advantages of working for the same collection for such a long time?”
Uta Neidhardt: “The great advantage, of course, is that I know the collection extremely well. I also know a lot about its history. My younger colleagues often see me as a link with the past. You sometimes hear people joke that once you are an eyewitness to the past, you’re really old,” she says, laughing. “But it really is a great advantage, and I like it, because I’m also a historian – as we’re all historians in our profession – and I think it is very important to pass on the history of collections and research.”
What would you say are the disadvantages?
“I’ve recently noticed that I take certain procedures and processes for granted more than my younger colleagues. I have to make an active effort to consider that things might be done differently. A more difficult issue is that my view of certain artworks is still partly influenced by the way I viewed them as a young student during my internship at the Gemäldegalerie. With new insights, I sometimes have to consciously challenge the customary way I look at a painting so that I can see it differently. That’s a disadvantage for me personally, but one I can deal with.”
When you look back over the past thirty years, are there certain aspects of your work that you believe were better in the past than today? And conversely, do some things seem better now than then?
“For me personally, things are better today. My many years’ experience makes everything easier. I’ve also become better at delegating – I entrust far more work to young colleagues. I am better able to focus on what is important. At the institutional level, the pace was slower in the 1990s. For example, the then director gave me the opportunity to research the loss of artworks from the collection after the Second World War. I was given plenty of time for that research and was able to spend weeks in the archives. That would be unthinkable today. Today’s fast pace, and the need to keep several balls in the air, is not easy.”
“In addition, in the 1990s and 2000s we still had a very large core audience, people who visited the Gemäldegalerie as a matter of course. There are not many of those people left in Dresden today – to put it crudely, they are dying out. Now we face the great challenge of increasing the museum’s appeal to the younger generation. That really concerns me. Dresden also has a great many immigrants and people in certain social circumstances to whom it would never occur to enter a museum at all. To bring such people close to our work and to interest them in our beautiful works of art is a new challenge that we did not have then – or perhaps did not recognize.”
That’s a huge, important topic you’re touching on there – for all of us. Do you have any examples of steps you are taking to attract new visitors to the museum?
“Absolutely – we share that responsibility with the Learning & Engagement Department. That department is actually badly understaffed, as a result of which I always include those issues in the way I think about my projects and exhibitions, from day one. At the moment we are particularly focusing on immigrants – there has been a large influx of immigrants into Dresden since 2015. Before then, the city had relatively few residents with a migrant background, which has to do with the history of the German Democratic Republic. We’ve developed a special program for immigrants, many of whom come from Arab, Ukrainian, Eritrean, or Turkish backgrounds. First, we have developed guided tours in their native languages, and we are also organizing so-called ‘inter-religious dialogues’. In addition, we organize tours for interpreters, who are then able to pass on the information to their circles. One of the activities I’m especially proud of is our Women’s Friday, which we organize every other week. It is a meeting place for women who have fled or migrated from their country, no matter where they are from. The women meet with us in the art gallery for three hours. We talk a lot – partly about life, but also about the art in the gallery. These gatherings are always special occasions.”
And apart from demographic changes, how have visitors’ perceptions changed? What is different today, both in viewers’ attitudes and in what you do to encourage people to really look at artworks?
“That’s actually a social question. We all know that people look at things more fleetingly and superficially than before. In our daily lives, we all have shortcuts around us, to do things quickly. Addressing that short attention span is a challenge. How can we inspire people in an art exhibition to look for longer, to immerse themselves? To look more deeply at an artwork can reveal an entire world. That is especially true of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, which can open up a whole panoply of stories. Encouraging that kind of immersion has to be done differently now than twenty years ago – that is very clear to me. You have to make much more of an effort these days to get people’s attention in an exhibition.
Can you give a few practical examples of how you have changed your approach to deal with that?
“In the Gemäldegalerie, we used to make most of our exhibitions with only paintings, but that is really not possible any more. These days we always combine paintings with artworks and objects from other departments within the collection. I also notice that visitors are increasingly interested in methods and processes, in how something was made. They want to know about the conservation of a painting and the research it was based on. And of course we respond to such desires by including space on those topics in the exhibitions. But sometimes I notice, with a little feeling of sadness, that fewer and fewer people are able to understand the fascination of the artwork itself. I do find that difficult to deal with.”
Today we’re not only discussing your thirty years at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden – we’d also like to mention that you’ve been a member of CODART for twenty-five years. You joined at the very beginning. What has CODART meant for your career as a curator?
“CODART has been the most wonderful source of happiness throughout my career – from the beginning right up to today. Here in East Germany, I’m a lone fighter. When I started out, Annaliese Mayer-Meintschel, the grand lady of Dutch art history in East Germany, was still working here. But after her retirement in 1991, I was more or less on my own. I had few colleagues in the vicinity with whom to exchange ideas. CODART broke through that isolation.”
“In Dresden it was – and still is – sometimes difficult to get attention for the Dutch and Flemish Old Masters in our collection, but at CODART it was the central subject. All my fellow curators knew what I did. And now I am one of the oldies and younger colleagues come up to me and say, ‘I read your article or saw your exhibition and what a pleasure it is to meet you.’ It obviously does you good, especially when you sometimes feel alone in your own job. So CODART has been the elixir of life for me. That hasn’t changed.”
What does the future look like for you now? What is on the horizon?
“Everything is going well at the moment. I do reflect on the research and other things I want to do before I retire. The most important thing remains the research on the Flemish collection. I really want to finish that and leave it in a good state for those who come after me. I’m also working on a research project and exhibition in partnership with the KMSKA in Antwerp and with Nico Van Hout. In addition, it’s a major goal of mine to be able to publish on the works of Rubens in the collection. I’ve also noticed that making exhibitions has become increasingly important to me over the years. I feel like a missionary in this respect. It is my calling. That was not so clear to me at first, but it is becoming more and more so now.”
Thank you very much for this interview, Uta. We both see that the profession is changing, but what I think is really important – and you stress this too – is that we continue to do research. Without research, we don’t have a solid foundation for what we do, and no good stories to tell. And stories are so important to unlock the art for our visitors.
Uta Neidhardt is Curator of Dutch and Flemish Paintings at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. She has been a member of CODART since 1998. Tico Seifert is Senior Curator of Northern European Art at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. He has been a member of CODART since 2006.