Mary Beckinsale has travelled the world as an educator and lecturer for over 30 years, giving art-related lectures at top institutions in Korea, Serbia, Portugal, Spain and the United States. She served as dean of the Studio Art Centers International (SACI) for 10 years before becoming its director in 1995. For many years, she has taught courses in modern and contemporary art history and museology. She is also the president of the non-profit Palazzo dei Cartelloni and for the last five years has been a governing board member of the Association of Independent Art and DesignSchools (AIAS, www.aias-artdesign.org).
You have done so much over your career. What is your main professional goal right now?
One of my goals at SACI is to promote new talents who have a tough time getting support. Once every six months, for example, we host an emerging artist at our gallery. As president, I make an effort to emphasize the fundamental importance of art. Too many people think of art as an indulgence—an excess rather than one of our primary needs. Fortunately, though, over the last 10 years, many private institutions and even the Comune have taken steps to support the development of contemporary art in Florence.
Florence used to have eyes for only the Renaissance. But people are starting to realize that art is not just about relating to Italy’s past. It’s about learning to relate globally. Obviously, sooner or later, art students need to come into contact with the Renaissance and respond to it. They need to stand in it—visit the chapels and see the paintings and statues—react to it and discover its spaces. But I believe the time has come for artists to go beyond the Renaissance vision and start perceiving the world in a global way. With low-cost airlines, students are becoming more mobile.
Over the past few years, the world has been expanding globally—thus the artistic vision is becoming a wider one. We still tend to have a sort of 19th-century nationalistic idea of borders, though things are changing. For example, the Czech Republic has opened up and you can drive there quite easily from Italy.
Tell us more about SACI’s art gallery.
The gallery has featured faculty and student exhibits, as well as artists like Beverly Pepper and Amalie Rothschild. In addition to artistic shows, our exhibits are designed to raise social awareness. Karen Graffeo’s recent exhibit on the Rom population is a great example of an exhibition which promotes tolerance and understanding among people. Many people blame immigrants for the city’s degradation. For example, people often accuse the gypsies of contributing to the outbreak of violence in the city center. This attitude creates new levels of prejudice which ultimately stunts any possibility for cultural understanding. We need to start treating the Rom as people rather than seeing them as a threat, and Karen’s photographs strive to capture the wealth and culture of this unique people.
What can you tell us about the Rom population?
After the fall of the Eastern block, this culture experienced widespread hatred campaigns, particularly in the former-Yugoslavia, Romania and Hungary. This prejudice has never been completely acknowledged. The same lack of recognition occurred after the end of the World War II. To some extent, the Jews have received recognition about the horrors of the Holocaust, while the gypsies are still waiting for it. Because of its historical traumas, this population remains acutely suspicious of authority.
Not all Rom people have the same background: they come from different countries and have several religions, usually Orthodox or Muslim. They are currently living in camps around Florence. They are not given work permits. From a practical perspective, they need to be helped so that they can have better housing and water supply. On a human level, this culture needs to be protected. We’ve got to learn to work with the Rom and not let racism and oppression continue to grow. Interestingly, there are now two Rom representatives in the European Parliament. Both are women, exemplifying that the Rom are beginning to have a voice within Europe.
What would you consider your most rewarding experience as administrator and educator?
One project at SACI that is particularly close to my heart is our non-profit organization, Palazzo dei Cartelloni, which was named after the palace where SACI has its campus. This building was once owned by Vincenzo Viviani, a famous mathematician who discovered the law of the triangle. He worked for Louis XIV and studied with Galileo when Galileo was under house arrest. On the façade of his own house, Viviani built a monument to his master. It’s truly one of a kind— it’s a summary of all Galileo’s achievements cast in stone. Through Palazzo dei Cartelloni we give creative art classes and music and drama lessons to children with different learning challenges. The art they produce is amazing. And these children are living proof that art can truly make a difference in people’s lives.