Interview Venice Biennale Italy

Interview with Paolo Baratta: Putting the wings back on the lion

The chair of the Venice Biennale foundation looks back on his tenure and describes how he revived the world’s most high-profile art exhibition

"If you want excellence, you must go looking for it, and often it is not easy to flush out," says Paolo Baratta about choosing curators for the biennale

As chairman of the Venice Biennale foundation, Paolo Baratta has achieved record visitor numbers, a balanced budget, made sure the art biennale was 90% self-funded, and saw a boom in applications to take part. His mandate ends on 18 December, and while some expect to see him reappointed to the post, his name is also being mentioned as a possible minister of culture in Italy’s new government. In an interview first published in Il Giornale dell’Arte, the man who gave the Venice Biennale a new lease of life looks back on his tenure.

The Art Newspaper: How would you sum up the achievements of your two terms in office?

Paolo Baratta:
I was first appointed president at a time of serious difficulty. Despite some moments of great energy, the biennale had never really recovered after 1968. In my first year, we put on nothing but the Venice Film Festival, which took place in something of a vacuum. There was nowhere to stage the drama, dance and music. The floor of our Ca’ Giustinian headquarters was unsafe, and we had received notice to quit. We were prevented from holding the architecture biennale at the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini because of infiltrations of rainwater. But at the same time, a legal reform was enacted, giving the Biennale Foundation a more efficient, private-sector status. This major change in the way it was run marked a turning point.

Can you outline the various stages of this recovery?

We began with the art exhibition, which had been restricted by its being based around national pavilions, while the curator of the Italian pavilion concentrated on Italian art and in some cases staged exhibitions with an international theme. This second focus had sometimes given rise to wonderful exhibitions, but it was also a situation of permanent conflict, to such an extent that for some years the art biennale was not held at all. So we decided in 1998 that the art biennale (including architecture) should have two pillars: on the one hand, the national pavilion exhibitions and on the other, a major international exhibition entrusted to a curator appointed exclusively for the purpose. The structure I had in mind was a combination of Documenta and the Venice Biennale. The first, new-style international exhibition, held in 1999, was curated by Harald Szeemann. The Italian pavilion was not initially used for our own national exhibition, though it was later resurrected with an ad hoc curator.

Our second task was to find appropriate locations for a major international exhibition. We chose the pavilions in the Giardini and the Arsenale complex, which was entirely restored and renovated at considerable expense. Thus the international exhibition came to be staged in two very different venues: the former Italian pavilion with its white walls and the large spaces of the Arsenale, in addition to the Corderie, the Artiglierie, the Tese (which became the drama centre), the Giardino delle Vergini, and so on. This was followed by the building of a large, new Italian pavilion. The result of all this was an additional 40,800 sq. m of exhibition space, 21,000 sq. m of it under cover. This year, we have begun restoring the so-called Sale d’Armi, which will be devoted to the many countries now requesting their own permanent space. The new clarity of layout and the success of the international exhibitions have led to an increase in the number of countries taking part, and to a revitalisation of the national exhibitions.

To what extent has the relaunch of the Venice Biennale been hindered by the proliferation of similar events?

There was also competition from the boom in large-scale art fairs: think of Basel, strategically hitched in terms of scheduling, to the Venice Biennale wagon. We needed to redefine ourselves in relation to other biennales and art fairs. We have done so by trying to be as successful as possible without letting success go to our heads, or falling prey to “eventitis”, remaining faithful to our identity, which is not that of an art fair. I have defined the Art Exhibition as a “wind machine”, not a business machine. In any case, if we surrendered to market forces, we would lose our status as a magnet for the public, artists, heads of state, students and so on. And the Holy See would not be planning to take part with a pavilion of its own.

How can you be so sure that the curators of the art biennale are independent of market forces?

We are well aware that being featured at the biennale is a great opportunity for any artist and may result in a sharp rise in the market price of their works, which is nice for the artist but puts an even greater responsibility on our shoulders. What counts is the spirit in which art is presented as a continuous creative process, as we seek to discover and demonstrate those complex values that emerge from the free act of the artist and carry over into the emotional life of the viewer. A curator knows he is being judged on his or her ability to “create” an exhibition, to draw inspiration from the guiding principle behind their project. Once again, the right way to achieve transparency is to make the curator aware of their responsibility. An art fair is run by the gallery owners involved and lasts only a few days. The biennale goes on for six months and is far more than a private view; this year we will receive more than 400,000 visitors. Our task is to disseminate knowledge, emotion and a critical spirit.

This year, 32 of the artists represented are under 35 and, of the total of 83 artists, 62 (or 74.7%) have never taken part in a Venice Biennale before. Once an artist and one of his works have been chosen, there is no harm in his or her seeking help with the costs of production or transport. The curator is aware of the relationships that all artists have with galleries and collectors, not to mention the rights that have already been sold to third parties. The Biennale Foundation makes a significant contribution towards the costs of each chosen artist, to ensure that the financial assistance provided by third parties, which all artists of course benefit from, does not influence the curator’s choices.

Does the biennale fund the creative work of the young artists taking part?

Each Venice Biennale must contain a percentage of works by artists who have been “discovered” by the curator. The latter may in fact draw—intelligently—on a budget allocated for the production of new works.

Are works created ex novo in this way acquired by the Biennale Foundation?

They are often site-specific, temporary works, such as the “swamp” constructed at the Arsenale by Lara Favaretto in 2009. In any case, we do not own a museum, nor would it make sense to invest in a warehouse for storing works of art, especially in our case, as we create the spaces in which works are exhibited as a vital complement to the works themselves. Obviously, we record everything, in the form of video footage and photographs. But the problem of acquisitions would raise other issues, such as assessing the value of the works concerned, and in my opinion this is something the biennale would do well to steer clear of.

Is what you were saying earlier about the relationship between the biennale and the proliferation of contemporary art in Venice a reply to what Francesco Bonami wrote recently: that the biennale is an exhibition engulfed by “events”, in particular by the private foundations that have recently mushroomed here, from Pinault to Prada?

Following the rebirth of the biennale, not only has there been a big increase in the number of countries participating, but private collectors have also arrived, bringing cultural offerings as extravagant as they are respectable, as well as presenting the city with some fine restoration projects. But the biennale is something different. Its prestige derives from its independence, from the independence of the curator of the international exhibition and from that of the commissioners of the national pavilions. Its great richness lies in this pluralism.

But in this pluralism there are also some powerful political forces at play…

Politics is part of history, and art has never been detached from history. The biennale is proud of the fact; history, too, is an antidote to fetishism. The biennale will live on as long as it remains what the art world will increasingly need: a place where artists can meet freely. And Bonami might have added some data on daily visitor numbers, not just the opening ceremonies, to give an idea of the true scale of things.

Among your achievements, you have often pointed to the financial self-sufficiency of the biennale…

In the case of the art biennale, we have managed, largely of course through admission charges, to cover 90% of our costs.

Your revenues also include a percentage paid by the collateral exhibition organisers. Aren’t there rather too many of them?

No. And again this year I asked the curator of the international exhibition, Bice Curiger, to be extremely strict in assessing the projects submitted: just four out of ten were selected. Being able to say no is an important weapon in defending quality, intelligence and independence in a world where contemporary art has become fashionable.

Do you collect contemporary art?

Since I was appointed president of the Biennale Foundation, I have stopped buying contemporary art works. Just for fun, my wife and I collect on a small scale. I collect drawings by Felice Giani, a neoclassical painter, partly because he is an ancestor of mine. And Vietri ceramics, for instance those created by Guido Gambone before he became famous.

What powers does the president of the Venice Biennale in fact have?

The president plays a very important role, to the extent that the other councillors trust him and allow him to drive the thing, make proposals and plan ahead. I have a great deal of clout because it is my task to make proposals to the board of management regarding the appointment of section directors. I am the promoter of the works that need to be done, so I am a sort of entrepreneur, or creative administrator. But, in exercising my powers, I try to ensure that I do not overstep the mark, and that the independence of the directors is protected 100%.

You are accused of having a weakness for foreign curators, at least where the visual arts are concerned…

The present director of the music sector is Luca Francesconi; before it was Bruno Canino. And I began the architecture biennale with an Italian, Massimiliano Fuksas. Alberto Barbera and Marco Müller are Italians, as are Maurizio Scaparro and Giorgio Barberio Corsetti. Then there was Francesco Bonami. In the art and architecture biennales, the percentage of Italian directors is proportional to the relative weight of Italy, and in this sense too, we are international.

Do you think it is the case, as it is often said in Italy, that we have lacked a new generation of critics and curators of contemporary art to replace the likes of Celant and Bonito Oliva?

There may be some truth in that. But the director of the last Gwangju Biennale, the most important in the Far East, was an Italian, Massimiliano Gioni; and the next edition of Documenta will be curated by an Italian-by-adoption, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. What more can you ask? Fortunately, no one dreams of saying of our curators at Gwangju and Kassel that they ought to be Korean or German. How can we, then, afford to indulge in provincialism? We of all people, who aim to set the highest standard? And if I were to choose a curator solely because he was Italian, this would be taken as an insult, as if I had selected him on the basis of his passport rather than his ability. There is in fact a new generation of curators in Italy, on which the biennale will be able to draw, just as we have drawn on the services of foreign curators.

Since you do not have a committee to appoint curators, you must expect this and other criticisms…

If you want excellence, you must go looking for it, and often it is not easy to flush out. It all depends on trust and personal relationships. We could of course select curators via commissions, committees, examinations and competitions. There have been plenty of examples of this sort of thing. It is a method built around passing the buck, with the likelihood of bureaucratic interference, in a process that ought really to be based on free choice, responsibility and intellectual honesty. Committees are all too often appointed to make compromises, not real decisions. In this area, too, the biennale has become a model of good institutional organisation. The artistic director has total independence, except as regards the budget, which is subject to strict on-going controls. It is no coincidence that for many years the Venice Biennale has been the only Italian institution able to balance its budget.

Venice is home to galleries active on the historical front, occasionally paying attention to younger artists, but galleries concerned with the kind of art on show at the Biennale are conspicuous by their absence.

Dealers go where there is a demand, and Venice is not an art market. Where the relationship between the biennale and Venice is concerned, the real issue is something different. In the past, the biennale was seen as a UFO that had landed on the city and its region. The opening, and all the other events staged during the biennale over just a few days, were of interest to the water-taxi drivers, hoteliers and restaurateurs. For everyone else, it was just a pain in the neck. But a few days ago, a water-taxi owner said to me: “You know, the art biennale has become more important for us than the film festival. Because now we have work every day, and with the right sort of customers!” I took that as a great compliment.

How have you managed to transform this alien spaceship into such a popular event?

I have devoted the last four years to bridging the gap. The first step was the recovery of Ca’ Giustinian as our headquarters and its conversion into a place for ongoing activities, an “urban phenomenon”. We created a wooden deck for access, an attractive bar and a restaurant charging modest prices, quite unlike the outrageously expensive restaurants you find on the Grand Canal, more like something in New York or Paris. The final stage was to restore the Sala delle Colonne, where we organise meetings and conferences, open to all comers. We also reopened the biennale’s historical archive. And we have reopened the library, dear to all the people of Venice, in the Giardini, which we have taken on under licence and reorganised. We have redefined the central pavilion as a “kunsthalle”, adding a new bookshop and a café d’artiste, designed by Tobias Rehberger in 2009.

What part have your educational activities played in closing the gap between the Biennale and the city of Venice?

We have organised activities to present the Biennale as a friendly presence, starting with the children, schools and teachers of Venice and the Veneto region (and further afield). We have stepped up school visits and structured them carefully, to make the Biennale a household word for the younger generation. Up until 2010, we received almost 18,000 visitors from the Veneto region alone. Our art and architecture exhibitions have been attended by a total of more than 100,000 young people over the last five years. A few weeks ago, we launched a shiny, bright red “Biennale Bus”, which travels the roads of the Veneto four days a weeks, picking up children from schools and bringing them to the biennale. This year’s preview was attended by some 800 teachers, because training them is fundamental to the educational programme we deliver. We want to enhance our traditional exhibition and museum-based programme for visiting schoolchildren by encouraging schools to devote a few hours each week to enjoyable group work of a creative nature. With this in mind, we have introduced the “Leoncino d’Oro” and “Leoncino d’Argento” prizes for schools that produce their own projects. Personally, I am a great supporter of free (ie, not bureaucratically imposed) creativity within schools.

What new projects are you working on?

We have some new developments in preparation. I’ve already told you of our plans for the film festival sites. Then, in 2010, we launched the first Children’s Carnival, which several countries are already involved in. In 2011, the participants were Austria, Poland, the United Kingdom and Holland (with 20,000 visitors), but the number of countries is bound to grow in the next few years. The idea of this carnival is to make objects, not buy them, and it is intended to become a great “international biennale of youthful creativity”. We launched the Arsenale della Danza some years ago and have recently staged a drama festival consisting of workshops for young artists. Another major project is the “Biennale College”, bringing together all our experimental training activities in the dance, music, drama and applied arts sectors. For this, too, we have set up a workshop facility here at our headquarters. The biennale, as I see it, is not just a place where people encounter art, but also an opportunity for active practitioners to meet the masters. We have therefore adopted the master-class method, with longer or shorter classes depending on the discipline. For dance, in conjunction with Carolyn Carlson, we have already started an academy attended by 25 young people, who stay for five months and work with seven top choreographers. The same is true for drama, and now I would like to do something similar for the applied arts, an area in which we have already run one workshop on the subject of light and are now planning another featuring paper. This could also be extended to music and film-making. The Sale d’Armi at the Arsenal have already been earmarked as a future home for the Biennale College.

Why in Italy does politics always have such a heavy, and almost always damaging, influence on the organisation of cultural activities?

Politics has always played a part in all fields here in Italy, from industrial development to cultural institutions, which are born as a result of laws passed in Parliament. Politics in Italy, then, has the great merit of having fostered the development of civil society. There are times when politicians have great ambitions and desires, including the desire to see the institutions they have created maintain a high standard of excellence. At other times, these ambitions run out of steam and things get into a rut. Cavour, good Liberal that he was, founded Ansaldo (the Italian engineering company) because he wanted to create an Italian ship-building industry and make our country less dependent on British shipyards. There were of course problems, but Ansaldo was born of a great ambition. The Biennale, Quadriennale and Triennale, too, were born of the great ambitions of members of our country’s government. It was the mayor of Venice, Riccardo Selvatico, who inspired the biennale. His ambition was for something that would be international and long-lasting, not one of the universal exhibitions of that period, which were very sporadic events. He wanted the biennale to transform Venice, which most likely did not boast a single gallery-owner in those days, into one of the great centres of contemporary art. The more robust and ambitious politics is, the prouder it is of its role and the more devoted it is to the public interest, the more the institutions it creates can hope to see their roles and independence respected. But when politics is weak and its ambitions modest, dialogue becomes difficult, or worse it all descends into a miserable power struggle.

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