On a sunlit April day, Paolo Baratta, two of his press staff and I are lunching on the terrace of the Hotel Monaco in Venice. Little could be more tranquil than the view across the mirror-still waters of St Mark’s Bay, yet the president of the Venice Biennale should look harassed. The world’s premier contemporary art show opens in just over a month’s time and much is not going according to plan.
Two countries, Bahrain and Lebanon, have just pulled out. Closer to home, Vittorio Sgarbi, Italy’s national curator, is threatening to resign. Yet Baratta is as unruffled as the water behind him. Now presiding over his third Biennale, current difficulties pale in comparison with his first term in 1998.
“That was the anno nero,” he says, recalling a time when the Biennale, a public institution run by the ministry of culture, lumbered under a 20-member board, “in which every party and every union was represented”. The 1998 architecture show was cancelled. Political in-fighting over the curatorial nomination was threatening visual arts with a similar fate.
Furthermore, the Biennale, with its anachronistic emphasis on national pavilions, risked being eclipsed by edgier, more contemporary events such as Documenta.
The decision to appoint Baratta as architect of the Biennale’s renaissance was astute. A Cambridge-educated economist, the Milan-born grandfather says he finds “nothing more stimulating than difficult situations”.
After a career in finance he was made minister of privatisations in 1993. As you might expect of someone whose favourite book is Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, Baratta has a gift for balancing the social responsibility of an institution with its commercial interests. As such he was fitted to steer the Biennale into a decade in which a shrinking public subsidy would force it to be more reliant on private sponsorship and self-generated finance.
Having returned to the helm in 2008, this year he must conjure a budget of €13m for the Biennale of Art. Yet his public contribution amounts to just €6m – and that is a general fund into which he may need to dip for his other festivals: cinema, theatre, music and dance although they, unlike art, have separate subsidies too. “The fund gets smaller every year,” he tells me. “It was €9m until a few years ago.” Given the economic crisis, it is remarkable that this year he can boast that the Biennale of Art “auto-finances 87 per cent of its costs”.
Behind this feat lies a strategy of both expansion and retraction. His first move, in 1999, was to turn the Corderie of the Arsenal into a showcase for an autonomous, international exhibition. “We made the Arsenal essentially a Documenta,” he recalls. “At that point the world noticed something was going on.”
Thus kicked off a vast, ongoing restoration of Venice’s historic shipyard. Today the Arsenal area offers 21,400 square metres of covered exhibition space and 40,800 sq m outside. That space has created an opportunity for new pavilions within the Biennale complex.
Only Italy, so far, has permanent residence but eight other countries, including first-time exhibitors Saudi Arabia and India, have temporary homes there this year.
Baratta plans to expand. For about €1.5m each, he is offering countries the chance to buy 20-year concessions in the Arsenal’s Sale d’Armi, a 5,000 sq m complex once used for storing weapons that will be restored with the revenue. Already Portugal, Bahrain, Thailand, Argentina and Chile have expressed interest.
Isn’t there a danger that wealthier countries profit from being within the official Biennale complex while poorer nations remain on the margins? The cost of a pavilion there varies from €40,000 to €200,000 depending on the size of the space. It sounds hefty but is more economic than certain palaces in the city, which charge up to €25,000 a month.
Baratta says that Arsenal is “not considered more prestigious by everyone” and that “countries come and go”, although he admits that China is particularly attached to its cavernous hall and garden.
However, when I spoke to Robin Start, curator of the Saudi Arabian pavilion, which will be in the Arsenal, he had no doubt that the shipyard was the premier showcase. “It’s like being on and off Broadway.”
Haiti’s curator, Daniele Geminiani, could only dream of such luxury. He found a space in an oratory but some sculptures, which display huge genitals, fell foul of the ecclesiastical authorities. After a frantic search, his artists will now display in the not-for-profit Querini-Stampalia foundation and in shipping containers close to the gardens – but only until the end of July.
Ever since its inception in 1895, the Biennale’s dynamics have mapped the nexus of art, money and power that plays itself out beyond the lagoon. Then only wealthy, predominantly western, countries could afford to build pavilions in the Giardini; today the art world’s new global cartography means other nations are taking root. This year sees a record 89 countries participating. Baratta says there has been no “politics of enlargement ... If they make a request and their country is recognised by the Italian government, they will be invited.”
He makes a case for keeping the doors open to all. “It is somewhere countries can represent themselves through art with choices that can be conformist or not conformist at all ... which might be a message that there is a problem in those countries,” says Baratta. I think of Mexico’s pavilion two years ago, where Teresa Margolles soaked sheets in the blood of victims of the country’s drug wars. He prefers the example of Bahrain at the Biennale of Architecture last year. “Everyone expected them to bring a banal skyscraper but they brought fisherman’s huts to show the betrayal of their traditional life.” He pauses and takes a sip of wine. “And now there are rebellions in the piazzas.”
Baratta knows that a proactive stance is necessary if the Biennale is not to become a proxy art fair. “We are not art dealers. That is not our job.”
Yet Venice becomes, during those heady opening days, as buzzy a centre of trade as it was at the height of the Republic. Less explicit is the risk that, as the declining state subsidy requires evermore inventive funding schemes, quality is compromised.
What, for example, are we to make of the so-called collateral exhibitions which mushroom in palaces and churches across the city and who pay €20,000 to attach the Biennale’s logo to their communication material and appear in the catalogue?
Baratta points out that they too are submitted to curatorial judgment. “Out of 90 requests this year, Curiger rejected 55 per cent. I always say to the curator: ‘Be very hard’.”
Of more concern is exploitation by sponsors. “I spend all day fighting with sponsors, trying to limit their PR offices who judge an event purely on the basis of the publicity it brings to them,” he tells me. He is not keen on companies announcing art prizes during the festival.
He recently distanced the Biennale from such an initiative by Italian bank Unicredit, which is not a sponsor, and is “still in dialogue” with some that are.
The latter presumably includes Enel Contemporanea. A few days after my lunch with Baratta, the arts sponsorship arm of the Italian electricity company, which is contributing about €1m to the Biennale this year, tells me that it is planning to announce an annual contemporary art prize during the inauguration.
If they go ahead, they will have triumphed over a steely adversary. In order to make the Biennale more self-sufficient, Baratta has cut external staff collaborations by 30 per cent. More controversial is his decision to reduce installation budgets in the curatorial show, forcing some artists to turn to their galleries or outside foundations for sponsorship.
He has also raised ticket prices by 30 per cent. Yet he can still boast a rise in visitors, from 319,332 in 2007 to 375,702 in 2009. Nevertheless, he considers his greatest success to be the Venetian of the Year award presented to him by Venice’s mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, last December. “That means I have accomplished what I wanted.”
He is right to be proud. Besieged by 17m tourists a year, the 58,000 strong local population is wary of outsiders who colonise their city’s glories. Baratta, however, has given as well as taken. The Exhibitions Pavilion in the gardens (formerly the Italia Pavilion) is now open all year round and hosts, as well as a bookshop, café and educational space, a new public library containing the Biennale’s 20th-century art archive. Only the strongest local foundations will allow his global ambitions to flourish.
The Venice Biennale of Art runs from June 4 to November 27. www.labiennale.org