Sleeping Giant

Left: Arte Fiera director Angela Vettese and curator Mark Nash.  Except where noted, all photos: Pia Capelli. Right: Artist Luigi Ontani and photographer Jacopo Benassi. Photo: Alessandro Trapezio.

BORN IN 1974 IN A CITY, Bologna, that’s impossible not to love and wonderfully accessible to collectors from northern, central, and southern Italy, Arte Fiera has long been the Italian champion of sales, the social start of the art season, and an unmissable event for Italian collectors.

Nonetheless, Italy’s longest-running modern and contemporary art fair now finds itself competing with MiArt and Artissima, and after a few editions needs rebranding. The newly appointed director of the fair, Angela Vettese, has a solid background as a critic, curator, professor, and cultural councillor, but is new to the commercial side of the art world—which might be a mixed blessing. Vettese has spent the past few months screening the hundreds of applications that in past editions had expanded the exhibitors into three different pavilions of Bologna Fiere.

Quite the paradox, the Bolognese kermesse’s great advantage lies in its very same weakness––the low “aesthetic” expectations that currently surround the fair—while its main problem is the inclination to downplay the richness of Bologna’s offering during the art week and throughout the year. “You will never hear a Bolognese boast about his hometown: They will complain, instead, or keep good deeds private,” a young curator told me as soon as I set foot under the landmark Due Torri.

Left: Artist T-yong Chung. Right: Artist Yuri Ancarani, dealer Francesca Minini, and MAST artistic director Urs Stahel.

That the Bolognese art scene sells itself short was clear from the very first events of my week there. A train and a bus took the early birds to the opening of “Work in Motion” at the Manifattura di Arte, Sperimentazione e Tecnologia (MAST). A crystal building designed by the young architects of Labics, MAST is the brainchild of Isabella Seràgnoli (president of precision mechanics Coesia group), whose power is as legendary as her shyness with the press.

Anywhere else in the world, this 270,000-square-foot exhibition space with a vocation for photography, that has been open for three years, would be a must-see. Here, in the outskirts of the capital of Emilia, it’s still a secret gem. The video-only exhibition we were invited to see, curated by artistic director Urs Stahel, is MAST’s first foray outside the realm of pure photography and is graced by the presence of, among others, Gaëlle Boucand, Ali Kazma, Julika Rudelius, Thomas Vroege, and Yuri Ancarani, who was inaugurating an installation in Rotterdam only a few days later.

From there, a happy string of chance encounters brought me and my luggage to the car of art critic Antonio Grulli: He wanted me to see the collection of Gaia Rossi, though Rossi herself protested, along the ride, that she is not a collector—rather “someone who likes to do nice things for her house.” Her house turns out to be Palazzo Bentivoglio, a sixteenth-century wonder on Via delle Belle Arti, where Gaia’s family is now integrating the existing architecture, with magnificent Neoclassical frescoes and precious Brussels tapestries, with site-specific works by Luigi Ontani, Flavio Favelli, Davide Trabucco, Pierpaolo Campanini, and Anna-Sophie Berger. A twenty-foot-long Alex Katz fills a wall in the dining room, flanked by unique pottery by Ettore Sottsass and “guilty pleasures” such as Fornasetti objects.

Left: Dealer Primo Marella and artist Abdoulaye Konaté. Right: Artist Peter Buggenhout and curator Simone Menegoi.

“Bologna’s art scene may be small, but we are very supportive of each other,” Grulli said. “In Bologna,” added Rossi, whose husband is an eminent industrialist, “we don’t mingle based on social status, but on shared interests, so it’s easy to find businessmen dining with artists and curators.”

The afternoon continued at MAMbo, Bologna’s main contemporary art museum, which boomed under Gianfranco Maraniello’s direction and is now awaiting the appointment of a new scientific director of exhibitions. The power vacuum shows, to the eyes and to the ears: Jonas Burgert’s solo show was described by previewers as “cacophonic.” Then everyone was off to the big dinner the Maccaferri family throws for the artist—proving once again that Italian collectors and patrons do exist and that they mostly come from old money. (Not that we ever talk about money here. It’s “volgare.”)

The next morning was an early start: Before 10 AM Vettese was at the Museo Archeologico with curator Mark Nash to present “Viva L’Italia!,” an off-fair exhibition (part of the Art City program) with movies by Pasolini, Rossellini, and Bertolucci. “Bologna is a synecdoche of Italy’s identity crisis,” said Vettese. “We don’t know who we’ll be in the future.” Right after, I dropped by Galleria d’Arte Maggiore to see Motivi Ossei (Bone Motifs), a wall installation by Bolognese artist Sissi. And then it was fair time.

Curators including Francesco Bonami and museum directors were already touring the not-so-crowded aisles inside pavilions 25 and 26. Arte Fiera’s public is largely Italian, as are the dealers and collectors: Paola and Marino Golinelli are among the first ones in. Vettese’s resolve to have a curatorial approach resulted in more solo shows, less-packed booths (although some of the older dealers happily disregarded the suggestions and set up the usual messy art ensembles), and an experimental section, Nueva Vista, curated by Simone Frangi, where Edith Kollath’s breathing books (at Galerie Mazzoli) were the most Instagrammed works of the fair.

Left: Artist Sissi and collector Cecilia Matteucci. Photo: Alessandro Trapezio. Right: Fondazione Del Monte Curator Maura Pozzati, collector Gaia Rossi, and curator Antonio Grulli.

There were fewer booths entirely devoted to Italian art from the 1960s and 1970s, which is both good—for the quality of the art on view—and risky, as Fontana, Manzoni, Castellani, Bonalumi, and Pittura Analitica have saved the day when the crisis hit the Italian art market. One of the best features of the fair is that visitors often find living artists just a few steps from their works, so conversations flow. Whether sales follow remains to be seen. “Arte Fiera is like a tortellino,” Galleria dello Scudo’s Filippo Di Carlo (a notorious pessimist) told me. “You can’t change the recipe, but you can choose the quality of the ingredients. And this year’s are medium quality—it can do better.”

When the fair officially opened at 6 PM and after bumping into fashion icon and collector Cecilia Matteucci Lavarini, I set off to visit “Solo Figli,” an exhibition of small ceramics and installations at the Esprit Nouveau pavilion, right across the street. Here, too, artists watched over their works, and I met Marta Pierobon, David Casini, and T-yong Chung. At the same time, Chiara Vecchiarelli’s program of talks and artists’ lectures took off with David Bernstein’s fictionalized guided tour based on his grandmother’s biography.

Then it was time for food again: a late dinner at Trattoria Gianni with MAST curator Marina Rotondo, Pinacoteca Agnelli director Marcella Pralormo, Museo Carlo Zauli’s Cristina Casadei, Marsèlleria’s artistic director Mirko Rizzi, and writers and PR friends. Tagliatelle al ragù and zuppa inglese keep us awake for the midnight start-time of Arte Fiera P-Arty at La Porta, where Vettese was already dancing under pink lights.

My Friday opened with a visit to “Oltreprima” at Fondazione Del Monte, devoted to painted photography. Curators Maura Pozzati and Fabiola Naldi explained how carefully they chose the artworks and guided me through small but exquisite pieces by Richter, Baldessari, Guerzoni, Ontani, Ketty La Rocca, and Shirin Neshat. Then we needed to choose between the famous breakfast at Golinelli’s house or an ante-anteprima tour of Fondazione Cirulli, a new institution for Italian culture with two hundred thousand pieces of art and design that will open this year in a Castiglioni-designed building in San Lazzaro di Savena. My sweet tooth guided me to Golinelli’s wonderfully cluttered—bordering on claustrophobic—attic. Artists, curators, dealers, and friends poured in. We all checked our bags—for art’s sake, I guess. Not a single surface was free of installations; floors and walls were designed by artists or covered in silver foil, Christmas-like decorations dangled over several tables covered in bignès, babàs, and salmon canapés. It was 10:30 AM but I was the only one drinking coffee. Everyone else sipped spiced warm punch with Amaro Averna or Fernet-Branca or just went straight for vodka in “winter cocktails.” Dealer Primo Marella hung out with Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté, who is part of “Africa Vibes,” the African art exhibition hosted at Opificio Golinelli, along with Joël Andrianomearisoa, Gonçalo Mabunda, Cameron Platter, Pascale Marthine Tayou, and Ouattara Watts.

Left: Artist David Bernstein with Chiara Vecchiarelli, curator of Arte Fiera Special Projects. Right: Simone Frangi, curator of Arte Fiera's Nueva Vista section.

After queuing for the restrooms for a while, I realized they were occupied by Elena Bonanno di Linguaglossa and Graham Southern from Blain | Southern, who were watching small video installations by artist Laurina Paperina in which blue-chip artists meet their doom: Matthew Barney is killed by Björk with a chainsaw, Banksy is attacked by his rats, Hirst is suffocated by butterflies, Murakami (who happens to have a big mural installation in central Galleria Cavour in Bologna) is eaten alive by his flowers. When I went out again in the freezing morning, I was a overwhelmed by the quantity of people, art, food, conversations, languages.

I was not done, though. After briefly visiting Ornaghi and Prestinari’s exhibition at Casa Morandi, and getting a quick preview of Bertozzi e Casoni’s ceramics at Palazzo Poggi, I received a text from a museum director (while I was eating gnocchi at Mercato Centrale) saying I must not miss Peter Buggenhout’s show. The suggestion proved right: Two monumental installations at Palazzo De’ Toschi were worth the visit. Buggenhout (who was also eating, because . . . Bologna) explained, with curator Simone Menegoi, the genesis of these giant relics, how he often incorporates leftovers of works by his wife, Berlinde De Bruyckere, and how “domestic dust” is dutifully collected every day from several houses in town to renew the installations.

Hopefully some of that dust comes off the old image of Arte Fiera. The fair might be “local,” but the appetite for good art is universal.

Left: Art consultant Giuliana Montrasio and dealer Allegra Ravizza. Right: Architect Silvia Dainese and MAST curator Marina Rotondo.

Left: Artist Gaëlle Boucand. Right: Artist Mario Arlati and dealer Marco Contini.

Left: Collector Marino Golinelli and curator Cristiana Perrella. Right: Blain Southern's Elena Bonanno di Linguaglossa and Graham Southern in Casa Golinelli's bathroom.

Left: Collectors Gaia Rossi and Pierangela Zecchi with comedian, writer, and artist Alessandro Bergonzoni. Right: Collectors Fabrizio and Gisella Novati.

Left: Collectors Pierangela Zecchi and Barbara Maccaferri. Right: Collezione Golinelli's curator Cristiana Perrella and dealer Tiziana Di Caro.

Left: Galleria dello Scudo's Filippo Di Carlo with Art PR Elena Casadoro and Francesca Fungher. Right: Dealers Davide and Luigi Mazzoleni through a Melotti sculpture.

Left: M77 dealers Giuseppe Lezzi and Emanuela Baccaro. Right: Dealers Lorenzo and Marco Poggiali.

Left: Project B's Emanuele Bonomi and Carlotta Loverini Botta. Right: Vistamare's Benedetta Spalletti with Ettore Spalletti's works.

Left: Angela Vettese with Marsèlleria artistic director Mirko Rizzi. Right: Artists David Casini and Marta Pierobon at “Solo Figli” exhibition.