PRINT May 2002


Venetian Brass: Steven Henry Madoff on the Biennale Brouhaha

When it was announced in March that Francesco Bonami had been appointed director of visual arts for the 2003 Venice Biennale, one imagined relieved silence falling over the roofs of the city. But of course in the great comic opera of Italian civic affairs, nothing ends in silence or, for that matter, ever seems to end at all.

Bonami, 47, a Florence native and senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, received word of his election amid a melee of mad political drama—Punch and Judy, Italian style. On one side of the stage, Franco Bernabè, newly named by the Italian culture ministry as president of the Biennale. On the other (and not without rancorous irony), Vittorio Sgarbi, undersecretary of the ministry and its official scourge of contemporary art. Waiting in the wings, the eminent and occasionally controversial art critic of Time magazine, Robert Hughes.

In December of last year Sgarbi proposed Hughes for the visual-arts job, despite the fact that the ministry has no administrative say in the matter; that is the province of the Biennale’s president and board. Hardly a minor technicality, but Sgarbi’s insistence inevitably raised the question: Why Hughes? Famous and brilliant as he is, the Time critic has never curated a show in his sixty-three years on earth. Sgarbi, who apparently never misses an opportunity to explode into fireworks of profane invective, explains:

“To me, I believe shit is shit and painting is painting. But in Italy, shit is painting and painting is shit. The last Biennale [curated by Harald Szeemann] was the Taliban Biennale—only one line was represented. What has dominated the Biennale is the avant-garde mafioso thinking that follows art critics and galleries but doesn’t represent any truth about art. I wanted someone who would be anti–art mafia. Hughes’s conservative position interests me. He sees art as art, not as a market product. He was a perfect remedy.”

Then the heat-seeking Sgarbi locks in: “But we would have never imagined that Bernabè, the idiot, would work against us. He was selected as president to follow the line of the government. But the president is foolish. He chose Bonami, someone within the mafia of critics who is unknown and doesn’t have a crystallized position about art. The ministry has lost, killed by our own sword, and I am ashamed, ashamed for my government. I demand Bernabè’s resignation. I hope he drowns in Venice.”

If only the solution to the appointment of a director, let alone the character of contemporary art, were so simple. As Hughes recalls, he was first approached by Alain Elkann, an associate of Sgarbi’s, in late November. Surprised by the offer and alarmed that he would have only eighteen months to curate the vast exposition on its hundredth birthday, he nonetheless said he would give it serious thought. The critic felt driven to “rescue the Biennale, which has fallen into complete desuetude under the influence of dealers and others,” as he puts it, sounding more than a little like Sgarbi himself.

Hughes’s ideas were imposing; he envisioned an Augustan showcase of art that would go against the grain of contemporary trends. He would fill the sprawling international pavilion and the two great stretches of the Arsenale and Cordiere with “images of nature as distinct from images of culture and media,” he says, “countering the violent skew toward video and photography in the last Biennales.” He would employ the Palazzo Grassi as well, for a survey of work from the Biennale’s century of shows, thick with shifting ideologies and notions of beauty.

“Now we flash forward to mid-December,” Hughes recounts. “I am in Madrid, where I’m working on my film on Goya. I had a very amiable dinner with the boys from Italy and I said I would take on the show, but we must have our lawyers thrash out a deal right away.” And then . . . nothing—other than Sgarbi’s pronouncements to anyone who would listen that Hughes, with his international profile, must get the job.

Meanwhile, in Venice and Rome, another tempest squalled. Paolo Baratta, then president of the Biennale, was approaching a deadline of his own—the end of his four-year term in April 2002. His popularity led many to expect reappointment, but meantime the conservative government of Silvio Berlusconi had come to power. In late December, Sgarbi and culture minister Giuliano Urbani let it be known that they were appointing a new president: Bernabè, former CEO of both Telecom Italia and Italy’s national oil and gas company, and a friend of Berlusconi.

“It was classic Italian politics,” says Vittorio Pierobon, vice-chairman of the Venice newspaper Il Gazzettino. “The center left said it was a blitzkrieg intervention. The center right said it was absolutely normal to put their own person in.” But word on the street was that the new government resented Baratta’s independence—he had overseen a change in the Biennale’s bylaws that shifted the organization from state-funded to semiprivate. Worse, Alberto Barbera, director of the Biennale’s film festival on Baratta’s watch, had savaged Berlusconi in public statements. Now, having heard his fate months in advance, Baratta resigned. His entire board followed.

And where was Hughes? Still waiting. Just before the New Year, Bernabè assumed his new role and began three months of due diligence. He claims to have interviewed some fifty curators, museum directors, critics, and others to gauge who would best fit the visual-arts post. To Hughes, Sgarbi’s assurances sounded increasingly hollow. On February 28, he made his own decision known through “Page Six,” a gossip column in the New York Post. “Life’s too short to waste fooling around with ditherers,” Hughes stated with signature bluntness. He was through with the Biennale. “It would have been extraordinarily taxing,” Hughes says now. “In the end, I don’t feel an overwhelming sense of sacrificial dedication to late-modernist art.”

Bernabè was looking for just such dedication, and previous curatorial experience too. “I spoke with Hughes in New York,” he says. “He was very impressive. But he said he had never curated anything. The Biennale is a very complex undertaking. That was the deciding factor for me. I could not take the risk.” Only in March did Bernabè begin serious talks with Bonami. With his budget of about $15.5 million in place, the president convened a new board to vote. They did so in 105 minutes: a rubber stamp not only for Bonami but for every director proposed for the Biennale’s other sections—film, architecture, dance, music, theater, and visual arts.

Bernabè is bemused by Sgarbi’s demands for his instant retirement, and to date nothing has come of it. “The laws are very, very clear,” he says. “The president and the board make the choices. Sgarbi is the ministry’s problem, not mine.”

Bonami seems no less worldly, and is apparently not put off, as Hughes was, by his fast-approaching deadline. After all, he points out, Szeemann had fourteen months to the sixteen he has been given. Germano Celant did his Biennale in no more than six. Bonami, the American editor of Flash Art from 1990 to 1997 and curator of shows from New York to Tokyo, from London to Turin to Seoul, brushes off Sgarbi’s barbs. “As to how the show gets received, I don’t expect anyone to do me any favors,” he says. “You can’t really hold onto more than thirty artists in your head as a curator, let alone hundreds for a show this size. So my idea is to collaborate with other curators in Europe, America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa. They’ll develop autonomous projects for the spaces at the Biennale in sync with my general vision, and I’ll do the best job I can. But I’m not forgetting: In the art world, all names are written in pencil.”

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

Italian translation and additional reporting from Venice by Ewa Górniak.