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Revitalized Biennale a mix of the arts

New management, privatization allows move to next level

ROME — It’s taken more than a hundred years, and skeptics doubted it would ever happen, but in less than two years since new management took up the reins, La Biennale di Venezia has successfully begun to shake off the shackles of government bureaucracy and undergo a transformation that makes it both venerable and viable.

Established in 1895, the nonprofit arts foundation that controls the Venice Film Festival was privatized in recent years, and while continuing to receive state backing, the organization is an autonomous concern headed by president Paolo Baratta.

While many of his predecessors have been esteemed arts-sector denizens, few have brought much concrete management savvy to the table. But as a veteran economist and administrator, Baratta brings a varied background as bank president-CEO and government minister responsible at various times for privatization, foreign trade, industry, public works and the environment.

Beyond bureaucracy

Perhaps the key achievement of Baratta’s tenure so far has been his success in getting all divisions of the Biennale — visual arts, architecture, music, film, dance and theater — up and running simultaneously.

In the long history of the org, all six branches have never before been continuously active nor have ticket sales and sponsorship revenues ever been so high. The current tally of almost $3.5 million represents a significant chunk of the foundation’s $19 million annual budget.

And in an organization previously notorious for politically influenced appointments, Baratta stresses that all section chiefs were nominated without interference from Rome, based exclusively on criteria of experience, capability and efficiency.

“We’ve gone beyond the old concept of bureaucracy,” Baratta tells Variety. “We’re now facing a second phase. The first was the transition from bureaucracy to normal functioning; the next is from being a functioning operation to one capable of activating its own projects. The Biennale now has to become not simply a nonbureacratic organization but a dynamic one.”

Perhaps the newly streamlined org’s most dynamic step has been taking over and renovating Venice’s Arsenale, historic shipyards dating back to early last century, where the Venetian fleet was built. The Biennale has carved out nearly 33,000 square feet of striking exhibition space from the Arsenale’s warehouses, workshops, depots and slipways. (The hot-ticket MTV party will take place in the Arsenale Sept. 7, with live linkup to the music web’s awards show in New York.)

Synergy between branches

Even more significantly in a city in which two major theaters remain closed — one being La Fenice, gutted by fire in 1996 — the Biennale has inaugurated a new open-air theater on the Isola di San Giorgio and two more theaters within the Arsenale.

Running through October in the Arsenale and Giardini del Castello, and well worth a side trip during the Venice fest, is the Architecture Biennale, which takes place every two years, alternating with a visual arts event. This year’s main theme is the City: Less Aesthetics, More Ethics.

Curated by division head Massimiliano Fuksas, the expo’s highlights include a Japanese stone-and-sand garden constructed on the Arsenale’s Gaggiandre, two huge floating platforms built in the 1500s; and a multivision installation by Milan audiovisual arts house Studio Azzurro occupying an entire wall of the immense Corderie, a warehouse spanned by wooden trusses built in 1303 for the making of rope and cable.

Employing hundreds of video projectors, the installation simultaneously shows footage shot in cities all over the world, from Tokyo to New York to New Delhi, India, to Rome, incorporating them into one megametropolis.

Projects like this represent part of an increasing synergistic push between the various Biennale branches. Film fest chief Alberto Barbera and directors of other divisions all will be involved in next year’s Visual Arts Biennale, running June through November and curated by Harald Szeemann.

“This is the beginning of a collaboration that we’re nurturing with particular attention,” explains Baratta. “Clearly, everyone talks about the intersectorial aspect of the arts because everyone knows that the worlds of art, music, dance, theater and film all overlap. That’s nothing new. But we are the only institution in the world representing all facets of the arts, and with the Arsenale, we’re developing a space designed to showcase all of them together.”

Biennale redefines role

Similar to the principles behind the film fest selection, the Biennale is intent not only on training its spotlight on existing names and established art forms, but on fostering new talent through seminars, forums, theater workshops, a dance academy and financial grants to encourage new music compositions.

“The role of the Biennale should be to introduce people to new cultural ideas they otherwise might never encounter,” says Baratta. “We’re pleased, for example, that through the film festival certain films which perhaps would never have been shown commercially have followed their Venice launch with releases in Italian theaters.”

One laudable Biennale initiative this year is designed to make the Venice fest affordable to younger audiences, including film students. With Lido eateries and accommodation often weighing heavily even on those with expense accounts, they invariably are beyond student budgets. Venice offers a package covering cut-price tickets and lodgings that range from campsites to low-cost and city transport discounts.

“It’s young audiences that really bring a festival to life,” enthuses Baratta. “And this spirit is a central part of the Biennale’s aims of spreading awareness and enriching people’s cultural outlooks.”

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