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Venice and contemporary: is there more to it than the Biennale?

No doubt about it: the Biennale of Venice is one of the most high-profile events in the art agenda of the entire world. Still, Venice sadly appears to be just a fancy container to be used once every two years. Is it possible that a city that has been the host for 50 long editions of such an event as the Biennale has no scene offering modern or contemporary art all year round? For art-related people, Venice is no bed of roses because it has no territory-bound audience. Venice and its region lack interest in contemporary forms of culture, chokes on its own conservatism, and cannot get rid of its ‘campanilismo’ (meaning, nothing that comes from abroad - and, for ‘abroad’ they mean even from other Italian regions - can be compared to Venice's glorious past.) For those who know the city a bit better, a small, caring scene is definitely there but struggles probably too hard to be noticed. This scene offers new forms of culture and beautiful spaces that, in their own peculiar way, perfectly suit the city.

La Galleria · Venezia

Dorothea van der Koelen at the opening of her gallery in Venice, courtesy La Galleria · Venezia

It is probably the Venitian white cube. That's the idea you inevitably get when the bright light of this elegant gallery catches you unawares at a very typical, dark corner of the city (very close to the recently reborn opera-house, La Fenice.) The gallery is rather roomy and gives due importance to publications with a corner completely dedicated to them, plus an important shelf with refined catalogues on the artists the gallery promotes; most publications are edited by the publishing company run by the gallery itself, Chorus Verlag. ´Mother` of this beautiful space is Dorothea van der Koelen, a German gallerist owning two other successful galleries in Mainz (Germany.) For the arts, the gallerist travelled the world, got to know many cities. Each one of them interested her, she recounts; still, Venice had a tremendous impact on her and she knew, since then, that she would have loved opening a space there. She managed it three years ago. When asked on the reactions of the Venetians to such a space, she said it was almost funny the way most of them looked through the windows to understand what it was all about. Something that seems not to have disturbed her. Now the gallery appears to have managed to become part of the Venetian structure.


The physical space of Spazzi; certainly, a big ´clearing` for Venice, courtesy Spazzi

´Spiazzi` stands for ´clearing` and suits particularly well an art space of exceptional dimensions for the dense maze of Venice: 250 sq metres divided into an exhibiting space of 80, a lab for sculpture, another for black and white photography, an open space for artisans' work. The opening in December had a feature which is rather common in other European cities but not in Venice: the audience's heterogeneity. It says a lot about the intention of this young cultural association who aims at becoming a real meeting point for art lovers of any kind. But not just. The twelve young persons who opened Spiazzi - all having very different backgrounds but a deep love for arts and craftsmanship in common - conceived their space as open to whoever wants to exhibit their art in Venice. That is why the association is able to offer not just the physical space itself but, as well, all range of services needed to set up an exhibition, from press management to logistics (which can be rather tricky in the lagoon.) Spiazzi is right beside the famous Arsenale, an area of the city, they say, much visited during the Biennale but - unfortunately - almost forgotten during the rest of the year, even if it is probably one of the liveliest areas of Venice.

Nuova Icona

Inside the Gallery of Nuova Icona, courtesy Nuova Icona

Another serious attempt to bring fresh, contemporary air to Venice is Nuova Icona. The non-profit cultural association was founded in 1993 and focuses on contemporary visual and performing arts. It invests all its resources in the works of young artists involved in either touring shows curated by the association itself or hosted in its permanent exhibition spaces, the Gallery of Nuova Icona and the challenging - but fascinating - Oratorio di San Ludovico. As stated in its rich home-page, the purpose of the association is ‘to engage the town itself in artists' projects and to consider its stunning art patrimony as a spiritual resource for new productions.’ Moreover, Nuova Icona has itinerary projects such as the ‘museometropolitano,’ trying to deal with the absence of a museum of contemporary art in Venice by commissioning to active, international artists new works or installations for buildings or open-air sites both in the city or other places.

Centro Culturale Candiani

Ca' Pesaro that, along with the Centro Culturale Candiani, is one of the two art venues run by the Venetian city council, courtesy Comune di Venezia

A city like Venice needs boundless amounts of money to keep itself going. And it is not just about restoration and maintenance of its unique heritage. It is about the basic, physical needs of an extremely delicate city where almost nothing is less than -at least- a hundred years old. It is hard to believe that the city council of Venice could possibly invest on contemporary culture. Still, and even in the midst of such basic issues, the Venetian city council realised decades ago that a glorious past did not necessarily mean a bright cultural future. The project it invested in dates back to 1979 but opened just a couple of years ago because it encountered (and it still does) much criticism from the inhabitants themselves. It is called Centro Culturale Candiani. It is not on the island itself but in Mestre, a city of strong industrial past, literally a bridge away from Venice. The cultural centre planned to become a space for new forms of culture. It has good rooms for art exhibitions and other facilities for concerts, theatre, cinema, new media. Still, one can stroll around at opening hours and meet no one. Allegedly (and sadly enough), the city council is trying to step back from the project by selling it to privates.

The established

Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, once the house of Peggy Guggenheim, now a museum hosting her collection, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

The city council runs Ca' Pesaro too. It is a gallery for modern art, in a barroque palace on the Gran Canal. After many years of restoration, it has recently re-opened to offer to the public masterpieces of European artists of the 18th, 19th and 20th century, such as Boccioni, Chagall, de Chirico, Ernst, Kandinsky, Klimt, Miró, Moore, Morandi. It seems to be running well, probably because modern art is a safe ground to move upon.
Still, the museum of modern art par excellence is, in Venice, the Peggy Guggenheim. The eccentric art-collector moved to Venice in the '40s, bought an unfinished palace along the Grand Canal that became her house and rocked the art scene of the small town. After her death, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation turned her palace in a museum where her own private collection is exhibited. And, remaining in the family, rumour has it that the Foundation already bought a conspicuous stretch of island called ‘Punta della Dogana’ where the next Guggenheim Museum should be expected.

The ‘side’ scene

Details of the opening of Jam Club Venice, photos Jens Lüstraeten

Where do the young art-like people hang around? Probably in a ‘bacaro’ (the typical Venetian bars for good wine and home-made snacks) and, as well, around Campo Santa Margherita, an area always packed with students, artists and the like. Imagina, the first café-gallery of the city opened there not long ago. Its white-cube look has become a feature of the area, although it unfortunately attracts a very homogenous crowd. Still, it is a good place where to get to know what's up in the arts in Venice, thanks to the many invitation cards and programmes spread around the café.
The other venue is called Jam Club. It is not on the island itself (it is almost impossible to open such a place in the delicate Venitian environment) but, again, on the mainland, in Mestre. The club - minimally decorated in black, red and white and with curious details of the '70s - is rather known for its music programme, ranging from indie to experimental live music. Recently, the young owners (among them, a former student of the accademy of fine arts of Venice) decided to open their club to alternative cinema and interactive video-installations a sunday each month. The first of such sundays was dedicated to the subject ´work.` It featured the first film of Tinto Bras, ´Chi lavora è perduto` (an exception to the general line of the director; a film in black and white about the doubts of a young man who has to choose between a secure job and his real interests), and a camping tent in which a video camera had been set. The public was invited to get into the tent and explain their ideal job. The images of the person speaking where, then, visible on a large screen from the outside where the rest of the audience would watch it as yet another part of the film just seen. (web-site of Spiazzi) (web-site Nuova Icona) (web-site Centro Culturale Candiani) (web-page dedicated to Ca' Pesaro) (web-site of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice) (web-site of Jam Club Venice)

Text: M. Cecchinato
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