The first thing is the people. The city of people, rather than the city of stones. What strikes me particularly in Venice, apart from the beauty, the water and the light, is its inhabitants, an absolute element of identity of this city, and among these the artistseven more, the exponents of culture and the students it succeeds in attracting and retaining, as it has always been able to do, for a few days, sometimes for months or years. They form a very dynamic community. It’s a great resource.
The second thing that amazes me, since I moved there in 2010, is the still whole energy of Venice, its ability to be a stimulating environment for artists. In seven years we have hosted dozens of them, because one of the things we want to do when we exhibit works is to invite the artist to see the layout and every time, without exception, the artist has had the inspiration to change, adapt, create. The power of the sign in Venice fascinates me.
I found this in a book that captures the sense right from the title: Venice lives by Angela Vettese. This portrait of the city came out in February, just as the curator of the 2017 Art Biennale, Christine Macel, launched the theme of the 57th edition: Viva Arte Viva. These titles remind me of two very important exhibitions, hosted at Palazzo Grassi in the 1950s. The first one was Venezia Viva in 1954. Egle Renata Trincanato, professor at the IUAV, the University of Architecture in Venice, curated the section devoted to urban transformations: it was a truly visionary exhibition. It prefigured a series of contemporary questions, already considered strategic more than sixty years ago: the problem of housing, the lowering of the terrain, development on the mainland, demographic pressures, the restoration of monuments. The other revealing exhibition was of 1959: Vitality in Art, curated by the architect Carlo Scarpa. Life again, presented alongside Venice. An extraordinary coincidence.
Venice is still able to reflect on itself and, through the challenges it faces, to modernise and act as a model. Pushed to the extreme, the difficulties it experiences are those of many other European cities. Its unique dimension forces one to face them in advance. The theme of the monoculture of tourism, for example, is the same in Paris, Barcelona, and Rome: how to remain true cities whilst undergoing a growing pressure of tourists. If Venice has the most serious and visible issues of all, it is nevertheless more than others able to invent solutions.
The little Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi aims to bring together the living forces present in Venice, the various players of culture, of art at a local and international level; it aims to be a place where the human wealth of the community, even the temporary one that so surprises me, can manifest itself. Our project is to bring together many “fragments” of voices of the territory and beyond, of native and new inhabitants, for an idea of Venice that is still possible.
Here, one is usually defined as Venetian or outsider. I myself, a Venetian, do not claim to be so, but not a tourist either. So I have tried to invent the category of “protagonist”, and move the emphasis from provenance to initiative. It does not matter where you come from: what counts is what you do.
Martin Bethenod has been Director and Managing Director of the Pinault Foundation. Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice since June 2010.