As the Biennale expands, locals ask, 'Whose Venice is it?'
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As the Biennale expands, locals ask, 'Whose Venice is it?'
Visitors rest at the the Arsenale in Venice, Italy, May 9, 2019. A plan to give more space to the Venice Biennale in a waterside heritage site has kicked off a debate over the future of one of the city’s largest public properties, and, by extension, of the city itself. Gianni Cipriano/The New York Times.

by Max Norman

VENICE.- Since its founding in 1895, the Venice Biennale has become one of the world’s most important venues for contemporary art, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city for its influential exhibitions and performances.

The event, which this year runs through Nov. 27, keeps Venice at the center of the world’s cultural conversation. More practically, it generates repeat, often overnight visitors that the city prefers to day trippers.

But some of Venice’s rapidly shrinking local population feel that the Biennale, aided by the current city government, is monopolizing space that could be used by locals to create a sustainable, year-round cultural and economic life beyond tourism.

The city’s concession to the Biennale this past March of more space in the Arsenale — a former shipyard whose tall, red brick walls enclosed an industrial operation capable of producing a warship a day — has become entangled in a complicated debate over the future of one of the city’s largest public properties and, by extension, of the city itself.

“The Arsenale is much, much more than the Biennale,” said Giorgio Suppiej, secretary of the Forum for the Arsenale’s Future, a coalition of more than 60 local groups that has spent a decade lobbying for increased accessibility to the site and that is suing to block the March decision. (A court is set to hear the case this month.) The group organized a protest in February before the city’s decision that was attended by hundreds of Venetians, who held signs reading “Arsenale to the City” and “Arsenale Open and Alive All Year.”

The Forum says the Arsenale’s historic workshops should be dedicated to boatbuilding, rowing groups and the display of traditional watercraft, all of which, it contends, could create jobs while also safeguarding a traditional Venetian way of life.

The Biennale is a “beautiful thing for Venice, let that be clear,” Suppiej said. But it “can’t be a trump card that cuts out things that are even more important,” he added.

The Arsenale, whose 120 acres account for a large chunk of Venice’s historic center, is jointly owned by the city of Venice and the Italian navy, which still maintains an active base there. The vast complex was all but closed to the public until the Biennale started exhibiting there in 1980. Even now, locals can only enter much of the Arsenale after buying a Biennale ticket for 20.50 euros, or about $21.40. A large part of the city’s holdings in the Arsenale is rarely accessible to the public, and much of it sits unused.

The March decision — the result of an agreement among the city, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Culture — clears the way for the Biennale to establish the International Center for Research on the Contemporary Arts, a space for artists and academics to work with material from the institution’s archive. Under the plan, the Biennale will also build facilities for its growing education wing, the Biennale Colleges, and will invest millions to restore the Arsenale’s fragile walls, buildings and canals.

The goal was “to repopulate this part of the city and to bring life to the Arsenale 365 days a year,” said Biennale president Roberto Cicutto, making the Arsenale a place where art is not just displayed but also created. He added that the new center would bring long-term visitors and permanent jobs, although it was too early to specify how many.

Although the March agreement guarantees ticket-free entry to part of the Arsenale year-round, the Forum and its supporters say that isn’t enough. They have also bristled at the city’s decision to hand over a number of waterfront buildings on the site to the navy as part of the deal, because no assurances were given that those buildings would be made accessible to the general public. The Ministry of Defense declined to comment.

Cicutto said the debate over the Arsenale’s future had more to do with the city’s management of the complex than the Biennale’s involvement. The Biennale’s new center, he added, would occupy buildings that would be unusable unless they were renovated. “We’re restoring things that have been destroyed,” he said. “It would be a crime not to take advantage and make this place available to the world.”

The new center will ultimately be just one small part of the Biennale’s presence in Venice, which now extends far beyond its original location in the Giardini della Biennale, where many countries present their national pavilions. Official collateral events, as well as independently organized exhibitions meant to coincide with the Biennale, can be found even in the farthest corners of the city.

“The Biennale is eating up everything,” said Marco Gasparinetti, a residents-rights advocate who sits on Venice’s City Council. Artisans struggled to find affordable workshops, because landlords prefer to rent ground-floor space to the Biennale, he added. “Renting to the Biennale, even for a few months or a few weeks, generates absolutely incredible amounts,” he said.

Although the Biennale brings hundreds of jobs to Venice, many are low-paid, seasonal positions, Gasparinetti said. Despite its high-culture bona fides, the Biennale contributes to the growing sense among some residents that Venice is “not for us but for others,” he added.

Donatella Toso, 67, a retired schoolteacher who lives in the Castello district, near the Arsenale, said she enjoyed visiting the Biennale, and was “proud for my city to be the seat of such an important cultural event.” But as she watched her neighborhood change, she added, she couldn’t help but see the Biennale as “part of a dynamic of expropriation that has impoverished the city.” Rising rents were pushing residents out, she said, and more spaces in the neighborhood were devoted to Biennale events.

“For me, the Biennale is enchanting,” said Leo James Smith, 23, who runs a local nonprofit that focuses on urban regeneration in Venice. “There’s a lot of activity from all over the world in Venice, and the Biennale is the artistic expression of that.” But, he said, he was increasingly aware that the Biennale uses “its huge economic power to take up a lot of spaces that might be used better.”

Giuseppe Saccà, leader of the largest opposition party on the City Council, said the Biennale had made mistakes, but he added that it would take very little for the organization to establish a better relationship with residents. He said he blamed a lack of imagination and strategic planning by city officials for the continued domination of Venice by tourism. Yet, although politicians may struggle to formulate a vision, he said, the Biennale was “one of the few institutions in this city that has plans, raises money and works at a certain level.”

“Every company has its social responsibility, and the Biennale does, too,” Saccà said. But the city must ultimately make sure that the Biennale grows responsibly, he added, noting that the mayor of Venice sits on the Biennale’s administrative council. And some problems, such as excessive rents and Venice’s diminishing population, are simply not for it to solve, Saccà said. “You can’t ask the Biennale to do something that isn’t the Biennale.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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