How Venice might remake itself as a contemporary art hub
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How Venice might remake itself as a contemporary art hub
Information about a new access fee for day trippers is displayed on a sign in Venice, Italy, in June 2024. It has been projected that the program will cost more to administer than it will bring in. (Matteo de Mayda/The New York Times)

by Laura Rysman

VENICE.- Venice is a magic trick, a city on stilts rising from the water. Yet that very magic trick has also created a seemingly intractable problem, as Venice has become famously overtouristed. Today, the city’s population has dipped below 50,000, while it contends with, by some estimates, 20 million to 30 million annual tourist visits. On an average day, that means there are more tourists on the city’s antiquated streets and canals than there are residents.

That leaves Venice feeling less magical and more like a cheap amusement park — a city whose very identity is being erased by the tourist onslaught. Political responses have been meager, though officials did roll out a new access fee for day trippers in April. (The fee, however, is projected to cost the city more to administer than it will actually collect.)

While the results of that initiative remain to be seen, some commentators — including those at the Art for Tomorrow conference in Venice last week — have suggested that one solution to the city’s loss of identity might lie in the growing contemporary art scene.

Teeming with tourists since the Middle Ages, Venice drew merchants from abroad and religious pilgrims setting sail to the Holy Land, but only with our era’s explosion of cheap and easy travel has the city tipped toward crisis, as the number of visitors has skyrocketed. There are almost 10 times as many tourists as there were two decades ago, and the city has been grappling with the familiar problems that arrive when masses of vacationers descend: overwhelmed city infrastructure, environmental strains and an inflated real estate market.

As vacation rentals eat up local housing, the city has been suffering from human erosion — the loss in Venice’s center of about 1,000 inhabitants per year. Its current population represents less than a third of its postwar level. A national law passed in 2022 permitted Venice to curb vacation rentals, but no restraints have gone into effect, despite outcry from activist groups like Ocio, which tracks housing.

As the city succumbs to tourism, it has slipped into an identity crisis. After all, without its locals and its traditions, what exactly is Venice?

Last week, during the Art for Tomorrow conference — an annual event convened by the Democracy & Culture Foundation, with panels moderated by New York Times journalists — thinkers on a panel titled “Sustainability and the Pitfalls of Beauty” debated how Venice and other beloved ports of call could be saved from their popularity and the resulting tourist deluges.

“One of the main reasons for the existence of Venice is art and beauty,” said Toto Bergamo Rossi, the director of Venetian Heritage, an organization dedicated to preserving the city’s culture. Challenging the mayor’s wisdom on the new access fee, he suggested that it could be replaced with a city reservation system — capping the number of spots available to tourists.

But for now, many people’s hopes for Venice lie in its cultural regeneration, as the last few years have seen artists, collectors and gallerists moving into Venice and opening new contemporary art venues. Many of Venice’s new adoptees hail from elsewhere, drawn in by the city’s archaic charm, and by the Venice Biennale.

Created in 1895, the Biennale has become a premier event of the art world, and its significance has rendered Venice a capital of contemporary culture. The 2022 edition drew 800,000 ticketed attendees — a fraction of the millions of visitors arriving in Venice annually.

However, as Scott Reyburn, a Times contributor, put it during the panel discussion, rather than merely consuming the city with social media’s “click-and-run tourism,” Biennale visitors come for the city’s culture, and their presence helps to invigorate it. It’s an event that does not reduce the quantity of the tourism, as Bergamo Rossi acknowledged, but it does increase its quality.

The Biennale also sees collateral exhibitions in palazzos, churches and other locations around the city, filling all of Venice with contemporary art and rendering it an attractive stage for new art sites — including Berggruen Arts & Culture, the Stanze della Fotografia, the Vincenzo De Cotiis Foundation, and galleries like those of Lorcan O’Neill, Tommaso Calabro and Patricia Low.

“Look at where we are now,” said Bergamo Rossi, pointing out that the main location for the Art for Tomorrow conference, the 18th-century Palazzo Diedo, became an art foundation because Nicolas Berggruen, an investor and philanthropist in Los Angeles, was drawn to the city’s cultural spirit.

“Venice has an unusual magnetism,” Berggruen explained in a phone interview.

In the last year, he has inaugurated two locations of his Berggruen Institute in the lagoon city: first Casa dei Tre Oci, which welcomes thinkers from various disciplines, and then Palazzo Diedo’s Berggruen Arts & Culture, which opened its doors with a show featuring site-specific works by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Urs Fischer, Mariko Mori and other artists. The Palazzo also hosts residencies, so artists can spend time interacting with and creating in Venice.

Berggruen said that the city “has always had a role between East and West that transcends Italy and transcends Europe.”

He added: “We felt that Venice could again be a crossroads for creation and ideas.”

To resist total touristification, a city needs to be a place worth living, not just visiting.

Venice, now rich in champions of the arts, is strengthening its cultural identity. At the same time, though, it remains to be seen exactly how willing politicians are to limit vacation rentals and tourist numbers and to protect local businesses ever more displaced by tourism.

And yet, art is flourishing — a harbinger of an invigorated city.

“Venice teaches you that human creations can be incredible, like a city built on water,” said Paolo Russo, a founder of the Floating Cinema, where art films and performances are shown to an audience which, he said, was composed primarily of “Venetians and the new Venetians who moved here because they love the city.”

The uniquely Venetian event, Russo continued, “creates a shared terrain dedicated to art — because, art creates communities.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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