Interview with Robert Storr, director of the 2007 Venice Biennale: "I would recommend dramatically increasing the number of national pavilions"

In the second part of our interview with Storr, he considers the question of how to make the historic event truly representative of today’s global art world


In our January issue, the commissioner of the 2007 Venice Biennale, Robert Storr, responded to his critics on a variety of contentious issues which had arisen even before his exhibitions had opened. During the following three months, the letter and review pages of the specialist art press were filled with an unprecedented torrent of further accusations and corrections in which objective debate came to assume an uncomfortably personal flavour.

Now, in the second part of our interview, as one of the most bitter critical exchanges ever to have surrounded an exhibition appears to have run its course, Professor Storr, who is Dean of the Yale School of Art, reflects on the unique nature of the event itself and what, in his experience, will be the challenges facing its new visual arts curator, Portikus Frankfurt am Main director Daniel Birnbaum, whose appointment as commissioner of the 2009 edition of the Venice Biennale was announced last month.

The Art Newspaper: Does the current model of the Venice Biennale operate satisfactorily or does it require radical surgery to fix it?

Robert Storr: The present set-up of the Biennale has serious structural, administrative and financial problems—in that it resembles most Italian institutions—but much could be done to improve its performance without radical surgery. Key to everything is long-term budgeting—relations with artists, their assistants, fabricators, shippers, technicians, installers, foundations, galleries, patrons and others who depend on knowing well in advance what the Biennale itself will actually pay for in order for them to commit to a given project. And they need to know that the Biennale can afford to do things to the international standard. For example, in 2007 cutting costs on framing done in Venice that could have been done better abroad resulted in severe damage to an artist’s work.

Administratively, the director needs to have as much unfiltered contact with the staff as possible so that trust can be built on both sides and so that imaginative solutions to problems can be found through collaboration rather than having overworked staff members caught in an untenable positions that dictate that they fall back on routine. And it is absolutely crucial that the managing director who supervises the staff know about art and the art world. Renato Quaglia knew less than nothing and had only contempt for the art world professionals on whose good will he, and the Biennale ultimately depended. Just as important, the director must be able to speak to the board in person when problems arise. Much of the friction and confusion over budgets for the 2007 Biennale could have been avoided if president Davide Croff had responded positively to my repeated requests to do so. Why he kept the director and the board apart, and why, in his public statements, he suggested that portion of the budget under my control was vastly greater than it actually was, only he can say—and surely as a businessman and banker he should be able to keep his numbers straight—but the result was he damaged my reputation and that of the Biennale.

Lastly, nothing can function smoothly if there is not enough time to set the wheels properly in motion. Daniel Birnbaum is an excellent choice for director—indeed I think so highly of him that I invited him to take part in the Symposium on Biennales that I organised in 2005. But yet again the Biennale has given the director little more than a year to research, negotiate, fund and actually make the exhibition. This is extremely hard on the director and on the staff and it is self-defeating for the Biennale as an institution. Our collective effort to rebuild the Biennale’s declining audience and rebuild confidence in the Biennale’s respect for artists and their work took all of the two years I was given as director—and once again let me say that despite everything, my immediate predecessors Rosa Martinez and María de Corral did a wonderful job with too little time and too little money. Cutting corners with time and money will sooner rather than later diminish the Biennale again.

TAN: What unwelcome restrictions are placed upon the commissioner by the board of directors or by the event itself?

RS: In my contract it explicitly stated that I was the sole arbiter of the contents of the international exhibition. Regrettably I had to remind Mr Quaglia of that fact more than once. I trust that his departure will put an end to such arrogant interventions. Otherwise neither the president nor the board ever pressured me to choose artists or accept collateral projects. But, as I said, I was only allowed to speak to the full board on one occasion. Mayor Cacciari did call me personally to ask for my approval of a Vedova show that was proposed as a collateral event. I gladly agreed. Vedova was a major artist of his generation—perhaps THE major Venetian of his day—so it was fitting that he be honoured and appropriate for the mayor to enquire.

TAN: Do the two venues available to the commissioner, the Padiglione Italia in the Giardini and the Arsenale, supply a satisfactory curatorial opportunity?

RS: There is more than enough interior space in those two venues for the international exhibition. I had enough to hive off three large chunks to make room for African, Indian, and Turkish participation in the core of the Biennale. Although we did site projects by Morrinho and Daniel Buren in the Giardini I was frustrated by the Biennale’s unwillingness to make exterior space available in the Arsenale—only Ernesto Salmerón’s truck was there—and by the difficulties of getting the Biennale and the city together on making significant projects in public space around town. That would be a big step, if it could be done this time or next.

TAN: Were there other opportunities which you, as commissioner, had noticed and which might be advantageously explored by your successor?

RS: Unlike my predecessors Francesco Bonami and Germano Celant who were so eager to comment on my show, I will not do the same with the curators who follow me. They will need all the support they can get and don't need sidewalk supervisors. In that spirit they have my very secular blessing.

TAN: Have the national pavilions become an anachronism or do they continue to supply a valid and distinctive flavour to the Venice Biennale?

RS: This is a complex question and one in which the overall direction of cultural thinking and practice diverges from the history of the Biennale and its inherent strengths and opportunities. From my perspective, artistic nationalism of the varieties enshrined in the Giardini Pavilions is—or should be—a thing of the past. But in the post-imperial, post-colonial era many new or reconstituted nations have sought a showcase for their art through biennials. Since São Paulo dispensed with them in 2006, Venice is the only such exhibition platform that retains national representations—which, I would add, provides much needed outlets for curatorial talent as well as for artists. Under these conditions and despite my own strong doubts about nationality as an aesthetic criterion—for example given her mixed parentage and current residence is Tatiana Trouvé Italian, Senegalese or French?—I would recommend dramatically increasing the number of national pavilions rather than holding them steady or adding to them slowly, in order that as many countries as possible can take their place in a truly integrated international community of national pavilions. Paying through the nose for a palazzo on the far side of town is not the answer for artists who are under-known nor is it the way for their countries to become visible participants in world culture. Even well-known artists suffer. The Argentine Pavilion was forced to leave its palazzo before the jury met last October, so that even an artist as prominent as Guillermo Kuitca missed a shot at a Golden Lion—and Argentina had been petitioning for a pavilion for years.

So, as hard as this will no doubt be to pull off, I would suggest again what I suggested to president Croff—and to Gaetano Guerci with whom I had a good working relation—and that is that the Biennale strike a deal with the Navy to take over more of the vacant space in the Arsenale every two years and turn it into a constellation of new national pavilions. With Italy itself already there along with China, that would create a powerful exhibition nucleus and would enhance the Biennale overall as the pivotal meeting place of a diverse art world. That would give Venice a unique function relative to other Biennales and rejuvenate it—even though, from a critical point of view, the medicine is a vaccine made of previously and potentially virulent strains of nationalism.

TAN: What steps can be taken to bring new contemporary art centres such as India or the Middle East into the heart of the event?

RS: My decision to give up space for the sake of Turkey, India and Africa was intended to set a precedent, and since I was initially asked to organise two cycles of the Biennale I was planning on fine-tuning the model in my second term. Now that someone else is doing the 2009 Biennale it is out of my hands and much as I would like to see some concerted and consistent effort made by the Biennale in this domain, it is not for me to say how Daniel or anyone should address the problem next time.

TAN: How might the issue of Africa’s participation be resolved?

RS: Until a significant group of African nations have their own pavilions, some kind of locus should exist in the heart of the Biennale for African artists to show their work and for African curators to articulate their differing ideas and visions. Access to that opportunity should be by open competition. The Biennale’s appointing anyone or any entity—African or Diasporic—as the long term arbiter for a whole continent would be neo-colonialism of the worst order.

TAN: Do you regret the proliferation of rival biennials or does it generate a genuine and positive expansion of interest in contemporary art?

RS: Nobody has the time to go to all of them, but on balance I think they are a positive phenomenon, though given economic factors and other factors, this proliferation will probably be short-lived. What worries me is the proliferation of art fairs—including the one in Venice that coincided with the Biennale of 2007. It was totally superfluous.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Robert Storr: "I would recommend dramatically increasing the number of national pavilions"'