Architecture and Design, Art, Art & Archives, Exhibitions and Installations, Getty Research Institute, Scholarship

Treasures from the Vault: Harald Szeemann’s “Project Files”

How the pioneering curator revitalized and expanded the Venice Biennale

Photos of the Venice Biennale from the Harald Szeemann papers

Behind the scenes at the Venice Biennale. At left, Harald Szeemann inspects construction progress; at right, artwork crates arrive by boat. Undated; photographers unknown. The Getty Research Institute, Harald Szeemann papers, 1892–2010

An independent curator, nurturer of the arts, and staunch advocate of new artists, curator Harald Szeemann left an enormous legacy—both intellectual and physical.

I and other special collections catalogers at the Getty Research Institute are currently processing Szeemann’s archive, which joined our collection last year, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The “Project files” series will be the first to be catalogued and thus made available. Szeemann is known for his innovative and thought-provoking exhibitions, and researchers will have a new opportunity to examine his exhibition-making process along with his vision of providing “the work a special aura…so we can do to the artworks things, give it a breathing space, it will never have again.”

Among his many influential posts during his career, Szeemann was appointed the Visual Arts Director of La Biennale di Venezia for 1999 and 2001, the only person in recent memory to have held this position for more than one term. With only five months for planning and one month for installation, Szeemann swiftly staged an innovative exhibition program. Most notably, he became the first curator to include multiple contemporary Chinese artists in a traditionally Western-oriented institution. He also juxtaposed more well-known artists with up-and-coming ones in the same spaces. In order to achieve his vision, Szeemann pushed for the elimination of a previously set age limit to exhibit in the Biennale. He envisioned a space that would blur traditional boundaries and preferred the international show to be more of a “melting pot,” while respecting the effect of the Biennale to reinforce national identities.

Notes on the Venice Biennale by Harald Szeemann

Szeemann’s list of Chinese artists for possible inclusion in the Venice Biennale. The Getty Research Institute, Harald Szeemann papers, 1892-2010

Before 1999, the Biennale was solely held in the Giardini. As exhibitions became larger and more complex, the space available became more and more crowded. Shortly after Szeemann’s appointment as director, he supervised the partial renovation of the historic Arsenale complex, which includes the Corderie and Artiglierie, to be used as exhibition space. One of these buildings was designated for artists whose identifying nations did not already have pavilions of their own. The addition of these spaces reconfigured the way visitors navigated through the Biennale. A specific, circular route was designed to help visitors travel from the Giardini, through the Corderie and Artiglierie in the Arsenale. These reclaimed, historical spaces were one of Szeemann’s major and lasting contributions to the Biennale.

Notes on the Venice Biennale by Harald Szeemann

Szeemann’s sketch of the Corderie, which he added as an exhibition space to the Venice Biennale. The Getty Research Institute, Harald Szeemann papers, 1892-2010

Szeemann’s vision for the Biennale di Venezia is continued today in the truly international exhibition of the arts. This year’s Biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, is held from June 1 to November 24, 2013, and thousands of visitors will experience the spaces Szeemann took a part in reclaiming.

Treasures from the Vault is an occasional series highlighting the unique and varied holdings of the Getty Research Institute.

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  1. erwin van doorn
    Posted June 20, 2014 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    We just returned from a visit to Ascona Switserland more specific Monte Verita. Szeemann made an exhibition about this cultural colony called Breasts of Truth. At the location they are renovating Casa Annata that will open in 2016 with a permanent exhibition by Szeemann. Is there information about this in the Getty archive? For a project of ours we are researching the cultural colony and it would be great to know if there are notes by Szeemann about this project.

    • Pietro Rigolo
      Posted November 25, 2015 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Hi Erwin,
      Sorry for the very late reply.
      The material about Monte Verità is divided between the GRI and Biblioteca Cantonale in Bellinzona, CH. Szeemann himself decided to donate a part of the archive to Bellinzona (about 5% of the total). The historical documents about the history of Ticino are in Bellinzona, whereas the files regarding the exhibition are in here – with some significant overlaps though.
      Hope this helps, best – Pietro

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      Gold snake bracelet, worn on the wrist

      Romano-Egyptian, 3rd - 2nd century B.C. 

      Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum

      In the Hellenistic period, gold made available by new territorial conquests flooded the Greek world. 

      Combined with social and economic changes that created a wealthy clientele with a taste for luxury, this availability led to an immense outpouring of gold jewelry to meet the demand.

      Here’s a closer view of the detailing of the cross-hatching.


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