How the pioneering curator revitalized and expanded the Venice Biennale
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.
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.
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.
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