AN INCREDIBLE SUCCESS. Roberto Cicutto was appointed President of La Biennale di Venezia on February 2020, overseeing the city’s prestigious art and architecture biennials as well as the film, dance, theatre and music festivals. Cicutto is a native Venetian and a film producer for more than three decades who with his company Mikado Film distributed and produced films of the most representative and talented Italian and international directors.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Roberto Cicutto, was the start of your Presidency of La Biennale di Venezia made very difficult by Covid-19?
The entire world was in difficulty. We tried to react. I arrived a week before the first lockdown, when we didn’t know anything about the virus and had no vaccines. We very soon understood that the international architecture exhibition wouldn’t happen because it was impossible to ship the installations and do all the work that was needed to be ready. Instead we started something which became very important. To make a long story short, we asked the six directors of the Biennale – that is architecture, art, music, theatre, dance and cinema – to curate an exhibition – The Disquieted Muses. When La Biennale Meets History – in the Giardini using material from the Historical Archive to tell the stories of the Biennale, particularly the times when the Biennale had to face history. There were many. Biennale was founded in 1893 and the first art exhibition was in 1895, so we had 125 years of history to tell. For the first time the directors of the different disciplines started working together, and this was the first step towards building an International Centre for Research on the Contemporary Arts, which is now becoming the seventh part of the Biennale. Coronavirus helped us to understand that the Biennale has to last for 365 days a year, not just for the time of the exhibitions and festivals, and the content that the curators put in their own exhibitions and the festivals has to have a long life and be available for students, for people who do research at other institutions, to improve their studies. This is already happening with incredible success.
Is it your role as President of the Biennale to look after all these disciplines?
The President of Biennale is appointed by the Minister of Culture and has to make it possible for the curators to create the six worlds, seven now, for them to represent different aspects of the arts from all over the world. It is not so different from making a film, in a way we build a world every time. In the past the contents of those exhibitions ended with the last day of the exhibition, whereas now they keep living. This project makes me very busy because it doesn’t only refer to the Biennale, and my dream is also to make a network with the other institutions in Venice. If we put all the institutions together and tell the world that what we are doing runs from January 1st until December 31st we can make the most incredible cultural offer in the world. This is very important for the city of Venice, which in a way is a laboratory which has to face all the most important contemporary crises: the climate, the acqua alta, how to preserve incredible buildings, the heritage that they keep in them. Venice can be a very important example for other countries.
Is Venice today ever livelier in terms of art?
It is, and art is very much shown, even contemporary art, through Foundations like those of Pinault or Kapoor or Berggruen, important people who join Venice with their activities. But what is missing is that we have to produce more art. We want Venice to become a place where art is created, not just shown, and this is something we must all do together.
“We can make the most incredible cultural offer in the world.”
Padiglione Centrale Giardini. Photo by Francesco Galli. Image courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.
Roberto Cicutto, what was the first event you produced as President?
The International Film Festival in September 2020, which was absolutely in the middle of the pandemic. We acted as an example for everybody else and created a system to control the many people who attended, more than we expected. We had no contagion, and other festivals took this system to make their events. After the Film Festival we made the International Theatre, Music and Dance Festivals in 2020. Then in 2021 we were able to do the exhibition of Architecture, the most successful in its history.
Why was it so successful?
Firstly, the curator made an exhibition that looked more like pieces of art than pieces of architecture. The title was How Will We Live Together?. People were very happy to come and meet, which was something we didn’t expect. Secondly, more people from Venice, the region and from Italy discovered the Biennale. Usually most people come from abroad but this was the other way around, and now we want to make them faithful to the Biennale. We were lucky because we started in May, the pandemic was weaker until October, and people in Venice opened their doors. People were driving here, not just flying in from Austria, France and Germany. It was incredible. We welcomed so many people and they were happy to be here.
Did the pandemic change the attitude of the Venetians?
Venetian citizens didn’t used to come to the Biennale, they found it made the town too busy. Actually, they saw it as belonging to other people, not to the city. With the pandemic this changed completely. Biennale became part of the citizens’ life, because it was an instrument to get out of the nightmare, and they loved that there was something which gave life back to the people. Biennale became larger and closer to ordinary people.
As a man of cinema, how is it to run the many activities of the Biennale of Venice?
The only thing I don’t work for is the film festival! There is a director who is responsible for the selections, and I watch the movies in the big theatre in the Lido, but my heart is not more focused on the film festival than other disciplines. I always loved art, architecture, theatre, dance and music. The most important thing for the President is to choose the right curators, which means that you have to have an idea about what the Biennale is. The Biennale must be more contemporary than the arts which are represented, but more contemporary doesn’t mean it has to be “politically correct” or follow things which are more à la mode. For me, “politically correct” means to feel where the world is going to go. The International Architecture Exhibition director was Hashim Sarkis, who was appointed by Paolo Baratta, my predecessor as President, and I followed this deeply to understand who would be the right person to be appointed as director for the next architecture Biennale.
Who did you appoint next?
I would like to stress that I didn’t choose the next architecture curator, Lesley Lokko, because she’s a woman who comes from Africa. Having a new point of view from a continent which has not in the past been in the centre of the action is something which will bring new concepts. Lesley is a professor who was born in Ghana, worked in Edinburgh and founded a school for architecture in Africa. She’s been Dean of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at The City College of New York and she is also a novelist. Eclectic and very curious about the world, she was a member of the international jury in 2021. I listened to her during the last meeting on architecture at the Arsenale and to many architects and people who work in that field. I thought that her way of thinking was the best and that she was the best person to be handling the next Biennale Architettura. We will see if I’m wrong or right.
“The most important thing Biennale does is to give young artists the chance to be connected with an international network, to be recognized and to improve their art.”
Roberto Cicutto, did you appoint Cecilia Alemani as director of the current Biennale Arte which started in May?
No, she was appointed by Baratta as well, because a curator needs at least one and a half years to prepare an exhibition. At the end of my mandate I too will appoint the curator for the future year when I will no longer be President. The most important responsibility of the President is finding the curators. Biennale has an incredible capacity to stay current in history. The exhibition we made in 2020 The Disquieted Muses shows how Biennale is part of history in the way it reacts. Biennale knows itself. Don’t ask me how, but it knows how to react. When there was the coup d’état in Chile in 1973 the Biennale formed an incredible platform against that and the town was full of murals painted by different artists against the violence. When in 1968 there was a revolt from the artists against the way the Cinema Festival was handled, the Festival was transformed into a place where for a few years the authors themselves handled the event; and then, when they understood that they had to get back to the original way, that happened. The Biennale knows how to react to history, so the President has to know how to swim in this incredible sea, without being against what history brings, and without being in agreement with everybody. We have to leave Biennale free; free to do what has to happen.
What is the 2022 art Biennale called The Milk of Dreams about?
Cecilia Alemani was very clear from the beginning that she wanted to represent bodies and their metamorphoses, surrealism and dreams. She researched this via Zoom because she couldn’t travel, visiting lots of artists’ ateliers. She found lots of artists who were very close to her idea. Most were female. This wasn’t decided beforehand, but when she wanted to find the best pieces of work to represent the title of her exhibition she found that women were better than men. Most of the artists come from previously underrepresented countries. We are very proud. We have an incredible number of visitors.
Why do some of the directors change every Biennale while others stay the same for many years?
The directors of the cinema festival and the festivals of theatre, dance and music have a mandate of a maximum four years. Art and architecture has to update its situation every two years, but all the other disciplines have projects that develop over a longer time period of time.
Which festival attracts more people?
You cannot compare, but having 175,000 presences in the theatre during the film festival in 10 days is equal to having more than 600,000 people in six months of exhibitions. The theatre, dance and music festivals are excellencies that attract people and critics from all over the world. And the Biennale College does something which is even more important than the exhibitions. Young people, usually under 35, who have already decided to be professional artists, are selected on the basis of a call which is answered by thousands of people. The curator makes a selection of choreographers, dancers, dramaturgs, playwrights, directors, composers, who spend weeks being trained by tutors in Venice and their work is represented in the festival. After that most of them find a new place of work. The most important thing Biennale does is to give young artists the chance to be connected with an international network, to be recognized and to improve their art.
You must have a very big budget to do so much?
The total production value of Biennale is between €46 and €50 million per year. We have direct subventions from the Culture Ministry, for cinema, theatre, dance and music, but none specifically devote to art or architecture. In addition to this La Biennale receives a general contribution for running costs by the Culture Ministry. The Culture Ministry funds directly the Italian National Pavilion located at the Tese delle Vergini at the Arsenale, realized by La Biennale di Venezia. We have a lot of sponsors and receive income from the ticket sales. Our annual goal is to generate resources which are more than the ones provided by public funds, via our capacity to generate own resources.
How does Biennale cope with international competition and current travel circumstances?
As I said before, Biennale finds a way to swim in the contemporary world. This year Biennale is an incredible success in terms of people visiting after two years of huge difficulties. Even without people from China, from Russia of course, or from the Far East, we are improving the numbers of people coming. Even more important is the Biennale’s reputation in the international press. Even those who maybe don’t agree with the choices of the curators, all agree that this is the most important event in the art world. There are many other biennales in the world, but nobody has copied the original one. When the Mayor of Venice, Riccardo Selvatico, decided 127 years ago to make Biennale a place for cultural diplomacy, inviting National Pavilions to have a permanent place in Venice to represent the status of art of the countries, he was a really visionary man who looked at the future and did the right thing.
Overview Arsenale. Photo by Andrea Avezzù. Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.
Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.
Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.
Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.
Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.
Courtesy La Biennale di Venezia.
“To make a better world, both for the economics of our country and for giving new ideas through the artists and curators we work with.”
Roberto Cicutto, is the Film Festival still more about artistic recognition than being a commercial marketplace?
Fortunately, Venice Film Festival never became a market in the sense of having spaces where people only do business. Not because it’s not important, but because things have changed a lot when it comes to production and distribution. Very few films have been bought by my company after watching them in the market. With the internet we are in permanent dialogue and we make deals in advance. What is important is that the film festival is an industry platform where people can meet and discuss future co-productions. Business has been done in Venice since the beginning, but in a different, let’s say in a more human way than being in a fair.
What are the criteria for choosing the films?
The selected movies respond fundamentally to the taste of the selection committee. Alberto Barbera, who has already been director for three mandates and who I have confirmed for one more, has six or seven consultants, responsible people who are in different territories to do the pre-selections. The festival has different sections. There is the main competition, a section out of competition, and another section which is Orizzonti. The criteria are the importance of the candidate, the power of changing the way of producing or shooting movies, and also the reputation of the directors or the cast. Alberto often says we will never invite a movie if we don’t think it’s a good movie, just because it would be important for the red carpet or for the glamour of the Festival.
Biennale is partly financed by the Italian state, so is there political interference?
One hundred percent no. The directors are guaranteed total autonomy. Both as a President of the institution which produces the festival and as a former distributor and producer I know exactly how it works. Even if I insisted to have a movie produced by me in the Film Festival, if the curator didn’t like it the movie would not be shown.
For you, what is the difference between being in Rome and being in Venice, and how do you feel being in Venice today?
I lived here for 18 years. I did my schooling here, and then I decided to move to Rome. When my father asked me, “Why are you going to Rome?” I said to him and to myself that it was because I wanted to be in the film business. I wasn’t particularly cinephile but I wanted to leave Venice, and the most convincing reason to be in Rome was that Rome was the capital of the film business. So I had to do it! I made the right choice. I consider Rome my home. When I come back to Venice I enjoy it very much and I get amused seeing how many things have not changed since my early years and what the chances are for this city to become a Laboratory of the Future. As it was in the prescient titles of the 2021 Architecture Exhibition, How Will We Live Together?, and of the 2019 Art Exhibition, May You Live In Interesting Times.
As President of the Biennale, what do you really want to achieve?
My real ambition is to help the cultural institutions, not only the Biennale, and make people understand how important it is to take on incredible responsibilities because it is essential that we do our jobs in the best possible way. To make a better world, both for the economics of our country and for giving new ideas through the artists and curators we work with.
Thank you very much Roberto Cicutto. It was very interesting to speak to you and good luck.
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Roberto Cicutto: Photo by Andrea Avezzu. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia