The main exhibition at the Venice Biennale is arguably the most coveted gig in curating. It’s the centerpiece of the international art world’s highest-profile event, and gives the chosen curator instant prestige. But it’s a tricky one to get right.
The show, held every two years, sprawls across two sites — one a columned pavilion in a public park, the Giardini, the other a set of former shipbuilding workshops in the Arsenale — and pulls together work by a huge number of artists. In 2017, there were 120 of them; in 2015, there were 136.
This year, the number will be down: There will be just 79 artists or artist partnerships, but each will show at both venues, offering radically different works at the two sites. These are some of the changes introduced by the curator Ralph Rugoff in an exhibition titled “May You Live in Interesting Times,” opening May 11 and running through Nov. 24.
For the past 13 years, Mr. Rugoff, a 62-year-old New Yorker, has steered the Hayward Gallery, a public institution not far from Tate Modern in London. With a series of thoughtful, but also playful, shows, he has put the Hayward on London’s contemporary-art map.
In Venice, his show will compete for attention with 90 others held in national pavilions, as well as with numerous “collateral events,” and face a pitiless lineup of critics. Yet in an interview at his Hayward office in London — a windowless basement room with flat-pack furniture and a single framed poster resting on a ledge — Mr. Rugoff appeared characteristically coolheaded.
The Venice Biennale “has the potential to be the world’s greatest art exhibition. Each iteration is a different story,” Mr. Rugoff said. “Sometimes it rises to the occasion, sometimes not.”
“Bigger isn’t always better,” he said. “The exhibition format doesn’t always lend itself to gargantuan scale, in general. Do you want to see movies that are 20 hours long? Compared to a normal exhibition, that’s what a Biennale is like.”
Mr. Rugoff said he had also avoided giving the exhibition a theme because there were 300 biennials around the world each year with similar themes; all he wanted was for the artists to represent the times we live in. At a time when governments were distorting facts and the internet gave people only the news they wanted to hear, contemporary art was about “simultaneously juggling different perspectives,” he said: It “opens up your brain.”
The chosen works will be both “experimental” and “classical,” because “art should give us pleasure as well as provide critical insight,” Mr. Rugoff said. Artists will include established names — Julie Mehretu (who has never been in the Biennale show), George Condo, Danh Vo — and emerging ones: Nabuqi and Yu Ji of China, and Soham Gupta of India, all born in the 1980s.
Mr. Rugoff was appointed in December 2017 on the recommendation of Paolo Baratta, the Biennale’s president, because of his consistent focus on the general public rather than on what Mr. Baratta called “the periphery,” meaning the dealers, auctioneers and collectors who swarm the Biennale in the pre-opening “vernissage” week, many hoping to buy or sell the art on view.
The event’s true audience is its visitors, Mr. Baratta said — 615,000 of them in 2017, up 23 percent from 2015. “The institution of the vernissage is the greatest enemy of the Biennale, because it gives a totally deformed image of it,” he added. “If you just see the Biennale in those three days, you’ll say the Biennale is a place for yachts.”
Mr. Rugoff shrugged off the conspicuous wealth. “Whether or not there’s 10 yachts or 20 yachts parked near the Biennale, it doesn’t really impede my experience,” he said. Rich individuals were “a very small percentage” of Biennale visitors, he added; the vast majority “don’t care who owns” the art, and “don’t care whether the dealer sold it at the opening day or not.”
Mr. Rugoff grew up in Greenwich Village in New York, one of two sons of a film distributor. He recalled watching lots of movies as a boy, and being dragged to art galleries by his parents.
After studying semiotics at Brown University, he moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s. “I had never smelled night-blooming jasmine,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is amazing, truly paradisiacal.’ ”
Initially trying his luck at scriptwriting, he switched to journalism and to art criticism; the semiotics degree, he said with a chuckle, “gave you the academic equivalent of street cred.” By 1990, he had started curating on the side. After his first exhibition, “Just Pathetic” — about art that embodied failure — Mr. Rugoff recalled thinking: “This is more fun than writing about someone else’s show.”
He moved to London in 1998 and co-curated the Serpentine Gallery’s “The Greenhouse Effect” show in 2000. That year, he was hired to run San Francisco’s C.C.A. Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, and suddenly found himself able to “try out a lot of ideas” with several exhibition slots each year.
Six years later, he applied for the Hayward job. It was “a very, very big leap” from his six-member San Francisco team, he said: The Hayward is part of the Southbank Centre, a multidisciplinary institution with a staff of about 500 people.
In 13 years at the Hayward, Mr. Rugoff has run the institution quietly and ambitiously. He has curated strong solo exhibitions (Ed Ruscha, Tracey Emin, Andreas Gursky, Carsten Höller), and programmed or curated group shows such as the 2008 “Psycho Buildings,” which turned a sculpture terrace at the gallery into a boating lake for an exhibition of artists’ takes on architecture.
Hayward shows “are in a way essays, and are very idea-rich,” said Nicholas Serota, who was the Tate director from 1988 to 2017 and is now the chairman of Arts Council England, the organization that distributes public arts funding. “He takes an idea and tries to explore the way in which artists have been addressing that idea.”
Mr. Rugoff also “responds very positively to artists whose ideas are slightly playful,” Mr. Serota added, artists who “take a very serious subject and address it in a way which is with a light touch rather than heavy-handed.”
Curating the Biennale has become challenging in the digital age, said Thierry Raspail, founder of the Lyon Biennale, which Mr. Rugoff curated in 2015. “Before 1990, there was a kind of aura around the Venice Biennale, and a lot of good will, because of a global lack of information,” he said. “Today, there’s a glut of information,” making it hard to “announce something that’s new.”
Recent Biennale curators haven’t had it easy. The 2017 show, curated by Christine Macel, “doesn’t rise, doesn’t cohere,” wrote The New York Times’s Holland Cotter. “Thematic tension and critical drive are missing.” Robert Storr, the 2007 curator, was described by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine as having “abstained altogether from mounting one of the ball-busting, conjectural, venturesome whales we call biennials.”
How will Mr. Rugoff do?
“There are always people who’ve got an ax to grind, or people who’ve got a point to make,” Mr. Serota said. “I think controversy is inevitable, whatever he did.”
In that sense, Mr. Serota said, “he can’t win, really.”B:
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