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As the Biennale grows, locals ask, “Who owns Venice?” »

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VENICE — Since its founding in 1895, the Venice Biennale has become one of the most important contemporary art venues in the world, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city for its influential exhibitions and performances.

The event, which this year runs until November 27, keeps Venice at the center of the global cultural conversation. More concretely, it generates regular visitors, often at night, whom the city prefers to day trippers.

But a rapidly shrinking part of Venice’s local population feels that the Biennale, aided by the current municipal government, monopolizes space that could be used by locals to create a sustainable year-round cultural and economic life in the city. beyond tourism.

The city’s grant to the Biennale last March of more space in the Arsenale – a former shipyard whose high red brick walls enclosed an industrial operation capable of producing one warship a day – has meddled to a complicated debate about the future of one of the city’s greatest public assets and, by extension, the city itself.

“Arsenale is much more than the Biennale,” said Giorgio Suppiej, secretary of the Forum for the Future of Arsenale, a coalition of more than 60 local groups that has spent a decade pushing for greater accessibility to the site, and who is suing to block the March decision. (A court is due to hear the case later this month.) The group staged a protest in February ahead of the city’s ruling that was attended by hundreds of Venetians, who held signs reading “Arsenale to the City.” and “Arsenale Open and Alive All Year.”

The Forum says the historic Arsenale workshops should be dedicated to boat building, rowing groups and the display of traditional craft, which it says could create jobs while preserving a way of life. traditional Venetian life.

The Biennale is a “beautiful thing for Venice, let that be clear,” Suppiej said. But it “cannot be an asset that takes away even more important things,” he added.

The Arsenale, whose 120 acres make up a large part of the historic center of Venice, is jointly owned by the City of Venice and the Italian Navy, which still maintains an active base there. The vast complex was virtually closed to the public until the Biennale exhibited there in 1980. Even now, locals can only enter much of the Arsenale after purchasing a Biennale ticket for 20.50 euros, or about $21.40. Much of the city’s holdings in the Arsenale are rarely accessible to the public, and much of it remains unused.

The March decision – the result of an agreement between the city, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Culture – paves the way for the Biennale to create the International Center for Research on Contemporary Arts, a workspace for artists and scholars material from the institution’s archives. As part of the plan, the Biennale will also construct facilities for its growing educational wing, the Biennale Colleges, and invest millions to restore the Arsenal’s fragile walls, buildings and canals.

The aim was “to repopulate this part of the city and make Arsenale live 365 days a year”, said Biennale president Roberto Cicutto, making Arsenale a place where art is not not only exhibited, but also created. He added that the new center would bring long-term visitors and permanent jobs, although it was too early to say how many.

Although the March deal guarantees free entry to part of Arsenale all year round, the Forum and its supporters say that is not enough. They also bristled at the city’s decision to hand over a number of waterfront buildings on the site to the Navy as part of the deal, as no guarantees were given that those buildings would be made accessible. to the general public. The Ministry of Defense declined to comment.

Cicutto said the debate over the future of the Arsenale had more to do with the city’s management of the complex than the Biennale’s involvement. The new Biennale center would occupy buildings that would be unusable if not renovated, he added. “We restore things that have been destroyed,” he said. “It would be a crime not to take advantage of it and not make this place available to the world.”

The new center will ultimately be just a small part of the Biennale’s presence in Venice, which now extends far beyond its original location in the Giardini della Biennale, where many countries present their national pavilions. Official side events, as well as independent exhibitions intended to coincide with the Biennale, can be found even in the most remote corners of the city.

“The Biennale is eating it all up,” said Marco Gasparinetti, a residents’ rights advocate who sits on Venice City Council. Artisans have struggled to find affordable workshops, as landlords prefer to rent ground floor space at the Biennale, he added. “Renting to the Biennale, even for a few months or a few weeks, generates absolutely incredible sums,” he says.

While the Biennale brings hundreds of jobs to Venice, many are low-paid seasonal positions, Gasparinetti said. Despite its bonafide high culture, the Biennale contributes to some locals’ growing sense that Venice is “not for us, but for others”, he added.

Donatella Toso, 67, a retired schoolteacher who lives in the Castello neighborhood near the Arsenale, said she enjoyed visiting the Biennale and was “proud that my city is home to a such an important cultural event“. But as she watched her neighborhood change, she added, she couldn’t help but see the Biennale as “part of a dynamic of expropriation that has impoverished the city.” Rising rents were pushing residents to leave, she said, and more space in the neighborhood was given over to Biennale events.

“For me, the Biennale is a delight,” said Leo James Smith, 23, who runs a local nonprofit that focuses on urban regeneration in Venice. “There is a lot of activity from all over the world in Venice, and the Biennale is the artistic expression of that.” But, he said, he was increasingly aware that the Biennale was using “its enormous economic power to occupy many spaces that could be put to better use”.

Giuseppe Saccà, the leader of the largest opposition party on the city council, said the Biennale had made mistakes, but added that it would take very little for the organization to build a better relationship with locals. He said he blames city officials’ lack of imagination and strategic planning for Venice’s continued domination by tourism. Yet while politicians can struggle to formulate a vision, he said, the Biennale was “one of the few institutions in this city that has plans, raises funds and works at some level” .

“Every company has its social responsibility, and so does the Biennale,” said Saccà. But the city must ultimately ensure the Biennale develops responsibly, he added, noting that the mayor of Venice sits on the Biennale’s board. And some problems, like excessive rents and Venice’s dwindling population, just aren’t going to be solved, Saccà said. “You can’t ask the Biennale to do something that isn’t the Biennale.”