Last week, at Frieze New York, I ran into an art advisor and we were chatting and reminiscing about the old days when the art world calendar wasn’t as dizzyingly jam-packed as it is today. It turned out we both shared nostalgia for the biennial train ride from Venice to Basel.
Veterans of the Venice Biennale will remember when the opening days of the exhibition—the so-called professional days open to critics, curators, dealers, and the like—took place in June, during the week before Art Basel in Switzerland, one of the art calendar’s most important annual commercial events for modern and contemporary art. That ended four years ago—or two Biennales ago—when Italy had the Milan Expo and the country switched the Venice dates to early May. Before that, in 2011 and 2013, there was actually a week between the two events, so folks stayed in Europe, hopped on trains, and saw the sights in Europe.
Back before they switched places on the calendar, you were able to fully digest the Biennale on the eight-hour ride from Venice to Basel. You left Venice’s Santa Lucia in the morning and arrived at the Basel SBB in time for dinner. Outside your window: countryside. Inside your head: all the art you’d seen. It was on that ride that you were able to make Venice cohere, and you were able to find patterns, trends, and poetic connections within all the world’s art—or, all the art the world chose to send. When you arrived at Basel, you were ready for the commercial action—to observe or participate in the deal-making. Or just to talk with colleagues about what you’d seen and maybe see work by some of the same artists from the week before. After Venice’s maze, you were ready for the strict rectilinearity of aisles and booths.
These days, for non-European dealers and collectors who don’t have a direct interest in the Venice Biennale—i.e., they don’t have or collect an artist in the show—the new dates in May present a dilemma. Should one make two separate trips to Europe? Or combine a visit to the Biennale, which runs for six months, with the trip to Art Basel in June? With the calendar as packed as it is—consider that this year the Biennale’s opening comes directly on the heels of Frieze Week in New York, which came directly after Berlin gallery weekend, which followed Art Brussels—more dealers and collectors have chosen to wait until the summer, especially because the week after Venice’s opening is the time for the major auctions in New York. What this means is that a large portion of the art world—particularly from the commercial sector—is no longer present as the Biennale begins.
Which has made the opening days less fun. It used to present a true coming-together of the art world’s various factions, a place where all could be reminded—by one another—why we decided to get into art in the first place. And that would seem to be even more necessary at a time when activity in the contemporary art market has become more and more financialized. It’s a thrill to look at a project or a painting in a run-down palazzo you’ve spent an hour locating in Venice’s labyrinthine alleyways and then share the experience with others. As a curator put it to me yesterday in one of Venice’s many museums, “I tell collectors, ‘Basel is where you go to buy—Venice is where you go to look.’”
The conversation tended to continue on the train. It was a time of contemplation interspersed with conversation among colleagues, because they were on the train too, headed to the same place. Granted, some of the fancier folks took flights, but even some of that caste took the train, despite the length of the trip. I distinctly recall, in 2005, poring over notes I’d taken in Venice on my BlackBerry, trying to organize them into some grand take on the Biennale, and then, when I got frustrated or stuck, wandering down the aisle and finding someone like Chicago dealer Kavi Gupta, who told me all about this fair he was starting in Basel with a handful of other dealers, called Volta. I went back to my notes energized, feeling like I knew the community that would be reading my stuff.
Let me tell you another story about taking the train from Venice to Basel. Or rather, about taking the vaporetto to the train station to get on that train. In 2009, I’d booked an early morning trip and there appeared to be no one else on the vaporetto when I boarded. I was in that state of energized exhaustion one is often in while traveling. I hadn’t slept much. The night before, I’d been with a group of people trying to find the Sigur Rós concert that the Iceland pavilion was putting on. But this was before Google Maps, and we kept circling around to the same square, which seemed home to nothing but some ominous shadows and a cat. Each time we arrived there, one or more of us would spend a few minutes petting the cat. What else to do in Venice when you’re lost at 1 a.m.? Just before we gave up on finding the concert, we encountered two young men who agreed to help us find it. They too were unsuccessful, but one of them kept saying, in a singsong voice, “Sigur Rós”—so that it sounded like this: “Siiiiiiiiiiiiggggggguuuuuuurrrrr Roosssssssss.” When I finally made it back to the tiny apartment I was sharing with five other people, I fell asleep with that echoing in my head.
Back to the vaporetto. I thought I was alone on the boat until I heard, from a seat somewhere behind me, “Siiiiiiiiiiiiggggggguuuuuuurrrrr Roosssssssss.” I turned to find that the same guy from the night before, just five hours later, was the only other person there. “How is this possible?” I asked him when he walked up to my seat. “It’s Venice,” he said with a shrug—and then got off at his stop.
These days we tend to think of the art world as mind-bogglingly global, and it’s true that the size and span of it have expanded enormously over the past decade. But when you were on that train from Venice to Basel, you were reminded that it was also still just a tiny village where people gossiped and inspired one another. Like Venice itself, it was terrific.