Institutional Reinvention: The Venice Biennale during the 1970s

Caught at the center of sweeping debates over institutional patronage, the Venice Biennale underwent a staggering transformation during the 1970s. From a hierarchical organization that reflected art market trends, it became an institution that placed democratic values at the center of its new mission. Critical pressure stemming from the 1968 uprising prompted the Biennale to reevaluate both its hoary legislation dating from the Mussolini era and its primary role as a cultural arbiter. In 1973, the Italian government approved the institution’s new statute. Refocusing its efforts on democratizing the arts, the Biennale expanded its audience to include those whom elite cultural institutions had previously marginalized.

This essay will focus on two exhibition years, 1974 and 1976, in which organizing personnel molded all artistic and cultural initiatives towards advancing the institution’s new social values. The 1974 edition boldly addressed a timely political incident, General Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état in Chile. Denouncing the military takeover, artists spread out into the city, creating large murals and coordinating impromptu street performances. Decentralized exhibition spaces continued in 1976 and the curator Enrico Crispolti, in charge of the Italian pavilion, introduced into the art galleries radically new art practices that centered on audience participation in the urban context. The Biennale’s outlook during these years exemplified a unique instance when an established art institution, the oldest biennial in the world, responded to the changing attitudes of an emergent generation. The conditions of the Biennale’s makeover reflected the institutional crisis many Italian museums – still haunted by a Fascist patronage system – faced at this moment. But the Biennale stood apart as it mirrored the broader Italian context, both in regard to the culture at large and to the neo-avant-garde.

Institutional Reinvention: The Venice Biennale during the 1970s.” In Untying ‘the Knot’: The State of Postwar Italian Art History, edited by Marin Sullivan and Sharon Hecker, 207-228. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018.

Rosalind McKever’s review of Untying the Knot, and “Institutional Reinvention,”  was published under the title ‘Made in Italy’ in Art History, 42 (5), November 2019. pp. 984-991.

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