When in Venice: Biennale Dos And Don'ts

Society editor and Biennale veteran Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni on the parties to hop, pavilions to browse, and names to drop while at the 53rd Venice Biennale.


If you are attending the opening of Venice’s 53rd Biennale: Hit the ground running. Rush to the Palazzo delle Esposizioni for the central event: curator Daniel Birnbaum’s Making Worlds. Seek out Bruce Nauman, Steve McQueen, Miquel Barceló, and other artists representing their countries at the pavilions. For alternative fare: Stop in at Palazzo Fortuny for Axel Vervoordt’s In-finitum, check in to the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation for Robert Rauschenberg’s show and going further afield, head out to Isola San Giorgio Maggiore for the Prada Foundation’s retrospective of California pop artist John Wesley. But whatever the plans, don’t miss Punta della Dogana, the former customs house and second art venue of French luxury tycoon François Pinault (the first being Palazzo Grassi).

When asked if he was attending the Save Venice event, gallery owner Harley Baldwin quipped, “having just paid my bill at the Gritti, I think they can save themselves!”

Mistrusted by certain natives—but then so was Napoleon!—Pinault has had Japanese architect Tadao Ando concrete bunker the interior, in order to hold his extensive collection. Naturally, it boasts all the right names from the art world: Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, the Chapman Brothers. And there’s also the electric charge of European powerhouse sweeping in for the intimate dinner after the opening. But being the back-biting art business, there are the naysayers—some have accused the 300 contemporary-work collection of being ill-advised on young artists and lacking Saatchi-like shocking pieces. In today’s climate, there’s nothing like bashing the billionaire! But let’s not forget the golden rule of the art world, “as long as Signor Pinault spends money, he’ll be taken seriously.”

Second rule being, “you snooze, you lose.” So throughout the three-day opening bonanza, put sleep on hold, make time for Giovanni Bellini’s Madonnas at the Accademia, nibble sushi at Naranzaria, share pizza at Il Refolo, sugar rush on cakes at Rosa Salva and, after midnight, be seen on the terraces of the Gritti, Bauer, and Monaco hotels.

Third rule: Look mean and lean in preparation of the art world’s most prestigious event (and sort of social bunfight on the OK Grand Canal). This year, Yoko Ono will receive a Golden Lion award—and the gala expects art divas Damien Hirst, Vanessa Beecroft, and Marc Newson will rub shoulders with Archduchess Francesca von Habsburg—Heini Thyssen’s daughter and outré art patron (let them eat Sachertorte!); European trustafarians Lapo Elkann, Pia Getty, in-demand royals David Linley, Pierre Casiraghi and his hottie-tottie sister Charlotte Casiraghi, with gallery owner boyfriend Alex Dellal, in tow. (Venice is a place for name-dropping, so learn these well.)

Meanwhile, be aware that Daniel Birnbaum, the Biennale’s 46-year-old curator, defines popular and will be the belle of the ball. “He doesn’t make everyone crazy,” says Marie Brandolini, Venetian grandee and glass designer. “The mood is good.” Far from behaving like a latter-day Doge and highlighting his organizational skills over the tremendous talent (occasionally the case with his predecessors), the Swedish-born Birnbaum is being praised for taking a respectful distance. “He wants a biennale with art at 360°,” says Giovanna Cipriani, the political journalist and member of the restaurant dynasty who also stresses that he and the Biennale President Paolo Baratta are clearly hoping for “a big public” having “spent 9 million.”


Certain collectors may not be attending Venice (whining about the rising euro sounds better than bitching about Bernie Madoff). But since the Biennale offers a fast and inside track on what’s next in the art world, this hasn’t stopped Hotel Cipriani being choc-o-block with the likes of Larry Gagosian and other capo di tutti capos, fave watering holes Harry’s Bar, Harry’s Dolce, and Da Fiore having waiting lists, Ella Cisneros’ vast boat and other floating palaces suggesting major boat-hopping.

In today’s climate, there’s nothing like bashing the billionaire! But let’s not forget the golden rule of the art world, “as long as Signor Pinault spends money, he’ll be taken seriously.”

True, parties have been toned down. Gallery owner Kamel Mennour, whose artist Claude Lévêque is representing France, is giving breakfasts instead of parties, and seeking “a more intimate dialogue.” But for those in a bring-it-on mood, blastoff begins Thursday, June 4 with François Pinault’s bash at La Dogana, Missoni’s party in honor of Bruce Nauman, and Francesca von Habsburg’s abstract operatic event, No Night No Day, being performed at the Teatro Goldoni.

The following night, Friday, June 5, fashion high priestess Miuccia Prada throws a party for John Wesley—expect Nathalie Djurberg, Steve McQueen, and other artists her foundation has championed. There’s also the I Vodka launch dinner at Harry’s Dolce, hosted by Arrigo Cipriani and Lapo Elkann and promising guests Gagosian, Donatella Versace, hip artists and leggy spouses like Maya Hirst and Charlotte Stockdale mingled in the jeunesse jet set. Later than night: ADACH (Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage) is throwing a late-night party at Spazio Thetis to mark the United Arab Emirates' first time at the Biennale. Dreamed up by the heavily connected Mourad "Momo" Mazouz—founder of London's Sketch and Momo restaurants—who promises DJs and live bands. It should have all the hip British crowd and suit Steve McQueen, who has enough of being "stuck in boring dinners" and this time plans to "really enjoy" himself. He’s said: "All I want to do is dance."

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Saturday, June 6 is the Save Venice charity dinner, which despite the worthy cause is being given the general thumbs down. “It’s become so second-rate since Nan Kempner died and Kenny Jay Lane stopped attending,” sniffs one socialite. Of course, there’s always the late gallery owner Harley Baldwin’s approach—when asked if he was attending Save Venice quipped, “having just paid my bill at the Gritti, I think they can save themselves!”


So much art, so little time before leaving for Art Basel, the following week? Here’s a hit list:

At Making Worlds held at the former Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, among the 90 artists, don’t miss Tomas Saraceno, Nathalie Djurberg, Carsten Höller, Tobias Rehberger, and Miranda July. At the Arsenale Novissimo, catch Jan Fabre’s From the Feet to the Brain.

Unless you’re schmoozing with an eco-warrior billionaire, don’t be seen on the public vaporetto with your luggage.

Also to watch: U.S.’s Bruce Nauman’s Topological Gardens, his neon pieces lining the neoclassical building; Spain’s Miquel Barcelo—one of the Biennale’s rare painters curated by art world darling and IMMA director Enrique Juncosa; Britain’s Steve "shrouded in secrecy" McQueen, the Turner Prize-winning artist and self-described "artist filmmaker." German Pavilion: the in-demand but achtung British-born Liam Gillick. “I’ve always been suspicious of any drive to localize art,” offers Gillick.

Some female artists are also in high demand—Switzerland’s Silvia Bachli, a rising star among serious collectors, and Mexico’s Teresa Margolles, who focuses on her country’s violence via drug dealers and dead women of Juarez, will emerge as big names.


Don’t play sleuth on Damien Hirst’s infamous sale last fall. Realize that all the pictures sold. Really, they did. The same applies to Hirst’s £70 million diamond skull.

—Unless you’re schmoozing with an eco-warrior billionaire, don’t be seen on the public vaporetto with your luggage

Don’t ask to meet Peggy Guggenheim.

—During the day, don’t wear high heels. Wear flats, particularly furlane, the chic Italian velvet slippers with black rubber sole worn by gondoliers. The best come from Gianni Dittura.

—If you have the legs, do wear the shortest hot pants you can find. Italians love them.

Based in Paris, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni freelances for the International Herald Tribune, British Vogue, Elle Decor, Glamour, the Times Magazine (U.K.) and is the author of Sam Spiegel—The Biography of a Hollywood Legend, published in 2003.