Baltimore Museum of Art prepares for 'Olympics of the art world,' the Venice Biennale

With just six days to go before the opening of the 2017 Venice Biennale, the staff for the Baltimore Museum of Art was being bombarded with interview requests from more than 140 media outlets, including the national public television of Slovenia and the fashion magazine Marie Claire Ukraine.

They've been trying to track down jars of Vlasic pickles and the brand of red plastic party cups they're contractually required to provide for the headlining entertainer at the fancy black-tie gala they're throwing in Italy on Wednesday night.

They were attempting to extricate an unglamorous but essential piece of equipment — holders for the wall text accompanying the artwork, from Italy's customs department. They were looking for the wall text itself, which staffers feared was lost somewhere in Italy.

And Mark Bradford, the Los Angeles-based artist representing the U.S. in whats known as "the Olympics of the art world," was still trying to decide what artwork he'll put in the Rotunda, a particularly difficult-to-plan-for room in the U.S. Pavilion. He had recently scrapped his latest proposal for the space — he'd contemplated lining the walls with a collage of predatory cellphone ads that target prisoners and their families — a design that had been photographed and heavily publicized.

"I must have done the Rotunda 15 times," Bradford said.

"I knew the second I got to Italy that the cellphone ads weren't going to work. There's an ancient quality to Venice and the light wasn't right. But, I tend to work all the way up to the last minute. I always give myself permission to take as long as I need, and I give myself permission to change my ideas."

This week, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and by extension the city of Baltimore, will stride into the center of the art world's biggest and most prestigious stage when it presents the U.S. entry into the competition. The spotlight will be bright, the pressure will be enormous and the stakes will be sky-high.

“This is an opportunity for the world to see how important our museum is,” said Amy Elias, chairwoman of the Venice committee of the museum’s board of trustees.

“This Biennale has the potential to not only be transformational for the museum, but for Baltimore as a city. It’s not just great art — it’s great art with social relevance. In today’s world, you can’t have one without the other. We’re going to be seen as a very important player in the local, regional, national and international art world.”

For the 57th Venice Biennale, which will run from May 13 to Nov. 26, 85 nations will compete for the coveted Golden Lion awards that will be handed out on the morning the show opens to the best pavilion and best individual artist. Three nations (Antigua and Barbuda, the Republic of Kiribati, and Nigeria) are competing for the first time.

In October, the BMA was selected as the lead institution charged with putting together the U.S.'s entry into the competition, an honor it received just once before, in 1960. The U.S. Pavilion is being co-presented by the U.S. State Department and by the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, which the BMA's new director, Christopher Bedford, headed before moving to Baltimore.

If that weren't enough exposure, one of Baltimore's favorite native sons — the filmmaker John Waters — was selected as one of 120 artists worldwide who will participate in "Viva Arte Viva," the international group show that functions as the Biennale's centerpiece. (Artists in the group show don't compete for awards.)

Bradford is exhibiting two sculptures, six paintings and a video. All but the video, the three-minute 2005 film "Niagara," were created specifically for the Biennale.

The artworks are tinged with autobiographical elements stemming from Bradford's life as a 6-foot-8, gay, African-American man. Before he went to art school, Bradford worked as a stylist in his mother's hair salon, and his canvases famously incorporate the small, rectangular, near-translucent endpapers used to curl hair.

His exhibit at the U.S. Pavilion is titled "Tomorrow is Another Day," an ironic reference to "Gone With the Wind," Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel about the Civil War that's replete with racial stereotypes

"One obstacle I've always faced is carving out a space for myself where I can answer my own questions, especially around race," Bradford said, explaining that the way strangers react to his physical presence can interfere with his own responses and make it more difficult for him to figure out what he really thinks and how he really feels.

"When I come into a room, first black walks in," Bradford said. Then, 6-foot-8 walks in. Finally, Mark walks in."

There are other reasons the 55-year-old Bradford draws a crowd. He has become almost as well-known for the social service projects he launches in cities where he works as he is for his paintings.

In Venice, the artist helped current and former prison inmates open a storefront where they sell cosmetics and tote bags that they make and vegetables that they raise. Proceeds go to Rio Terà dei Pensieri, the organization that helps the former inmates find employment and housing and obtain health care.

"The opening was amazing," Bradford said. "The bridge and one block of the small little street outside of this little small shop were jam-packed with people."

In addition to helping Bradford set up the storefront, museum staff also handled every aspect of planning the U.S. Pavilion, from insuring the art to buying brooms they could use to sweep the floors. It's an operation with a $1 million price tag; the State Department contributed $250,000, while the BMA and the Rose raised the remainder.

Moreover, staff members had to coordinate activities spread over three time zones and five cities and conducted in two languages. The smallest oversight could attract the wrong kind of attention, and lots of it. During the most recent Biennale, held in 2015, 670 members of the news media checked out the U.S. Pavilion.

To prevent such a catastrophe, the museum is sending 11 staff members to Venice for periods that vary between a few days and several weeks. In addition, 23 of the museum's board members and donors plan to attend the opening.

"Next week is thrilling and exciting, but it's going to be very busy," said Sara Torgerson, who is managing the Biennale project for the museum. "I couldn't be more ecstatic, but I'm preemptively exhausted."

Among other tasks, the museum staff produced a 216-page catalog to accompany the exhibit that's designed to appeal to an unusually wide audience. The catalog contains essays by law professor Anita Hill and novelist Zadie Smith. It also includes excerpts from James Baldwin's novel "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and from W.E.B. Du Bois' essay "Black Reconstruction in America."

From across the Atlantic, the museum staff scrambled to plan a $5,000-a-plate black-tie dinner for 200 that will be held on Wednesday night — there are rumors of celebrity appearances — and a more casual reception for 800 on Friday at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.

Next week is shaping up to be glamorous and hectic for the museum's staff — and a bit discombobulating. But for the BMA's director, all the frivolity is in the service of a deeply serious goal. Perhaps only Bedford would think of the world's most prestigious art show as the ideal place to take his big plans on a test drive before what he views as the main event.

"For the run of the show, the Venice Biennale is the epicenter of the art world," Bedford said.

"We're guaranteed a massive audience. To me, the most valuable thing about going to Venice is that it can help generate difficult conversations around race, class and inclusion in America. That is my aspiration for the BMA in a nutshell. The question is whether we can achieve something profound in Venice and use that experience as a model for implementing lasting social change in Baltimore.

"That is how I will measure our success."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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