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A Playful Curator Takes On a Tough Gig at the Venice Biennale

Category: Art & Culture,Arts & Design

Hayward shows “are in a way essays, and are very idea-rich,” said Nicholas Serota, who was the Tate director from 1988 to 2017 and is now the chairman of Arts Council England, the organization that distributes public arts funding. “He takes an idea and tries to explore the way in which artists have been addressing that idea.”

Mr. Rugoff also “responds very positively to artists whose ideas are slightly playful,” Mr. Serota added, artists who “take a very serious subject and address it in a way which is with a light touch rather than heavy-handed.”

Curating the Biennale has become challenging in the digital age, said Thierry Raspail, founder of the Lyon Biennale, which Mr. Rugoff curated in 2015. “Before 1990, there was a kind of aura around the Venice Biennale, and a lot of good will, because of a global lack of information,” he said. “Today, there’s a glut of information,” making it hard to “announce something that’s new.”

Recent Biennale curators haven’t had it easy. The 2017 show, curated by Christine Macel, “doesn’t rise, doesn’t cohere,” wrote The New York Times’s Holland Cotter. “Thematic tension and critical drive are missing.” Robert Storr, the 2007 curator, was described by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine as having “abstained altogether from mounting one of the ball-busting, conjectural, venturesome whales we call biennials.”

How will Mr. Rugoff do?

“There are always people who’ve got an ax to grind, or people who’ve got a point to make,” Mr. Serota said. “I think controversy is inevitable, whatever he did.”

In that sense, Mr. Serota said, “he can’t win, really.”

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