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Can Adriano Pedrosa Save the Venice Biennale? No Pressure.

Can Adriano Pedrosa Save the Venice Biennale? No Pressure.

Adriano Pedrosa, curator of the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale, “Foreigners Everywhere,” near the entrance to the Giardini.Credit...Matteo de Mayda for The New York Times

Balancing diplomacy and geopolitics is hardly new for the first Biennale curator from Latin America. He isn’t scared to make a strong statement on contemporary art.

Only workaholics and delusional optimists should organize a Venice Biennale, as the Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa discovered during the countless flights and midnight meetings that have crammed his calendar for the past two years.

“This would probably have taken five years and a team of intense researchers,” Pedrosa said in a video interview, if he hadn’t spent more than a decade mulling the possibilities, most recently as the influential artistic director of the São Paulo Museum of Art.

On April 16, when the press previews begin for the 60th international exposition, others will judge whether the 58-year-old curator has captured the zeitgeist of contemporary art with his two-pronged show, “Foreigners Everywhere,” in the sprawling spaces of the Giardini and the Arsenale.

The title is a provocation, weighted by the anti-immigrant agendas of Italy, Hungary and other countries in the last few years. Pedrosa, however, speaks about celebrating the foreigner and the historic waves of migration across the planet, offering a catalog of synonyms — “Immigrant, émigré, expatriate” — even as he expands the concept. “I take this image of the foreigner and unfold it into the queer, the outsider, the Indigenous,” he said.

Those themes are embodied by 331 artists, most of whom will be unfamiliar to even seasoned art snobs. They are divided here between two major sections, one focusing on contemporary art and another dedicated to work made in the 20th century. Most have arrived from the Global South without major gallery representation or a foothold in the museum circuit. For many visitors, it will be the first time experiencing the splintered abstractions of Zubeida Agha (1922-1997) from Pakistan, the expressive portraiture of Hatem El Mekki (1918-2003) from Tunisia and the colorful fantasies of Emiliano di Cavalcanti (1897-1976) from Brazil, among others.

From the beginning, critics noticed that “Foreigners Everywhere” would serve as a somber — some say morose — tipping point: It’s the first Venice Biennale in recent years to showcase more dead artists than living ones.

But the element of surprise has long been Pedrosa’s calling card. At the São Paulo Museum of Art, known by its Portuguese acronym MASP, his signature “Histories” exhibitions have united artworks from across time and space, overturning the dominant narratives of Western culture.


His 2018 exhibition “Afro-Atlantic Histories” exemplified the approach by discussing the African diaspora and related topics like slavery through about 500 works, according to Pedrosa, spanning 450 years of history. The New York Times critic Holland Cotter wrote that the curator “has transformed an institution that advertises itself as having the most significant collection of old master European art in the Southern Hemisphere into a cultural laboratory.”

Other curators followed Pedrosa’s lead, including Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who initiated a series of cross-cultural exhibitions in 2020, drawing from diverse areas of the collection.

“Within his program over the last five or six years, Adriano basically addressed the major questions that museums around the world were asking of their collections,” Hollein said. “He developed a master plan.”

But the Venice Biennale will test the strength of Pedrosa’s curatorial formula and its ability to capture the attention of global audiences who also will be touching down at some 90 national pavilions and dozens of independent collateral events throughout the waterlogged city.

“Griping about biennials is one of the art world’s favorite hobbies: not enough young artists, too many young artists; not enough local artists, too many local artists,” said Claire Bishop, a professor of art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “You can’t please everyone all the time. What’s important is what kind of overall argument is being made. The bigger concern, which everyone is losing sight of, is that Pedrosa’s Venice might be our last adventurous intellectual statement for many years.”

She was referring to the rightward tilt of Italian politics that has rattled the culture sector after the 2022 election of Giorgia Meloni as prime minister. Meloni’s appointment of the contrarian journalist Pietrangelo Buttafuoco as the new president of the Venice Biennale has worried some scholars who expect him to challenge the art world’s liberal impulses.

Pedrosa, in a series of video interviews, said the government has not interfered with his program. “I had complete freedom and autonomy to develop the project,” he said. “I had one meeting with an individual from the ministry of culture. I spoke to him about the project. It was okay. Nothing major.”

But the curator admitted that domestic politics and international conflicts weighed on the exhibition. His celebration of foreigners comes after a crackdown by the Italian government, amid plans to send some migrants who are rescued in the Mediterranean by Italian ships to detention centers in Albania. The Venice Biennale has also received demands from thousands of artists and culture workers who signed a petition to ban Israel from opening its national pavilion because of its ongoing conflict in Gaza. But Gennaro Sangiuliano, the Italian culture minister, rejected the petition, saying that Israel “not only has the right to express its art, but it has the duty to bear witness to its people precisely at a time like this when it has been ruthlessly struck by merciless terrorists.”

Dealing with boycotts or protests at the Venice Biennale falls to the organization’s leadership, Pedrosa said; he is only responsible for the main exhibition, which features three Palestinian artists and includes a few artworks that refer to the Israel-Hamas war.

Pedrosa, the first Latin American curator in the Venice Biennale’s 130-year history, is no stranger to navigating art world politics.

“He is one of the most important curators in Brazil,” said Jacqueline Martins, a São Paulo gallerist who said that Pedrosa helped internationalize the reputation of the country’s artists.

Pamela J. Joyner, the art collector and trustee at the Museum of Modern Art, said her recent acquisitions of work by Black Brazilian artists like Antonio Bandeira (1922-67) and Laís Amaral (who was born in 1993) was inspired by the curatorial work done by Pedrosa and his museum colleagues.

“Some group shows devolve to the lowest common denominator and don’t reveal anything new,” Joyner said. “His don’t do that. He gives you a lot to work with.”

And Brazilian journalists who followed his rise to international stardom noted how Pedrosa seemed to effortlessly move between commercial and institutional roles earlier in his career. That reputation was forged at a local art fair, SP-Arte, where he led artistic programs from 2011 to 2014 under the show’s founder, Fernanda Feitosa. It was one of Pedrosa’s many gigs at the time as an independent curator, which included organizing sections for the Frieze art fair and exhibitions at museums around the world. His role as artistic director of MASP began in 2014 under Heitor Martins, the museum’s president — and Feitosa’s husband.

“His purview as a curator grew in tandem with the rise of the market over the last three decades,” said Gabriella Angeleti, a Brazilian culture writer based between Rio de Janeiro and Brooklyn. “His focus hasn’t been in promoting art that’s palatable to the market but in expanding the understanding of Brazilian art through projects that bring lesser-known voices and facets of history to the forefront.”


But finding the right tone for the Venice Biennale is something altogether difficult — a task requiring global scale, independent vision and diplomatic twang. Pedrosa is infectiously friendly and silver-haired handsome; the curator excels at the galaxy-brain levels of networking required at an exhibition that courts world leaders and top collectors. And he is already mounting a defense at some early criticisms that his artist list generated when it was published earlier this year.

Upon learning that the 2022 edition of the Biennale included 95 dead artists, making up 44 percent of the participants, ARTnews declared the statistic “staggering.” This year the proportion of dead artists in the exhibition is 55 percent.

And so Pedrosa has faced some unexpected questions: What does it mean to produce an exhibition of contemporary art when more than half of the artists are not living?

“I think it’s a shame,” said Dean Kissick, a culture critic in New York, who noted that almost 50 artists in the current Biennale were born in the 1800s. “We live in this hopeless time with so much pessimism,” he said. “There is no belief in the future and no vision of it, when culture might at least express something about what it feels to be alive now. Going back into the past is a refusal to let the present happen.”

Pedrosa disagreed. “Many of the artists are dead, but the art is very much alive,” he said, acknowledging that many curators were uncovering more diverse artists from the 20th century who had been overlooked in their own time. He added that contemporary artists would have the largest physical presence at the exhibition because they would be represented by multiple works or a large-scale single work.

“One can see contemporary art has been decolonized to a certain extent,” Pedrosa said. “But that didn’t happen for most exhibitions during the 20th century.”

Bishop, the art historian, pointed to a consistent historical element in every Venice Biennale. “It looks like most of the ‘dead’ artists are going to be midcentury figures from the Global South, so they will hardly be familiar,” she said. “Frankly, it’s going to be more rewarding than seeing the latest M.F.A. graduates that have been snapped up and overpromoted by New York and Berlin commercial galleries!”

The criticism might also just be part of the Biennale tradition, according to Hollein, the Met’s director, who has been attending the show for decades.

“Always in the opening days, there are heated discussions saying this is a failed Biennale,” he said. “But you see the impact and the opening of horizons in the aftermath.”