Venice - Interviews

Karole Vail: One Year at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

1 year ago

Recently we interviewed Karole Vail a year on from her appointment as Director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. Prior to this appointment, she served on the curatorial staff at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, where she worked since 1997.

Mara Sartore: I’m glad we have a chance to sit down now that a year has passed since your appointment as director of PGC.

Karole Vail: Yes absolutely, already a year has gone by. It’s been really full and intense and also very exciting. I have learned a huge amount. I came here as a curator and I am now a director of an extraordinary museum. I want to continue to observe and get to know the museum, in a different way from what I used to know before. I think that what was very important this past year, was to get to know the staff well, to have conversations with them, to participate in as many meetings as I could with them, understand what they do, what they are thinking, what they are hoping to do. It’s been a year of great excitement, meeting so many people and institutions from Venice with whom we collaborate on a regular basis and I think it is very positive and something that we definitely have to do. I believe in outreach to other institutions.

M.S.: Was there a moment of this first year that was really emblematic, a moment that you want to remember?

K.V.: Everyday has been emblematic and special, everyday there’s been something new to discover. Even though we put on exhibitions three times a year, we have to repeat that process over and over again, there’s always something to discover, a new problem, a new issue that has to be resolved. One interesting thing for me, as a former curator, was to pay special attention to the collection. It’s important to play with the collection, to move paintings and sculptures around. Reinventing the collection.

M.S.: How often do you do this?

K.V.: Not very often but in the past few weeks a painting left for San Francisco because we maintain an active loan policy whenever we think an exhibition is important.
I decided to put out all the 11 Jackson Pollock paintings that are in the collection, something which I believe hasn’t been done before and this year is also a special year with the celebration on the 1948 Biennale, so 70 years ago when Peggy Guggenheim brought her collection to Venice for the first time; when she introduced the young American abstract expressionist artists, including Jackson Pollock. I thought that as an homage to that movement, as an homage to Pollock, it would be good to put all the Pollocks out and we have also organized an exhibition around 1948 and the Biennale, as an homage to Carlo Scarpa.
There are some curatorial moments which to me have in fact been very important to be able to get better acquainted with the collections, to come up with better relationships between works also because Peggy believed that the collection shouldn’t remain static. It’s a living entity and even though it’s historical, many of the works are years old, some of them over a hundred, they still have a dynamism and an energy. I think it’s a really good curatorial exercise to show works in a new light, I think it makes it exciting.

M.S.: Talking about anniversaries, next year you’re going to celebrate 40 years after the death of Peggy. I know you’re working on a series of events in her honor, can we have some little anticipation of what will be going on? It will also be the 58th Venice Art Biennale so it’s an Art Biennale year.

K.V.: We celebrate Peggy everyday here, it is a museum that was Peggy’s house. But as you said, next year we are going to show more of her collection so that’s a very exciting moment for me. Part of the collection is also going to be shown in the Barchessa which Peggy had built on purpose to allow for more of her collection to be exhibited, this means that the Schulhof Collection will move to the temporary exhibition galleries for a couple of months in a more complete presentation.

This is also an exciting curatorial exercise, that means that for the first few months of next year we’ll see more of Peggy’s pre-war collection, and then at the end of that same year I am going to do an exhibition in the exhibition galleries of the acquisitions that she made once she settled in Venice. That will include the Italian artists Vedova, Santomaso, Tancredi, Bacci and also British artists from the 50s including Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon sculptors like Henry Moore. The exhibition will also be punctuated with a couple of key moment in Peggy’s Venetian life, so next year will really be an opportunity to see more the collection which I think is important and then the summer exhibition will be an exhibition dedicated to Hans Arp which we will be hosting after the first venue in Dallas at the Nasher Sculpture Center. Arp was the first artists who entered Peggy’s Collection in 1938, so I thought it was important to mark that moment as well with an exhibition dedicated to this extraordinary artists. And then we will probably organize other series of events like public programs with institutions in Venice, a programme we are still developing.

M.S.: Is there a specific or more than one local institution with which you work more closely? Or that you share aims with?

K.V.: We worked with Ca’ Foscari quite often, we often have lectures there. Right now we are collaborating with Fondazione Ligabue on the “Albers in Mexico” exhibition. We are collaborating with them because of their collection of pre-Colombian art and it’s always nice when there’s the opportunity to do something together because it helps both institutions. We are also continuing our collaboration with Comune di Venezia and Regione Veneto. We just held our last big event together with OVS with our Kids Creative Lab, we had this extraordinary performance in Piazza San Marco which was a great moment of collaboration with a sponsor and with the city of Venice.

M.S.: How important is it for an international museum like PGC to be active in a city like Venice, where the everyday life life is so rare sometimes with few locals still living here?

K.V.: We try to engage as much as we can with locals. We do have the Settimana dei veneziani in November and the Museum is open to all Venetians. It’s incredibly successful and Peggy was really generous herself opening the museum several times a week to the public for free. We are open to anyone who wants to come to the museum, we organize many programs for families, for kids, for teenagers and for schools. The educational programs have been going on for a long long time, the previous director has to be credited for that, among other things

M.S.: As a new Venetian, how is it for you living here?

K.V.: It’s wonderful, there are challenges like in every city, before I was living in NY and there were a lot of challenges there as well. Some things are not easy here but then I just stop and look around and everything else just collapses and it doesn’t matter, it’s so beautiful. What could be better? I’m working in this extraordinary museum, with great staff, there’s not much to complain about.

M.S.: For the 40 years celebration, do you have special sponsors who will come in?

K.V.: I don’t know yet. We are always looking for sponsors because we always need funding for all kinds of projects, for our operations or anything we are interested in. Myself I am very interested in conservation and research on the collection is very important, especially when you have a collection of this caliber to take care of it. I want to do more for conservation and restoration based research projects which I think are crucial for the future of the collection and the museum.

M.S.: Is New York going to be involved in the celebration?

K.V.: There’s nothing planned for now. Next year there’s going to be an anniversary in NY as well because it’s going to be 60 years of the Frank Lloyd Wright building, which opened in 1959. So maybe we can celebrate all together. Even though Peggy didn’t like the building at all! She called it the garage of her uncle Solomon, she wasn’t particularly excited by it. But I think she must have been really pleased when she saw her collection exhibited there in 1969 which I think was also the point at which she realized and understood that it was a good idea to leave her collection to the Guggenheim Foundation.

Mara Sartore

  • Karole Vail, Ph. Matteo de Fina Karole Vail, Ph. Matteo de Fina
  • Peggy Guggenheim on the steps of the Greek Pavilion with Interior (1945, unknown location) by her daughter Pegeen Vail, 24th Venice Biennale, 1948. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Venice, photo Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche. Gift, Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005 Peggy Guggenheim on the steps of the Greek Pavilion with Interior (1945, unknown location) by her daughter Pegeen Vail, 24th Venice Biennale, 1948. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Venice, photo Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche. Gift, Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005
  • Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Ph. Simone Bottazzin Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Ph. Simone Bottazzin
  • Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Ph. Simone Bottazzin Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Ph. Simone Bottazzin

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Karole Vail, Photo credits: David M. Heald/The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Karole Vail