“There is no reason to feel like Cinderella: all over Italy there is nothing like it, such a long life, such burning vitality”. So wrote the director Angela Vettese in 1990 about the BLM Foundation in Venice when introducing the BLM Archive browsing through major names in Venetian art of the 20th century, such as Emilio Vedova, Tancredi, Diego Valeri.
Countess Felicita Bevilacqua La Masa and her bequest to Venice
BLM stands for Bevilacqua La Masa: the last name of Countess Felicita, a lady who wrote her will in Venice in 1898. That same year across the ocean in New York, Peggy Guggenheim was born. Both women believed in Venice and especially in its vocation to host contemporary art.
Felicita was born in Bevilacqua, near Verona in 1822 and at the age of 26 she took part in the revolutionary movement for the liberation of Italy. She also founded a hospital for the Italian soldiers and married Giuseppe La Masa, who in 1860 joined Giuseppe Garibaldi in his Expedition of the Thousand to bring Italy to its independence.
She lived her last years in Venice, at the Ca’ Pesaro palace. When we enter her home, we can see her marble bust placed by the imposing staircase leading us to the piano nobile. A heavy shawl covers her wide shoulders, her hair tightened on the back, a serious look. What a huge mansion, Ca’ Pesaro! Baldassare Longhena was commissioned to design the palace for Doge Giovanni Pesaro but in Felicita’s will, this place had to become a space for art. With one condition: unlike what the Biennale of Visual Arts was doing, her palace would only welcome the neglected, financially needy artists, the young beginners! Locally based in Venice. Since 1908 this is what the BLM has done in Venice, in city-owned spaces.
A young artist
I had a chance to meet one of the young artists in 2009. Valeria Cozzarini was chosen with 11 more young artists and given an atelier in Palazzo Carminati with a scholarship from BLM. While Ca’ Pesaro is no longer connected to the BLM Foundation, there are two major exhibition sites open to host the artists’ projects, one in St Mark’s square and another one in Palazzetto Tito near San Barnaba in Dorsoduro; at the same time, in Palazzo Carminati and in the Santi Cosma Damiano Ex-Convent there are twelve studios available. In 2009 another project was also going on, called Art Enclosures, a program addressing international emerging artists from Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands.
Valeria had studied at the Fine Arts School in Venice and then left for Germany to attend in Halle a class in animation when the BLM gave her the opportunity to return to Venice. You can check her work here:
Closing down the BLM
We met again as, at the beginning of this summer, bad news arrived: the City Council had decided to close the BLM Foundation! In a few days the petition not to close the BLM nearly reached 2,500 signatures: Salviamo Bevilacqua La Masa / Save Bevilacqua La Masa
With the result that the BLM won’t close. But with a major change: it will be the Mayor of Venice that will choose the board of directors and no longer the University of Ca’ Foscari, the Institute of Architecture of Venice IUAV, the Fine Arts School and three major labour unions. As Giancarlo Borile, member of the current board, pointed out, the BLM is not financially depending on the City Council but is already supported by sponsors, so why such a change?
I was curious to hear Valeria’s thoughts. The point of view of an artist. She invited me to her home, which is her studio, too. While sipping coffee and biting chocolate cookies, we ended up talking about other artists she met here in Venice and the future of this city threatened by a conflictual mass tourism industry.
“Nothing like the BLM exists in Italy”. Such excellence is not to be found anywhere else.
Me: Valeria, what did it mean to you as an artist to be part of the BLM program?
Valeria: “It was such a gift, a huge privilege to have a room of my own, as Virginia Woolf wrote, almost intimidating. I got back to my notes, drawings, ideas all fragmented and spread around after so much moving from one country to the other and that space in Palazzo Carminati gave me the chance to recompose a puzzle. Or at least to try to.
I worked very much, and perhaps, for the first time in my life, I felt allowed to work so much. I experimented a lot, sometimes at my expense, as experimenting means to make mistakes, to test… and lots was to throw away.
And the studio at BLM was also a showroom where the space is also open to somebody else’s eyes. All this is very important for the career of an artist as you need to confront yourself with the professional figures of the art world (critics, curators, gallerists), but the studio is also an intimate, private space, in which you get in contact with your own soul and whoever crosses that threshold should do it tiptoeing. I constantly felt the pressure of how to make the best of that opportunity!
After the BLM experience I started a career in filmmaking and art therapy. I still experiment and art is my life, but I surely have not entered the art world in its strict sense. My companions, instead, have pursued that way and I believe the experience at BLM proved to be a sort of a pass, a brand of quality. I often work with my partner, whom I met at the BLM and we both find ourselves getting across borders between the arts and wondering which side to be on. We would in fact like to start a project, called Bastard Prodige, as art bastards. Anyway, we work with ideas and beauty, the balance between what we can question and perceptive experience.”
Me: Valeria, how would you use the space at the BLM in St Mark’s square, as an artist?
Valeria: “Hard question to answer! First of all because I believe the publicly financed institutions need a form of participation, including the citizens. When every year the BLM gives visibility to the young, local artists (as Felicita had pointed out, to live in a place), that’s a great resource. However, I wish the artists were given a more active role. I agree with Paolo Rosa that founded Studio Azzurro. He used to say, we need to get back to a concept of “political” art where “political” refers to “polis”, the city, and brings art in connection with the city.
Who is supposed to decide? Then we will know what to do of the space for art. This is what Venice would need: a higher level of participation, room for discussions and meeting on a cultural level, not just economic. Maybe a laboratory of ideas…? An exhibition of what citizens think? … What do you think?”
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy