VENICE - The motorboat is pulling away from the docks behind the Giardini, the grounds of the Venice Biennale's national pavilions, and as it gathers speed and begins to kick up salty sprays, Carlos Basualdo is expressing an inevitable regret.
Anne d'Harnoncourt - the Philadelphia Museum of Art director who entrusted the Bruce Nauman survey at the Biennale to Basualdo - died before the museum's great moment in Venice.
"She never saw a big show of mine," says Basualdo, a charismatic poet-turned-art-critic-turned-curator. What's more, he notes, she never got to see the blossoming of the Nauman show as a critical part of an ambitious strategy for the museum now well under way.
D'Harnoncourt's death a year ago was a crucible for many things, none more formidable than the museum's commission from the U.S. Department of State to take over the U.S. Pavilion in this year's iteration of what is often described as the Olympiad of the art world.
"Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens" turned out to be a stunning success. It won top honor, a Golden Lion for best national pavilion, in a victory made all the more joyous as an encore to a similar award the museum won at the 1988 Biennale. D'Harnoncourt was particularly known for her fastidious attention to exhibition details, but it's hard to imagine an installation with greater punch and elegance than the one Basualdo and the Art Museum staff came up with at the U.S. Pavilion and two Venetian universities.
To see Philadelphia's win in Venice in isolation, however, is to miss a larger institutional narrative. The museum hopes the Nauman show will build the breadth of its contemporary art collection and, in tandem, help raise money for new contemporary art galleries in Frank Gehry's expansion and the reworking of the Art Museum's main building back home on Fairmount.
"This was especially crucial in light of the expansion, to let people know we are going to have spaces for contemporary art, to organize a show around an important living artist," said Basualdo. "The contemporary art world is made of friends across many boundaries, and we made many new friends with the Nauman project."
A certain synchronicity has been at work in this area for some time.
Basualdo was hired by d'Harnoncourt as curator of contemporary art in 2005, no doubt in part because, as a professor at the Università Iuav di Venezia and as a Biennale veteran, he had knowledge of the inner workings of Venice. Michael R. Taylor, the museum's curator of modern art, developed the Nauman proposal and saw its connection to the museum's primacy in Duchamp.
In 2007, the museum acquired a seminal Nauman neon, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, in a purchase that acted as a bridge to Nauman. The 67-year-old American artist had declined previous invitations to participate in proposals for the U.S. Pavilion. But Basualdo's idea - of extending the show to the two universities, both far from the Biennale grounds - appealed to him, and this time he said yes. All these elements added heft to the museum's proposal to the State Department.
The greatest messaging triumph of the Nauman show, perhaps, is that it stakes a claim in an area in which the museum is growing, but not necessarily known for: contemporary art. The talk of the Venice Biennale was a show of serious edginess curated not by some new billionaire-backed Los Angeles contemporary art museum, but by a venerable East Coast comprehensive collection housed in a Neoclassical temple. No one seeing the Nauman show in Venice - no collector, curator, or art museum head who may figure into the museum's future - will ever think of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the same way again.
Next to many other artists at the Biennale, Nauman came off looking like both Old Master and Bad Boy - a rare and enviable species in art.
Success ripples out in many directions.
At one of the dinners held to honor the show, a slim blonde sat down at a table mostly populated by Philadelphians. She turned out to be Lisa Dennison, the former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who now works at Sotheby's. She not only raved about the Nauman show, but also added that, as it related to the hiring of a new director, it could not have put the museum in a better position. And that was before the museum's Golden Lion was announced.
Actually, the museum is already taking the final steps in hiring a successor to d'Harnoncourt, but Venice adds an intangible allure to the post. It will help the new director make a persuasive case to potential funders of the expansion. The museum made a direct impression on philanthropists and collectors, since many went along on the trip, and some were new friends of the museum. With dinners and parties attended by board members and donors, Venice was an important piece of cultivation, putting the museum in the admirable position of sitting back and allowing the week to climax with Saturday's Golden Lion award.
"We hope to build on these relationships for future projects," said Alice Beamesderfer, the museum's head of curatorial affairs.
Interim CEO Gail M. Harrity says that the museum's expansion will proceed in phases as money is raised and that the Biennale success can only help.
"What the Venice Biennale demonstrated is that this museum has an ability to reach internationally to secure funding for great programs," she said.
Of course, there were little glitches or aspects of the event that failed to reach their potential. It would have been nice for the museum to bring a larger portion of the show to Philadelphia than what's now planned. Only two pieces - the new audio installations Days and Giorni - are expected to come here to the main building and Perelman annex after they leave the Biennale in October. Basualdo felt that, since the show was so directly tied to Venice, to bring it here would have required a total reinvention, that it would be better to import just the new work.
And for all of the museum's centrality to the show, one major national publication - Newsweek - managed to write about Nauman and the show without noting that the Art Museum had anything to do with it. But this was not a failure of strategy or even execution, but rather perhaps a function of the media's fetish for personality.
Most relevant for the Art Museum's new strength in Nauman is its relationship with the artist himself. The selectively reclusive Nauman chose to travel to Venice three weeks before the opening, attending parties and dinners, and ended up sounding extremely pleased with the experience. The museum has whispered the hope of coming out of the show with its nascent Nauman collection augmented.
"Bruce was thrilled. He made so many positive comments," said Basualdo. "He told me he's looking forward to coming to Philadelphia."
Interestingly, Nauman had no particular connection to d'Harnoncourt. But now he has one to Philadelphia - with Basualdo and a museum that's looking considerably more eager and contemporary than it was just a few weeks ago.