While Karla Black pulls in the Venice crowds, Italian artists and industry join forces

Karla Black’s Scotland + Venice exhibition at Venice’s Biennale is still attracting flocks of visitors in the November sun but forty minutes inland the sights of Vicenza, home to the great architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), are remarkably crowd-free.  This may be due to the apparently rather laid-back attitude of the city to the business of attracting tourists, despite the $10 billion that the Veneto as whole earns from them.  It seems the success of the Veneto’s export-led industries such as €billion global fashion brand Diesel accounts for the pleasing absence of trinket shops festooned with blow-up Palladian Villas or Palazzio key-rings.  Gratifying as this may be, it is likely to become a thing of the past if the decline of the local manufacturing economy prompts a greater emphasis on attracting the tourist dollar, yen or remibi.

The purpose of my visit to Vicenza, home of the 16th century genius Andrea Palladio whose Villa Rotunda has inspired great and not so great buildings around the world for half a millennium, was to talk about Scotland’s creative sector and strategies to city officials, artisans and academics (including the influential researcher and recent visitor to Edinburgh Napier, Prof. Pier Luigi Sacco)  involved in Fuoribiennale and Innovetionvalley.  These  projects are aimed at ensuring the sustainability of creative industries in a region which claims to possess “the highest degree of creativity in the world”.   (Slightly more objective analysis by the European Cluster Observatory suggests that while important, the Veneto is around 23rd in the global league table of regions for creative and cultural employment clusters, with Paris Ile de France, Inner London and Milan holding the top three spots).

In certain key respects the Veneto region is not dissimilar to Scotland with a population of 5 million and GDP of €141 billion (Scotland’s is around €150bn). However it has a larger industrial base (33% of GVA to our 26%) and a smaller services sector (65% to our 74%) although the balance has shifted around 5% towards services over the last decade. Notably over 30% of the 458,000 businesses in the region are ”related to craftsmen” – an indication of the artisanal tradition that remains an important element in future economy development alongside the “high concentration of small and medium-sized enterprises highly specialised in a productive sector.”  This is after all the $3bn ‘world centre’ of tanning  – the leather in your shoe could well have come from the region, not to mention the shoe itself .  But it is the Veneto’s design-intensive and high valued-added clothing industry (evident in the success of global brands €1.3 billion Diesel and €2 billion Benetton) and the numerous design-led sectors such as glassware and ceramics which concerned the creative industries champions gathered in Vicenza.

The focal point of their effort is the conversion of the majestic Palladian Basilica in the very heart of Vicenza into an incubator for new creative businesses.  Following a €25m restoration the Municipality of Vicenza, working with academics from the University of Padova, hopes that the traditional skilled artisans of the region and a new generation of designers, artists and creative entrepreneurs will find a way to ensure the continued generation of creative design IP that can be manufactured in the region.  Their objective is to secure an international market for smaller companies without falling prey to the outsourcing which has become an industry in itself.  Helping artisan-based companies to develop marketing and media skills is one key objective, the thrust of which is:

re-branding the North-East of Italy as a creative hub, far from the traditional manufacturing image. … The entire region is characterized by the existence of creative hubs – e.g. Venice – technological hubs – scientific and technological parks in Venice and Padova –, a thick population of emerging small firms in tertiary activities – communication, marketing, It – and a changing population of firms operating in the design, manufacturing and commercialization of a variety of Made in Italy products. These elements need to be connected coherently in order to communicate a new identity of the region to the relevant constituencies in Italy and on foreign markets”.  Source: Task Force on Using Excellent Clusters toAddress Emerging Industries.

While direct comparisons between Scotland and the Veneto or, say Edinburgh and Vicenza, are not straightforward the challenges facing the Venetian textile sector are perhaps analogous to those facing companies in the Scottish Borders while the desire to better connect the creative skills of service-oriented companies in advertising and digital media to IP-generating businesses in the cultural sector is shared by, for example, the recently re-launched Creative Edinburgh.

One of the most interesting aspects of the incubator project in Vicenza is the leading role of Fuoribiennale “an association of artists and creative professionals gravitating around the Biennale of contemporary art of Venice”.  It would be interesting to see a grouping of Scotland’s artists making common cause with say the Borders textile firms in pursuit of a creative-industries led regeneration strategy in Hawick, Jedburgh or Kelso though the existence of Borders Creative might well allow that to happen.  (Indeed there might be some useful mileage in the latter getting together with their opposite numbers in the Veneto to swap notes. )

My Italian interlocutors were most interested to know about Scotland’s experience of Creative Industry incubators , the short answer being in truth its difficult to say as no-one has really researched the topic.  Other research (see for example Jo Foord’s Strategies for creative industries:an international review)  suggests that, on their own, incubators may be of limited value, particularly if their underlying purpose is to stimulate a ‘creative cluster’ of businesses. Rather what really matters is a holistic approach to SMEs’ needs from start-up to sustainabilty.  While Scotland’s artists, creative practitioners and businesses may not exactly be breathless in anticipation of the Scottish Creative Industries Partnership detailed action plans,  they have the potential to be important step towards realization of the Government’s aspirations for a truly ‘joined-up’ strategy for the sector’s development.  Meantime when the works of the world’s cutting edge artists are packed up and sent home, the Venetian artists and artisans will be forging links in the home of one of the world’s greatest creatives.

The extraordinary Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, the oldest surviving (indoor) theatre in the world and, alongside the Villa ‘Rotunda’, arguably the crowning achievement of Andrea Palladio, although he did not live to see it having died before it was completed in 1585.

The extraordinary Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, the oldest surviving (indoor) theatre in the world and, alongside the Villa ‘Rotunda’, arguably the crowning achievement of Andrea Palladio, although he did not live to see it having died before it was completed in 1585.  True to the values of the Renaissance the founders of its sponsor, The Academy Olympia, saw no division between the arts, science and literature but viewed them as part of the same human endeavor.  Endowing a theatre was for them as important a contribution to understanding  the world as the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

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