Interview with Luciano Benetton, Imago Mundi: Map of the New Art

With Map of the New Art, the Imago Mundi project inaugurated by the Luciano Benetton Foundation in 2013 continues its democratic mission to create a body of art from global artists that shows the fullness of the human experience of today for future generations. The Luciano Benetton Collection seeks to unite the world via common artistic ground. It has been assembled without purchase, through the voluntary participation of artists, in a universally applied format of 10 x 12 canvases, and is based on the principle the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, developed in order to classify and name plants. The Foundation hopes that this new way of presenting and engaging with art will foster connections between the East and West, the North and South, and across the borders of race, language, culture and class—“to foster openness towards the world and the coexistence of expressive diversity.” On the eve of the opening of Map of the New Art, Aesthetica followed up on our discussion with Luciano Benetton at the first Imago Mundi exhibition to hear more from the vivacious philanthropist about the progression of this visionary undertaking.

A: What, to you, was the most memorable public and critical reaction to the first viewing of Imago Mundi in 2013?
LB: The 2013 Biennale was a test case; we were, in a sense, still at the beginning. The collections presented were few but important and we had a very good response from the public, one that exceeded our expectations, as the project was still little known.

A: As Imago Mundi grows into its largest presentation of the collection to date, what do visitors have to look forward to? How does Map of The New Art depart from, or build on, what we’ve seen to date?
LB: I am very excited about this new show. We are exhibiting the works of 6,930 artists from 38 countries. It is an extraordinary journey through the creative identities, the colors and the ideals of the artists who create the works on an individual basis, but who, at the same time, collectively compose a unicum. A map of the contemporary art of their country can be seen and, more generally, can become part of a universe of identities that will be one voice, without political and religious boundaries.

Countries experiencing some very difficult situations will be present, such as Syria, which, along with others, has been the arena of a great and painful exodus to Europe. In other respects, we have Tibet and North Korea, whose collections will be shown for the first time in Venice. Also in production is a collection of artists from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities that symbolise the tragic history of our time.

A: Now that two years have passed since first introducing this idea, and collection, to the world—can you tell us what you’ve learned and how both the collection and the concept of creating this living library for future generations, has evolved?
LB: We have broadened and deepened our research into the history of the cultures of the various areas of the world, approaching the native populations at the origin of our civilizations. We have had some extraordinary surprises. There are several ethnic groups with which we are involved, for example, the Ainu populations, who are native to the islands of Hokkaido in northern Japan. We are also looking into the possibility of having collections from the 52 ethnic minorities in China. Then there are the Sami peoples living in the North who do not feel represented by Norway, Sweden and Finland. I would also like to mention the Native Americans; in Venice we will exhibit the collection of artists from North America. Another wonderful experience regards Kurdish artists, divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, who we are trying to bring together in a single collection art that can represent their cultural identity.

A: It is novel, in a beau monde art world, to be accumulating artworks as a scientific classification. Can you talk about the grand vision of Imago Mundi as a catalogue of today’s “soul” for tomorrow’s people, and how you see this coming together as you move deeper into the project?
LB: I started thinking about this classification based on the experience of the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus who graded plants using only Latin names, thanks to whom it is now possible to universally identify different species worldwide. Imago Mundi, I realise, is an ambitious project, but I am working hard to make it universal and to generate with this unique mapping a kind of unicum, a strong voice essential to the contemporary world.

A: The way you’re mixing “high” and “low” art, art stars with lesser known artists, white Western privileged art with aboriginal art and remote developing world art, and making the uniform 10 x 12 cm format works available to everyone now and as far into the future as we can project— makes me feel as though you’re leading a path towards the democratisation of culture.
LB: My research is to explore the origins of minorities so they can participate in Imago Mundi alongside the artists of the official populations of their countries, in the same way as the great masters are flanking young talents in a principle of cooperation and also – why not – of democratic competition. Some have drawn parallels between Imago Mundi and the legendary exhibition Magicienne de la Terre that was held in Paris in 1989, the first event to overcome the obstacles that prevented African art, and non-Western art in general, from fully entering the great circuits of the globalisation of art. In this vein, I think is very important to draw attention to new countries, and extending them respect and knowledge.

A: Apart from the legacy this leaves, what does this huge body of work give contemporary society?
LB: I hope this undertaking will be helpful for future generations. I often say that if it were for artists, there would be no wars; there would be creative force, dreams, and beauty.

A: Because the work is not commissioned but rather given as a 10 x 12 cm gift from the artist to the Foundation, how are these works more or less indicative of the larger oeuvre of each artist?
LB: Experience has taught us that the small format absolutely does not penalise the quality of work; just think of the Flemish artists who produced works of even smaller dimensions and that today are displayed in great museums. Many Imago Mundi artists take the format as a challenge, a sort of competition. For others it is a showcase and they are very committed. Of course, with new technologies it is easy to use the artist’s name and visit their website for a comparison with their characteristic style.

A: If we indulge the idea that future generations will live very differently, perhaps in augmented reality pods with much of the analogue world behind them, are you also devising a way for these works to survive the digitalisation of existence?
LB: It is a project that democratically involves tens of thousands of artists, so I think that from the constantly evolving Imago Mundi website, any type of future support can be imagined…

A: From there, in that far away place, how would you like humans to look back on this era, where you lived your life and began the classification of world art for them?
LB: I hope this project will continue ad infinitum through the Fondazione Benetton, that there will be new energies and techniques that reach future generations, and give in turn the protagonists of this extraordinary utopia, the opportunity to compare different eras and periods. I hope that Imago Mundi is also remembered as a good example of collaboration between artists, curators, experts, art lovers, architects, craftsmen, graphic designers, translators, and myself.

Map of the New Art previewed on 31 August and is on view through 1 November at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, Italy.

Visit the Foundation and learn more about the artists and their works at

Caia Hagel

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1. Cuba, Kcho (Alexis Leiva Machado), Untitled, 2013. Courtesy of The Luciano Benetton Foundation.