A natural viewfinder formed within the cutouts of the stone facade of the Doge's Palace. Photo credit: Juhn Maing.
A natural viewfinder formed within the cutouts of the stone facade of the Doge’s Palace. Photo credit: Juhn Maing.

Clayton Christensen famously coined the more well-known version of this dilemma from the point of view of the innovator, specifically the tech innovator. In essence, the innovator’s dilemma is the problem of the second act, the sophomore slump if you will. Tech innovators tend to fail because they essentially free ride off of an initially disruptive product or solution without continuing to take risks and make investments in new innovation. They reap the benefits of past success while neglecting to invest in a sustainable pipeline of products or services that may threaten or cannibalize their original cash cow. Invariably, another competitor emerges in the marketplace and disrupts the original disruptor with something that does.

In a way, the artisan’s dilemma is even worse because of additional exogenous forces that could ruin her journey. The artisan lacks the sort of scalability that attracts modern investors. Hence, artisans typically lack easy access to funding by investors who prefer to see a viable growth path premised on market size and business scalability. Furthermore, the artisan often has to take on the time and expense to train apprentices while running the business. All of this means the artisan puts more of her own capital at risk. Lastly, the artisan is often ahead of her times or behind them, i.e. artisanal values often do not sync with mainstream values which may place little value on artisanal work. The end result is that the artisanal product is not meant for the mass market and is often a niche product.

Recently in Venice I detected the distinct traces of the artisan’s dilemma in real life. On paper, this remarkable city seems tailor-made for artisans. Yet the reality is far more difficult even for a place like Venice. How does a modern-day artisan manage to live and work in a political and economic context that does little, or nothing at all, to support artisans in a sustainable way?

Let me paint two Venetian scenes – one a conversation, the other a rooftop with view.

Venice-based shoemaker Gabriele Gmeiner. Photo credit: Juhn Maing.
Venice-based shoemaker Gabriele Gmeiner. Photo credit: Juhn Maing.

First Venetian scene: my conversation with a shoemaker named Gabriele Gmeiner. She works in the San Polo district of Venice. For newcomers, part of the inherent charm of Venice is that going on foot to find a place – more of a means to an end in virtually in any other city – can become the end in itself in Venice. You walk around Venice just for the pleasure of it. You can find Gmeiner’s shop by crossing the Rialto bridge from the San Marco side and traversing a few more canals and you will arrive at her tidy workshop. My directions are imprecise by design. If you get lost a bit, that’s part of the appeal.

Although trained mostly in England and France, she mentioned that many of the most skilled artisans in her trade have been Italian. Naturally, I agreed. As a counterpoint, I mentioned that France seems more supportive of its homegrown traditional trades like leather tanning and production. French tanneries make what are regarded as the finest leathers for men’s shoes (specifically French box calf). Without its artisanality from food to fashion, French culture today would be less attractive and ultimately business would suffer. Both the French state and luxury brands, which rely on artisans, are well aware of this and find ways to continually reinforce the artisanal underpinnings of the economy.

But in Italy there is a kind of a stasis that prevents a similar kind of positive action and support from coalescing and taking root. This is because artisans are situated within a larger political and economic paralysis. The raw economic numbers are not kind – “Italy is in a long-term economic decline. Its per capita income has been stagnant for about 25 years. Nearly 200,000 people, mostly young and highly educated, leave the country every year”.

At the same time, one encounters a jarring mismatch within Italy regarding its own cultural legacy. This is not an isolated viewpoint. Simone Verde, director of the National Gallery of Parma, recently said that Italy “is a country that has no sense of itself.” He made this statement regarding the cultural imbroglio between France and Italy over the upcoming Da Vinci exposition organized by the Louvre. But he was also describing the loss of meaning of the country’s cultural legacy to Italians today.

The upshot is a cruel one. Italians should be the most vocal champions of their own artisanal legacy but this rarely gets translated into policy by political and economic elites, let alone implemented effectively by empowered bureaucrats and managers.

View from the rooftop deck of Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Photo credit: Juhn Maing
View from the rooftop deck of Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Photo credit: Juhn Maing

Second Venetian scene: I recommend visiting the remarkable Fondaco dei Tedeschi building and going up to the rooftop which needs to be scheduled but is free to the public. The rooftop commands a splendid view of the entire city including the Grand Canal. As its name suggests, the Fondaco housed a group of German merchants and traders operating in Venice until the 1800s. It was later rebuilt in the early 16th century after a substantial fire. Five hundred years later, the Benetton Group purchased the building and funded its complex renovation which was officially completed in 2016.

Although the renovation was beautifully done, I cannot help but see lost opportunities. The Fondaco is now leased as a DFS duty free shop, which means it caters to tourists and limits its appeal to Venetians. Since DFS is owned by LVMH, the world’s largest luxury brand conglomerate. it is filled with premium and luxury brands that one can find in any other large city. Yet just footsteps away are the city’s last remaining bespoke tailor Franco Puppato and three artisanal shoemakers (Gabriele Gmeiner, Daniela Ghezzo, Giovanna Zanella). Although DFS offers a small selection of local foods and products, the Fondaco could have been a far more compelling venue for artisans and craft traditions specific to Venice and the Veneto region. Instead it is primarily a sales point for highly exposed brands that ultimately serve a EUR 45 billion global corporation.

It’s quite fitting that I am writing about the artisan’s dilemma in this singular city, whose fortunes rose and fell with the caliber and competence of its ruling elites – the Dandolos, Michiels, Zianis, Morosinis, and Gradenigos as depicted in Thomas Madden’s excellent history of Venice. Their striking palazzos, portraits and commissions stud the seascape of this remarkable city. As doges, generals and councillors, these leaders secured centuries of security and prosperity for their inhabitants, providing meaningful work for artists and craftsmen.

Therein lies the fundamental challenge for artisans today – the absence of leadership and meaningful patronage among today’s economic and political elites. This is a failure of imagination and responsibility. For better or worse, the future of Italian artisans depends on the hearts and minds of today’s elites.

Venice's great trading empire relied on political and economic elites who were also cultural leaders. Photo credit: Juhn Maing
Venice’s great trading empire relied on political and economic elites who were also cultural leaders. Photo credit: Juhn Maing

This is why artisans need more than just customers, or even very loyal customers, to thrive. The artisan is not simply an entrepreneur or even an artist but something rarer – a hybrid figure melding artistic vision, craft technique and often contrarian values to the mainstream. Historically this type of figure attracted an equally unusual figure – an enlightened patron providing cultural leadership and support. It’s a pity that today’s elites look and act like yet another Instagram-fed consumer rather than the cultural leaders and patrons of the past.

I’ll end with an insider anecdote about a billionaire tech founder-mogul and one of his transactions with a well-known high-end menswear brand. He purchased a few dozen cashmere hoodies in unique colors exclusive only to him. Let me acknowledge that at least he was given solid, if mainstream, advice on where he should commission his luxury hoodies. Nonetheless, is this what passes for elite consumption and patronage these days? Ordering dozens of hoodies in a set of limited edition colors?

Not every wealthy individual can be a Rockefeller, Guggenheim or Medici but surely there is room for growth for a more sophisticated engagement with craftsmen and craftswomen.

Today’s high net-worth (HNW) individuals really should aim higher. They should also be open to deeper and more sustainable ways of supporting and engaging artisans. One could look at Charles Cohen (investor and owner of Savile Row tailor Richard James) or Brunello Cucinelli as examples and role models. Furthermore, there might be a third way out of the artisan’s dilemma (think about a model like Patreon) which I may write about in the future.

6 thoughts on “The artisan’s dilemma: a view from Venice”

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