At the other end of the line, in Venice, the phone in the Biennale Art Festival's headquarters rang endlessly and without response. "But it is an eloquent silence," said a young critic, "one which speaks of the triumph of politics over art."
He was referring to a series of internal political, bureaucratic, financial and administrative delays and disagreements that have acted to bring the operations of the lagoon city's 82-year-old international arts festival grinding to a near halt.
A dispute over the 1977 Biennale's controversial theme of dissent in Eastern Europe, and delays in funding, have forced the Biennale's Italian board of directors to settle on a "mini-programma" for the current year that contrasts sharply with the broad range of activities and exhibitions held in 1976.
"You might say that this year the mountain has given birth to a mouse," said a Venetian hotel manager. He explained that visitors to Venice this sumplays, concerts, art shows, films and lectures that last July, August and September kept tourists busy crisscrosing the city by vaporetto and by foot to the Biennale's seven different locations.
Venice, of course, has enough of its own attractions to keep happy any summer visitor with a penchant for the the beaux arts. But for anyone who was there last year, the sight of the 30 empty, closed-down national pavillons in the "Giardini" comes as something of a shock.
This does not mean that this year there will be no Biennale at all. Along with a watered-down program on the controversial dissent theme scheduled for winter, summer's end will bring, among other things, a small cinema festival featuring films stored in the Biennale's archives since 1932, a symposium on the relationship between cinema and TV, a review of scientific films and a typically Italian conference on the role of the Biennale itself.
But there will be no music, no painting and no theater, a decision that was made because of the lack of funds and which was confirmed more recently when the festival's three artistic directors for visual arts, film and theater resigned.
According to Gjuseppe Rossini, a member of Italy's ruling Christian Democrat Party who sits on the Biennale board of directors, "It is unthinkable that a major festival on the figurative arts could be organized two years in a row."
But the fact is that the shrinkage of the once biennial "Biennale" contrasts sharply with the hopes and plans of its organizers after a "new" Biennale festival was launched and financed by an 1973 Italian law.
One of the problems of course, is money. Last year's major festival cost almost $2 million so that when this year's $3.5 million allocation finally came through in June all but about $903,000 was slotted for unpaid debts.
But the real problem even if few politicians are willing to admit it, is political. Strange as it would seem to most Americans, the management of the Biennale is itself politically organized.
The 18 members of the board of administration are representatives of Italy's political parties, of the local administrations of Venice and the surrounding Venetian region, and of Italy's politically organized labor unions. And wagging tongues would even have it that the guest invited to conferences and exhibitions are chosen along political lines.
Part of a country-wide spoils system that began in the early '60s when the ruling Christian Democrats were forced to share power with some of Italy's other parties, the political division of management posts, at the Biennale as elsewhere, is designed to guarantee " pluralism," a favorite Italian word these days.
But it usually backfires. In industry and economic planning the result so far has been disastrous either because executives' professional qualities have been overlooked in favor of their political alleglance, or because decision-making has been stymied by a need to consider five or six parties' points of view.
In artistic endeavors the outcome could be even worse, and if the Biennale is any example it already has. Indeed one more-independent member of the Biennale board, Prof. Domenico Purificato of the Accademia di Brera in Verona, recently resigned because, he said, every one of the Biennale's activities was subject to political negotiation and bargaining that had nothing to do with either culture or art.
But this year things were different. When the festival's director, socialist Carlo Ripa di Meanna, sugested last January that the 1977 Biennale be based on the topic of Eastern Europe's cultural dissent, he was opening a Pandora's box that has still not got its lid back on.
For by deliberately raising the dissent theme, Ripa id Meana was well aware that he risked embarrasing Italy's second-place Communists who, although they have grown increasingly independent, still have strong emotional ties to the Soviet Union.
Part of a recent attempt by the small Socialist party to differentiate itself from the Communists by playing up human rights, the issue was further complicated when the Soviet ambassador in Rome made a formal protest to the Italian foreign ministry.
Ambassador Nikita Ryjoy's threats that the USSR and its Eastern European allies would not take part in the next Biennale if the dissent theme were adopted had the momentary effect of unifying the Italians and forcing even the Communists to describe the move as "unacceptable interference."
But the question cast a shadow over the Biennale - after all, the ruling Christian Democrats themselves are not particularly eager for tensions, even of a cultural nature, with the USSR - with the result that the long overdue funding was delayed into June.
Furthermore, despite two short-lived resignations by Ripa di Meana - who urged waiting for 1978 when things could be done in style - the board of directors voted to hold a modified dissent show this year . . . and get it over with.