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It’s Venice Biennale time again. In early May, thousands of art-world denizens will descend on the Most Serene Republic for the opening of the 58th edition of the Biennale, the closely watched pageant of contemporary art that has been running—with a few interruptions—since 1895. By the time of its close in late November, more than half a million people will have passed through its gates (if past attendance numbers are any indication), awards will have been bestowed, and at least a few new stars will have been placed in the art cosmos. The Biennale is arguably the most prestigious exhibition in the world, filled with history and also cloaked in myth. And it has changed a great deal over the years. So while we await the opening of this year’s edition, it’s a fine time to look at how it all operates. Below, some frequently asked questions, and some answers.
What is the Venice Biennale, exactly?
The often-repeated answer is that it’s “the Olympics of the art world,” which captures some of the international spirit of the affair but requires a great deal more explanation. That’s because the Venice Biennale is unlike any other art biennale in existence. Rather than being just a single big show organized by one lucky artistic director, it is a wild, freewheeling festival composed of numerous elements—a smorgasbord of art that not even the most voracious glutton could hope to consume.
Very loosely speaking, the Biennale proper now consists of three parts: (1) a central exhibition organized by an artistic director in the Central pavilion in the public gardens known as the Giardini and the cavernous former dockyards known as the Arsenale, (2) national pavilions organized by dozens of countries, each offering a show of one or more artists, and (3) independently organized exhibitions tagged by the Biennale as official Collateral Events.
There are also all sorts of other exhibitions and events that coincide with the Biennale but are not affiliated with it. Some are vanity shows put on by artists or others hoping to catch the eyes of all the assembled art types. Others are ambitious affairs at the city’s museums and foundations, sometimes organized with the assistance of commercial galleries who want to have a presence in the city during the action. In addition there are performances and panels and screenings and dinners and sundry parties—all the things that make the art world hum.
Who’s in charge?
The president of the Biennale organization, which oversees its activities not only in art but also architecture, film, dance, music, and theater, is the veteran Italian politician Paolo Baratta. On the curatorial front, a new artistic director is picked to organize the central show at each art Biennale. (That practice began in the 1980s, though the legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann got to repeat, doing the 1999 and 2001 shows.) This year’s majordomo is Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery in London, who’s offering up “May You Live in Interesting Times.” Born in New York, Rugoff is only the second American to be tapped for the job. That might seem surprising given the Biennale’s long history, but the first non-Italian was selected for the top curatorial slot only in 1995, when the Frenchman Jean Clair was given the duty. Other figures about the prestigious post are even more stark: only three Biennales have been organized by women, and the first African-born curator was selected only in 2015, when Okwui Enwezor took the reins.
Where did the Biennale come from?
One could begin the pre-history of the Biennale from a number of different dates, but April 21, 1868 feels like an especially worthy hallmark. It was on that day that King Umberto I of Italy married Margherita of Savoy. Almost exactly 25 years later, on April 19, 1893, Venice’s city government decided to toast the couple’s silver anniversary by establishing a “national biennial exhibition of art,” as well as an orphanage. This was an era of grand international expositions of art and commerce in Europe, and it’s possible to trace the Biennale’s lineage as far back as large-scale art exhibitions mounted in the 18th century. The direct inspiration for the organizers of the Biennale, though, was a national art exhibition held in Venice in 1887.
The plan had been to inaugurate the Biennale in 1894, but such things take time, and instead it opened on April 30, 1895, with King Umberto and Queen Margherita in attendance. The first show included 516 works—188 by Italians and the remainder by foreigners. Most came from invited artists from 14 nations in addition to Italy, though a jury also selected works that had been submitted in advance. Some 225,000 people came through, establishing the show as a vital source of tourism and commerce for the floating city. (Regrettably, King Umberto did not get to see the Biennale blossom. He was assassinated by an anarchist in 1900.)
If it started in 1895, why is this year’s Biennale identified as the 58th edition? (It seems like it should be number 62.)
The Biennale has had a wild ride over time, with a handful of editions being scuttled and various changes to its scheduling. World War I nixed the show in 1916 and 1918, and World War II prevented editions in 1944 and 1946. And while there were Biennale-related activities in 1974, the show was dedicated in solidarity to Chile, which had undergone the coup that put General Augusto Pinochet in power the year before, and it was not assigned an official number. (The focus on Chile show has been supported by the Italian Communist party, which held sway on the Biennale committee.)
The numbering system resumed in 1976, with the 37th edition. While nothing as dramatic as a show of Chilean solidarity has been taken up by the art Biennale since 1974, that exercise proved influential: editions since then have been given a unifying theme—albeit a vague one denoted by a portentous title. The theme in 1976: “environment, participation, cultural structures.”
But wait, there were actually some Biennales during World War II?
Amazingly, yes. While nations dropped out in some of the dark years leading up to the war—the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain boycotted 1936 over the political situation in Italy—the biennale continued through the 1942 edition, and the U.S. even took part in 1940. As the curator and critic Lawrence Alloway wrote of the 1940 Biennale: “That Europe’s communication system was able to move over 3,000 artworks and a substantial number of civilian visitors to an art exhibition, while half of Europe was fighting for survival, is as impressive as it is bizarre.”
If the Biennale began in the odd-numbered year 1895, what’s with certain even-numbered editions in the past?
The Biennale shifted to even-numbered years beginning with the ninth edition in 1910, though a 1909 show was still staged. (A grand art exhibition was planned for Rome in 1911, for the 50th-anniversary of the unification of Italy, and the goal was to avoid having the two big shows overlap.) After the 1990 Biennale, there was a three-year pause, moving the show back to odd-numbered years so that the centennial edition could be celebrated in 1995—exactly 100 years after its start.
How many nations will present work at this year’s Biennale?
As of right now, it’s looking like about 90 countries will present pavilions during the Biennale, an all-time record. (The previous high mark was set in 2017, with 86 official pavilions.) It’s too soon to say definitively, though, since some nations may drop out before the exhibition opens. And there’s also the matter of how to count some participants. For instance, Taiwan regularly stages a show, but it is not considered an official pavilion. Fun fact: the smallest country by land mass to participate this year is the roughly 24-square-mile San Marino.
What’s the deal with the national pavilions?
One of the smart moves that Biennale organizers made early on was to encourage countries to build their own pavilions to present shows, with the understanding that the nations themselves would be in charge of all the costs of construction, upkeep, and programming. Belgium was first, inaugurating its pavilion in 1907, followed by Germany, Britain, and Hungary in 1909. The U.S. finally got its act together in 1930, opening the ninth national pavilion. At this point, the Giardini is pretty much out of space—with 30 pavilions—so other countries stage shows in the Arsenale and at palazzos and other venues all over the city. The final country to build a pavilion in the Giardini was South Korea, which opened its space in 1995.
What’s the story of the U.S. pavilion?
It’s an unusual one. Typically, nations have taken care of building their pavilions in Venice, but the U.S. pavilion was actually not created by the U.S. government. The Grand Central Art Galleries in New York spearheaded the building of the three-room Palladian-style structure that opened in 1930 and still stands today. The Museum of Modern Art purchased it from Grand Central in 1954, which in turn sold it in 1986 to the Guggenheim Foundation, which has a presence in the city through the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
How are artists selected?
For the central show, the artistic director has carte blanche to choose artists. (Rugoff has selected 79 artists and collaborative teams.) For the pavilions, each country makes its own selections, in theory with an eye to the theme of the Biennale. In the U.S., the Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions, a group of experts assembled by the National Endowment for the Arts in an agreement with the U.S. Department of State, makes the choice from proposals submitted by various institutions. For the 2019 Biennale, the committee chose the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s application to show sculpture by Martin Puryear. The Conservancy is the first public-art organization to win the honor in the U.S.; in the past it has always gone to museums or other exhibition spaces. (The Rose Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art presented Mark Bradford in 2017, and the MIT List Visual Arts Center offered Joan Jonas in 2015.)
What are the many prizes that the Biennale gives out?
An international jury of curators will present three main awards after the opening festivities of the Biennale in early May—a Golden Lion for the best national participation, a Golden Lion for the best participant in the main show, and a Silver Lion for the “most promising young participant” in the main show. The jury can also give out one special mention to a participating nation and two special mentions to artists in the main show. In addition, the artistic director gets to propose one Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, which is confirmed by the Biennale’s board, usually before the show opens. This year the lifetime achievement award went to Jimmie Durham.
The history of the prizes at the Biennale is long and, to be frank, confusing. In the biennales between 1968 and 1986 there were no awards, for some stretches the awards were medium-specific (with prizes going to the best examples of painting and sculpture), and during the Fascist era there was even a prize for the best maternity subject. Very early on, awards also came with cash prizes—as an incentive to get major artists to participate—or resulted in acquisitions but now all that accompanies the leonine statues are pride and the promise of lionization. (Sorry.) Generally speaking, the current prize regime began in 1986, based on a structure that began in 1938, though the exact awards have changed a fair amount over even the past 33 years since then.
Is the art in the Biennale for sale?
No, you can’t roll up to a Biennale representative and make a purchase. Though you could through 1968, before the Biennale shut down a sales office that assiduously tracked the number of deals (with 186 sales in the first edition and a high of 1,209 in 1909). But while political shifts of the late 1960s (there were student protests against the Biennale in 1968) and changing notions about art commerce may have nixed official sales, the art is very much available for purchase. Dealers for the galleries representing the artists on view are usually on hand during the opening days of the Biennale to do business, and works from the show by the most in-demand artists will very likely sell before the exhibition even opens.
How do I learn more about the Biennale?
The nice timeline on the Biennale’s website is a good place to start, as is Tim Smith-Laing’s 2017 synopsis of the show’s history for Frieze. Two books in English are also wonderfully informative: Lawrence Alloway’s The Venice Biennale, 1895–1968: From Salon to Goldfish Bowl (1969), in which the famed critic and curator offers a wry overview of the show’s development over the years, and some of the misconceptions that surround it, and Enzo Di Martino’s The History of the Venice Biennale: 1895–2005 (2005), which has comprehensive details about each edition and includes a nifty chart that catalogues the nations that participated in each Biennale. Both were essential to putting together this primer. I’m also looking forward to “Art’s Biggest Stage: Collecting the Venice Bienniale, 2007–2019,” an exhibition that Brian Sholis is organizing at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in July, which will be accompanied by a catalogue.
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