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  • Writer's pictureShlomit Oren

Money or Politics – which has the greatest impact over the Venice Biennale

Last week the 16th Architecture Biennial opened in Venice, the younger sister of the Venice Biennale of Visual Arts. This has brought on sweet memories from my visit to the Biennale di Venezia last year. As the first biennial, and the most consistent one, it is highly influential in the art world and considered a pivotal event. It is much revered for its cultural contribution but has other sides to it. Here I would like to focus on these other aspects and show that the Biennale is very much affected by internal Italian politics as well as international politics, and many of the managerial decisions are not art and culture driven. Other areas that will be discussed are the financial and the commercial. A substantial number of decisions taken by the Biennale’s managers, the exhibiting nations and the artists, are driven by commercial considerations and bear significant ramifications.

Claudia Fortes - The Horse Problem - Pavillion of Argentina, Venice Biennial 2017
Claudia Fortes - The Horse Problem - Pavillion of Argentina, Venice Biennial 2017

To better understand, let’s go back in time and look at the biennial’s history. The Venice Biennale was the first biennial in the world, formed in 1895 by the city’s patrons, with a purpose to regain Venice’s leading role in art history, as well as attract tourists to the City. It was first established as a national art exhibition, with art works displayed are meant for sale. The idea of national pavilions was inspired by the spirit of the time, where multi-national rituals were formed, such as the Olympic Games in 1896. The Biennale took place in the forsaken garden formed during Napoleon’s conquest at the outskirts of town. Each nation built its own pavilion, at its own expense, making the cost for the organizers minimal. The focal point was attracting tourists to the ailing city of Venice, using the art as a mean. That is why in those years the Biennale’s posters depicted mostly the city of Venice, and not the art. Practically, it was controlled by the Italian administration, supported by the county and the Venice municipality. Only in 1968, following a public protest, made by key artists and art critics such as Vedova and Nono stating it is “contaminated”, the Venice Biennale ceased to be an art trading platform officially. In recent decades the Venice Biennale was formed as a semi-independent foundation, initiating recurring events for other cultural fields such as architecture, film and dance.

The first Biennale di Venezia
The first Venice Biennale - 1895

International politics are deeply rooted within the Venice Biennale. The Venice Biennale will only include representatives of countries, nations and regions that are acknowledged and recognized by the Italian government. Others may participate in self-funded collateral events around the city of Venice but are subject to the approval of the Biennale di Venezia foundation. Therefore, it is a highly politicized event, in which many controversial national entities seek representation, attaining global acknowledgement as well as “soft power”.

Internal politics also plays a significant role in the structure of the Biennale di Venezia foundation and is crucial to its management. The president of the foundation is appointed by the Italian Minister of Culture. The position of Vice President is reserved for the Mayor of Venice. The third member of the board is appointed by the Governor of Veneto county, which reserve the right to appoint an additional member. Consequently, the board is comprised of politically affiliated individuals, not necessarily from the art world. Additionally, the artistic director of the Biennale is nominated by the President of the foundation and approved by the board, with no mandatory criteria – “It is arbitrary and subjective, no claim to be fair or choose the best. They want it to be balanced and the weight shifts over the years, so there is no single voice heard” as stated by one of the Biennale Di Venezia officials.

Commercial aspects of the Venice Biennale are subtle but should be noted. Much due to its leading role in the art market, and the prestige and validation it gives to the exhibiting artist, the Biennale has an immense affect over the artists’ value of work and their career trajectory. The Venice Biennale’s national pavilions, as well as the curated exhibition became shopping windows for art dealers. Galleries are often participating in the huge cost of shipping complicated art works and finance substantial costs of large installations. In certain instances, artists and galleries are also to pay for the space their work occupies. Therefore, commercial considerations are introduced into the curatorial work of the Biennale. As they say - “It’s a pay-to-play game”. And so, even though the curator’s budget is only a few Million Euros, the overall cost of the curator’s exhibition is much higher, financed by contributions of the artists, their galleries and certain donations raised by the curator himself.

Another party that finances the Venice Biennale, is the Swiss wrist-watch company Swatch, which is regarded as its partner and major sponsor. This collaboration is ongoing for several Biennale editions granting the company the only non-national pavilion - The Swatch Pavilion. In its pavilion, the company exhibits the work of sponsored artists that were commissioned either independently or as a part of a corporate residency. Their work is often transformed into a design for a wrist-watch. The company also sells Venice Biennale Swatches, as seen here with Ian Davenport's work.

The art world calendar has become more and more tight, when biennial follows an art fair and an art fair follows a biennial. Still, it is highly distinctive that Art Basel opens only weeks after the Venice Biennale’s opening. This has brought the practice of “See it in Venice, Buy it at Basel”, and so even though the Venice Biennale is not a commercial exhibition as it was in the early days, it still has a profound impact over the buy and sell practice, as galleries and art dealers usually show in Basel works from the same series of their Biennale represented artist, enabling collectors to buy into the Venice prestige.

During the 1990’s, as the Biennale grew in numbers, the City of Venice allowed the Biennale di Venezia to occupy the Arsenale buildings, built in the 15th-17th centuries for the manufacturing of Venetian war-ships. The city allows the use of the buildings but does not pay for their restoration. The Biennale di Venezia foundation invested more than 30 Million Euro in the rehabilitation and restoration of the buildings, mostly funded by the countries wishing to exhibit in them. Unlike the Giardini pavilions, the countries do not own the Arsenale buildings. This means that the City of Venice, which is represented on the Biennale’s board by its Mayor, is enjoying foreign funding for its heritage historical buildings. Moreover, only the countries that are able to pay for the works of rehabilitation, are able to secure a place in the Arsenale.

So… it is indeed difficult to determine which has the greatest impact on the Venice Biennale – Money or Politics. One thing’s for sure – it is not as pure artistic play as they would like you to believe, so enjoy the art but take it with a grain of salt.

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