What is the Venice Biennale? Everything You Need to Know

The Venice Biennale is upon us, returning for its 60th edition. Thousands will pour into the Italian city for the opening of one of the art world’s most prestigious events—barring a few interruptions—since 1895. When it closes in late November more than 800,000 people will likely have attended (if last year’s record–breaking numbers are any indication). Awards will also be given and rising new stars in contemporary art identified. Though the Venice Biennale is one of the most known in the world, replete with a rich history and an engaging mythos, it has also seen a number of changes since it began. The 60th edition will be on public view from April 20 through November 24. 

Below, are the answers to some frequently asked questions.

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What is the Venice Biennale?

Dubbed “the Olympics of the art world,” the Venice Biennale is an international art festival that is now comprised of three parts: 1) a central exhibition organized by an artistic director in the Central pavilion in the public gardens (aka the Giardini) and former dockyards (aka the Arsenale); 2) a series of national pavilions organized by dozens of countries offering a show of one or more artists; and 3) independently organized, but officially approved exhibitions known as Collateral Events.

Additionally, there are other exhibitions and events planned to coincide with the Biennale that are not, in fact, officially affiliated. This can include shows put on by artists themselves, the city’s museums and foundations, or commercial galleries. There are also performances, panels, screenings, dinners, and parties that bring the city’s art to life.

Who’s in charge?

The Biennale organization, which manages activities across art, architecture, film, dance, music, and theater, is overseen by current president and right wing journalist Pietrangelo Buttafuoco. Each Biennale, a new artistic director is selected to curate the central show. This practice began in 1980 with legendary Swiss curator Harald Szeemann, who repeated the role in 1999 and 2001. Only three Biennales have been organized by women and only one African-born curator thus far.

The curator of this year’s edition is Adriano Pedroso, artistic director of the São Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil, presents “Foreigners Everywhere”. The first Latin American curator in the Biennale’s 130–year history, the title is a provocation aimed at a wave of anti-immigrant agendas across Italy, Hungary, the United States, and other countries over the last few years.

What are the origins of the Biennale?

On April 21, 1868, King Umberto I of Italy married Margherita of Savoy. Nearly 25 years later, Venice’s city government honored the couple’s silver anniversary by establishing a national biennial exhibition of art and an orphanage on April 19, 1893. This era of grand international art expositions and commerce in Europe can be traced back earlier, however, to the large-scale art exhibitions of the 18th century. The inspiration for the Biennale’s organizers, though, was a national art exhibition held in Venice in 1887.

The inaugural Biennale took place with King Umberto and Queen Margherita in attendance on April 30, 1895. The first iteration boasted 516 works, with 188 by Italians and the rest by foreigners. In addition to Italy, there were artists from 14 nations, along with a selection of works submitted in advance and approved by a jury. With approximately 225,000 attendees, the Biennale quickly established itself as a vital source of tourism and commerce.

Why is this year’s Biennale identified as the 60th edition when it started in 1895?

While the Biennale typically occurs every two years, there have been changes made to the schedule over the years due to extraodinary circumstances. In 1916 and 1918, the show was nixed due to World War I. World War II also prevented editions in 1944 and 1946. In 1974, there were related activities, but the show was dedicated in solidarity with Chile, which saw a coup that put General Augusto Pinochet in power the year prior. As such, it was not assigned an official number. (It should be noted that the Chile show was supported by the Italian Communist party, which had sway on the Biennale committee.)

Though the Biennale has not seen that kind of solidarity since Chile, subsequent iterations of the festival adopted this concept of selecting a unifying theme. Numbering resumed with the 37th edition in 1976, which considered “environment, participation, cultural structures”.

There were Biennales held during World War II?

Though some nations dropped out in the years leading up to the war—the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain boycotted in 1936, for instance, over the political situation in Italy—the Biennale continued through the 1942 edition.

If the Biennale began in the odd-numbered year 1895, why have there been some even-numbered editions in the past?

Beginning with the ninth edition in 1910, the Biennale shifted to to even-numbered years. Though, a show was still staged in 1909. This move was intended to avoid a grand art exhibition planned in Rome in 1911 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Italy’s unification, with the goal of avoiding a major overlap between the two events. There was a three-year pause following the 1990 Biennale, after which the show went back to debuting in odd-numbered years so that the centennial edition could be celebrated in 1995. With the onslaught of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 edition was postponed to 2022.

How many nations will present work at this year’s Biennale?

This year’s edition saw a substantial increase with works by 331 artists, including Kay WalkingStick, Lauren Halsey, and Samia Halaby, from the 2022 edition’s 213 artists.

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The Central pavilion will focus on “the queer artist,” “the outsider artist,” “the folk artist,” and “the Indigenous artist”. On the hall’s facade, Brazil’s Indigenous Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin (MAHKU) collective will paint a mural, while New Zealand’s four-woman Māori Mataaho collective will stage an installation in the building’s first room. A large section of the pavilion is dedicated to LGBTQ+ artists, with a special display of queer abstraction.

What are national pavilions?

Biennale organizers encouraged countries to participate with their own pavilions to create shows. Each individual nation is responsible for the costs of construction, upkeep, and programming of their respective pavilion.

Belgium was the first to participate with an inaugural pavilion in 1907. Germany, Britain, and Hungary joined the ranks in 1909. The United States joined in 1930 for the ninth national pavilion. Since the Giardini is filled with only 30 pavilions, other countries began showing at the Arsenale and other venues across the city. In 1995, South Korea was the last country to build a pavilion in the Giardini.

How did the U.S. pavilion come together?

The U.S. Pavilion is distinct because it was not actually started by the government. Instead, the effort was undertaken by the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. The three-room Palladian-style structure opened in 1930, where it remains today. In 1954, the pavilion was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, which sold it to the Guggenheim Foundation in 1986.

How are artists selected?

The artistic director selects artists for the central show. For the pavilions, each country makes its own choices, ideally in line with the Biennale theme.

In the United States, for instance, 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. Jeffrey Gibson will represent the United States at the 2024 Venice Biennale, marking the first time in more than 90 years that an Indigenous artist has had a solo presentation with the U.S. Pavilion.

What prizes does the Biennale give out?

Three main awards—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—will be presented by an international jury of curators following the opening festivities. Two special mentions can also be given to artists in the main show. One special mention can be awarded to a participating nation. Additionally, the artistic director proposes on Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement that is confirmed with the Biennale’s board ahead of the show’s opening. The latter award went to Anna Maria Maiolino and Nil Yalter this year.

The history of the prizes is somewhat muddied. Between 1968 and 1986, there were no awards. At certain points, the awards were medium-specific with prizes for the best examples of painting and sculpture, for example. During the height of Fascism, there was even a prize for best maternity subject. In the early days, the awards came with cash prizes to incentivize the participation of major artists. Today, however, the award comes with a lion statue and a sense of pride. The current prize structure began in 1986, based on a prior system from 1938.

Is the art in the Biennale for sale?

Before 1968, the art was available for purchase. The sales office, which tracked the deals (for example, 186 sales in the first edition and a high of 1,209 sales in 1909), was shuttered. Political shifts of the late 1960s and changes around art commerce influenced the decision to stop sales. The art, however, can still be purchased through dealers from the galleries representing the artists on view. Often, works on view by the most in-demand artists will sell ahead of the exhibition’s opening.

Source: artnews.com

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