The curators of the Art Biennale in Venice play a crucial role in the success of their national pavilion, and indirectly even of the Biennale as a whole. Even though they often remain in the background, their choices will eventually define if you enjoy the exhibition or not. They might not be responsible for the artistic execution, but if they make a wrong selection or they arrange the art works badly, it can have a severe impact on the overall perception of the visitors.
“The curator requires an expert eye, an independent spirit, generosity towards the artists, a rigorous capacity for selection, and unremitting loyalty to that mysterious goddess known as quality. An open view of the world.”
Paolo Baratta, President of La Biennale di Venezia (excerpt from ‘What have we done?!’)
This post will give you some insights in the role and the profile of the curators of the 2017 Art Biennale and how they need to balance their relationships with La Biennale di Venezia, the commissioning organization, the artists and the audience. In the end, this balancing exercise will define if you will call their national participation a success. You will also find examples from the curatorial teams of Italy, Grenada, Belgium and South Africa.
Profile of the national curators at the Art Biennale 2017
The ‘prototype’ of the art curators of this year seems to be quite different compared to the typical curator of the Architecture Biennale last year. With 100 curators for 85 pavilions, a pavilion has on average 1.2 curators. Most pavilions are curated by only one person, but some work in small teams of 2 or 3 people. Last year, there were 1.9 curators per pavilion, with teams up to 9 members.
When I started looking at the list of curators, I noticed that there are quite a lot of female curators. I secretly hoped they would outnumber the men, but the split is 42% women, 49% men and 9% institutions. This is however significantly higher than the 25% female curators at the Architecture Biennale, as you can read in my post ‘Who are the curators of the 2016 Architecture Biennale?’ I can’t say if this is a general trend when comparing architecture and art, but I’ll redo the exercise next year.
Most curators have a long experience in art and are either professional curators or artists. There are of course exceptions such as Omar Donia (Grenada), who traded his career in private banking against art. Some countries have called in curators with a first-class international reputation, such as Cecilia Alemani who completely transformed the concept behind the Italian pavilion. Several curators have already been active at the Art Biennale, either as a curator, such as Qiu Zhije from China who also curated the pavilion in 2015, or within a team, such as Eva Wittocx who worked with Luc Tuymans in 2011 when he curated the Belgian pavilion.
Relationship with La Biennale di Venezia
The role and exposure of an art curator has changed a lot in the last decades. Even La Biennale di Venezia played a role in this transformation with the appointment of Harald Szeemann as the curator of the 48th and 49th Art Biennale in 1999 and 2001. He introduced a clear distinction between the exhibition curator and the curators of the national pavilions. They can now make their own choices, independent from each other. This results in a pluralism of voices which is characteristic of La Biennale di Venezia.
The curator of the 57th Art Biennale, i.e. Christine Macel, was asked to organize an exhibition without borders. Her overall theme ‘Viva Arte Viva’ puts the artists in a strategic role. A wide variety of 120 artists from all over the world, combining new and well-established as well as young and old ones, has been invited for the themed exhibition. She also launched several new initiatives which will give the audience an opportunity to better understand these artists and the way they create art. This close interaction with the visitors should create a different vibe around the Art Biennale. (You can read more about Christine Macel and her proposal in my post ‘What to expect from the Art Biennale 2017’.)
As the exhibition curator, Christine Macel does however not select the curators, nor the artists, of the national participations. The countries do have to present their concepts to her, but this is merely a formality. Many pavilions did however follow the guidelines she suggested and have accepted the invitations to participate in joint programs such as the ‘Tavola Aperta’.
The pavilion of Italy has the closest relationship with the organizing team of La Biennale. Until 1999, the Italian pavilion was primarily managed as part of the overall exhibition. It was not until the clear split by Harald Szeeman that the Italian pavilion was considered to be stand-alone, similar to the other national pavilions. Italy did however still use the central building at Giardini as their pavilion. This implied that it was unclear to visitors (at least to me) where the pavilion ended and where the themed exhibition started. In 2009, Italy moved to its own pavilion in Arsenale at the Tese delle Vergini and the Giardino delle Vergini. This is a major step, both for the Italian pavilion as for the Arsenale, which has now an important national pavilion on its grounds.
This year, curator Cecilia Alemani takes it even one step further. She broke with the unwritten rule that the Italian pavilion had to give an overview of the whole Italian art scene with a multitude of artists (15 in 2015 and 14 in 2013). She has limited her selection to 3 artists (Roberto Cuoghi, Giorgio Andreotta Calò, Adelita Husni-Bey). This aligns the Italian pavilion with the other national pavilions and doesn’t make it feel like a museum. Cecilia Alemani wants to give the artists carte blanche to transform the space radically and to offer the viewer an occasion to walk into the artist’s mind. This is fully in line with the theme ‘Arte Viva Arte’, which puts the artist at the forefront.
This step concludes the transformation of the Italian pavilion into one of the national pavilions, instead of the pavilion of the organization. Besides, she can certainly rely on input from her husband, Massimiliano Gioni, on the thoughts and procedures of La Biennale di Venezia. He was the artistic director for the 55th edition of the Art Biennale in 2013.
You can read more details on the pavilion of Italy in my post ‘Preview of the Art Biennale 2017: Italy‘.
Relationship with the commissioning organization
The role of a curator at the Venice Art Biennale is quite different from curating a museum or a gallery. At the Biennale, the curator has to take into account the opinion of the ministry, national institution or local authority who commissioned the pavilion. These organizations might add their own criteria for the selection or presentation, whether it be political, thematic, social, financial or historical. They usually play an important role in the country, so a selection to represent his country is certainly a recognition of the curator. It is however also a responsibility, for which he has to give account.
The story behind the pavilion of Grenada is one of a close bond and belief in a common goal at the different ‘levels’ of the team. Grenada is participating for the second time, and the first curator, Susan Mains, is now the commissioner. She met the current curator, Omar Donia, at the previous Art Biennale where he was the commissioner of the collateral event ‘Eye of the Thunderstorm. Since then, they stayed in touch and worked on a couple of projects together. They were both appointed by the Minister of Culture, Senator the Honourable Brenda Hood, in consultation with the Grenada Arts Council.
Their theme ‘The Bridge’ has been set by Omar Donia and is a metaphor for international relationships. It’s an excellent choice, as it symbolizes the bridge that an event such as the Biennale can build between people with different backgrounds who meet by fate or karma, such as Susan and Omar.
As an international curator, Omar Donia gives the team access to a world-wide network of artists, curators, and others who will help to give Grenada a larger footprint in the world of contemporary art. Susan Mains is, as a commissioner, very much involved in all the practical and logistical arrangements for the upcoming Biennale. This might on the one hand release Omar Donia from part of the work, but he might feel a bit micromanaged by the relentless enthusiasm of Susan Mains. However, from what I understand, they have a mutual respect for each other and this close relationship between the commissioner and curator works perfectly. I’m sure that their team will do everything possible to realize the goal of the Grenadian pavilion to become (and be recognized) as a powerhouse for contemporary art in the Southern Caribbean.
You can read more details on the pavilion of Grenada in my post ‘Preview of the Art Biennale 2017: Grenada’.
Relationship with the artists
The main role of the curator is to promote the artists he represents and to ensure that they get enough exposure in the media and towards the art world. The ultimate goal is to ensure a place in important collections or museums. In most cases, the curator decides on the theme of the pavilion and selects the artists who will represent the country. A broad network with artists is therefore crucial. However, as you can read in the example of Belgium, it can also be the other way around.
If there is more than one artist for a pavilion, the curator has to show his best curatorial practice by bringing different projects together to form one coherent pavilion. Finally, all the logistical and practical arrangements also need to be taken care of by the curator. His experience in exhibiting can add a lot of value to the art presented. A light which is too light or too dark or a sign which can’t be read can make the difference if people like the work of art or not. In fact, the curator has to release the artist from all the surrounding tasks, so he has all the artistic freedom he needs to bring his best work in the given circumstances.
In Belgium, a new selection procedure by the Minister of Culture Sven Gatz had a direct impact on the relationship between the curator and the artists. In the past, a commission chose an artist, who then could choose his curator. This time, an open call asked for submissions with a combination of an artist and a curator. The team had to be supported by an institution, which should afterwards organize an exhibition with the works presented in Venice. Approx. 40 teams applied for this new open call. 5 teams got on a short list, and got time to prepare a more detailed proposal which they had to present to a jury. In the case of the winning team, it was actually the artist (Dirk Braeckman) who asked the curator (Eva Wittocx) to participate together to the open call. It goes without saying that she felt very honored to work with him on this major project and she gratefully accepted to send in a dossier together with him.
Their relationship goes back a long time. They have been working together on exhibitions at S.M.A.K. (Ghent, 2001) and Museum M (Leuven, 2011). One of the additional reasons for Dirk Braeckman to ask Eva Wittocx was however something totally different and which she didn’t even remember. When he opened his new studio in Ghent at the end of the nineties, she helped him to organize the inauguration and a party. They have known each other for nearly 20 years, have worked together several times and appreciate each others work a lot.
Eva Wittocx describes her role not only as a curator and an organizer, but also as a sounding board for Dirk Braeckman, for instance for the selection of art works. He has the habit to decide rather at the last moment – i.e. at the installation at the exhibition premises, and not upfront – which works will be displayed. Hence, the team will travel to Venice with more pieces than eventually will be shown. It will then be their combined experience and team work which will define the final setup of the Belgian pavilion. Finding out how the works fit together and which combination enhances the overall experience is an exciting and rewarding part of the role as a curator. Eva Wittocx also defines the success of her participation to the Art Biennale in function of the artist’s professional career. She sees it as one of their goals to ensure that Dirk Braeckman gains international exposure, either through articles in leading art magazines or via invitations for international exhibitions.
You can read more details on the pavilion of Belgium in my post ‘Preview of the Art Biennale 2017: Belgium’.
Relationship with the audience
In the end, all the preparatory work done by the curators and the artists will be presented to the public. This year, the press previews take place from May 10 – 12, while the official opening is on May 13. La Biennale di Venezia sees itself as a place whose method – and almost raison d’être – is dedicated to an open dialogue between artists, and between artists and the public.
This public can be divided into the professional art world and the ‘normal’ visitors. For many curators and artists, the international exposure to the art world is the main rationale for participating to the Biennale. As Xavier Veilhan admits in his recent interview for ArtReview, it is more important for him to have the respect and support of the professional community than of the casual visitor. However, if you are a normal visitor, you shouldn’t really bother about this discrepancy. The more they want to impress the art world, the better the exhibition will be for you to enjoy. As you can read below in the example of South Africa, there are exceptions to this rule.
There are also several countries who use the Biennale as a platform to spread a message to the wider audience. Kiribati for instance wants to create more awareness in the world around their endangered situation, Grenada puts a lot of focus on the environmental concerns related to the marine ecosystem, whereas South Africa wants to encourage fellow African countries to take part and represent their own stories and artists.
EXAMPLE: SOUTH AFRICA
Curator Lucy MacGarry and assistant curator Musha Neluheni want to make the South African pavilion accessible to a broader audience. After 3 participations, they decided not to tailor it any longer to a select group of art specialists. A retrospective view of previous Biennales revealed the strength of an immersive installation by one or two artists versus an exhaustive, curated group exhibition. The shows which visitors remember from Venice are most often singular, momentous and moving. Hence, narrowing the selection down to a maximum of two artists quickly became fundamental for the team. This is in line with the decision of the Italian pavilion, as mentioned above.
The analysis also showed that experimental film provides an immersive and captivating environment for viewers. As they intended to create a kind of cinematic experience, the team invited Candice Breitz and Mohau Modisakeng, who have a shared fascination for film of a performative nature. Breitz is an internationally acclaimed artist best known for her moving image installations, while Modisakeng’s ascendent career is defined by his film, photography and sculpture. Their exhibited works will explore the disruptive power of storytelling in relation to historical and contemporary waves of forced migration.
Besides the privilege to participate and promote their artists on a world stage to the broader audience, the South African team also considers their presence in Venice a necessity to ensure that the artists and their galleries are able to find international recognition. This combination of both audiences makes their story complete.
You can read more details on the pavilion of South Africa in my post ‘Preview of the Art Biennale 2017: South Africa’.
So, what’s in it for the curators besides their moment of glory? ‘Venice is the pinnacle of any person’s career, be it an artist, curator or commissioner’, as Omar Donia states so nicely. This implies that if they can make the exhibition in the national pavilion work, they will be rewarded by success and recognition, which is an important driver for their future career.
And, what’s in it for you as a visitor? I’m convinced that the Art Biennale 2017 will bring lots of beautiful exhibitions. Make sure to foresee enough time to visit the central areas at Giardini and Arsenale, but also the pavilions spread across the city of Venice. These curators are also working hard to find the right balance, but might find it more difficult to attract visitors. To start planning your visit, you can take a look at the overview of all my posts and previews related to this Art Biennale via this link.
(The picture in the banner was taken in the Romanian pavilion at the Architecture Biennale 2016.)
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