The oldest cultural exhibition in the world, reaching back to 1895, Venice Biennale is held every year reaching across a range of mediums and event spaces around Venice, though it is perhaps best known for it’s contemporary art. Biennale refers to a shifting focus of the festival; art and architecture switch every year as the primary exhibition, and a huge range of other events including theatre, contemporary music, dance, and the vastly respected Venice Film Festival.
Established as a celebration of Italian art for the silver anniversary of Italy’s King and Queen, it was quickly expanded to include work from non-Italian artists and enjoyed almost a quarter of a million visitors at the launch event. Over the next twenty years it steadily expanded, with international pavilions appearing, and the truly big name artists such as Klimt, Renoir, Courbet, and Picasso being exhibited.
Avant garde and modern art became increasingly dominant in the years after World War 1, and unusually, the fascist government of Mussolini only encouraged it further expanding the festival into music, theatre, and probably the oldest film festival in the world. Picking up after WW2 with the same focus on the avant-garde and modernism, and the event built a reputation for bringing exciting non-European art, music, and theatre before Venice audiences.
An exhibition rather than a market, but still the essential festival
Unlike Frieze or Art Basel, Venice is not a place for selling artwork, though it originally acted as a market until 1968, with Art Basel positioning itself as the primary contemporary art sales event just two years later. Venice remains crucially important though, no doubt helped by the other large scale events run alongside, particularly the film festival with it’s screen celebrities and red carpet often seen in mainstream media. Attracting an audience of over half a million people to the whole Biennale event, it’s clear that the removal of sales hasn’t damaged the festival’s purpose or reputation.
The art festival itself consists of a themed exhibition curated by the Biennale director, an international and fringe exhibition mostly for emerging artists, and 30 permanent national pavilions showcasing artists from various countries. Countries not included in the pavilions often hire out temporary spaces around Venice at the time of the Biennale, which are added to further by unofficial pavilions covering other groupings of artists. A Peckham Pavilion appeared showcasing artists from just Peckham in London, and a diaspora pavilion often showcases artists of mixed national heritage.
Awards are also a part of Venice, with a jury awarding the best national pavilion, artist, and emerging artist, with special mentions also included in some years. These are specifically for the contemporary art section of the festival; the film events and others have their own sets of ‘Golden Lion’ awards for outstanding participants.
Maintaining position as the world’s most outstanding contemporary art exhibition
Being first into the market and maintaining that lead position for well over a century is no small challenge, but where reviews of other post-pandemic exhibitions have been a little lacklustre, 2022’s Venice Biennale was widely admired. It had a huge focus on female artists for the first time, with almost 90% of the artists being women; a reversal of the typical gender representation, and the general feel of visitors was that it was a very strong selection of works.
Unlike the other major contemporary art festivals Venice doesn’t spread itself around multiple locations and dates, or extend itself into associated areas like funding art or pushing cultural projects; it just focuses on exhibiting the best. With such a strong return from the pandemic, long reputation, and tie together with other artforms overlapping it’s long run through the second half of the year, Biennale shouldn’t be missed.