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Down but not out, European countries invest in Venice Biennale pavilions

Despite cuts to culture budgets, funding for national pavilions and collateral events is in line with 2011 or has even increased

Stefanos Tsivopoulos's History Zero, 2013, will be shown in the Greek Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. Despite its economic crisis, the country has given "exactly the same amount" of funding for the exhibition as in 2011. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani.

The Eurozone may be in freefall, and governments across Europe may be slashing their culture budgets, but countries are still investing in their national pavilions at the world’s most prestigious exhibition, the Venice Biennale (1 June-24 November). In a survey of national representatives of largely European pavilions and collateral events in the Giardini and across the city, budgets for biennial projects are in line with the 54th biennale in 2011, or have even increased.

The British Council has provided £250,000 funding for this year’s exhibition at the British pavilion featuring the artist Jeremy Deller, the same amount as in 2011. Meanwhile, the Arts Council of Wales, which is supported by the Welsh government, is “undertaking a two-year project with a planned overall budget of £400,000. This is comparable with our presence at the Venice Biennale in 2011,” a spokeswoman says. This year’s Welsh collateral project, entitled The Starry Messenger, is by Bedwyr Williams. Other countries such as Greece, Turkey and Germany are also investing in their Venice presentations (see below).

Jens Hoffmann, the deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York and the co-curator of the 2011 Istanbul Biennial, says the Venice Biennale is such a prestigious event “that the participating countries will always put resources towards the realisation of their exhibitions in the national pavilions, or find other sources to cover the costs”.

“Perhaps despite the economic climate, contemporary art and the level of visibility that an event such as Venice brings to countries is higher, which translates as more investment,” says Adriano Pedrosa, the co-curator of the 2011 Istanbul Biennial. He adds though that the organisational budgets generally remain low in Venice in comparison with other global cultural events such as the World Expo.

One country, however, that is feeling the effects of the global financial meltdown is Italy, where public debt as a percentage of its GDP is now above 130%. Vittorio Sgarbi, the curator of the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, said he received around €1.5m in state funding for his Venice show but this year, the government will contribute only €600,000 (€400,000 is allocated to exhibition costs such as the production of works, 90% of which are site-specific; €200,000 goes towards operational expenses).

In a radical move, the pavilion management, including the curator Bartolomeo Pietromarchi (the director of the Macro: Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma), has launched an appeal for private support based on the “crowdfunding” model. This method is used by institutions such as the Louvre in Paris, which continues to raise money for acquisitions through its “Tous mécènes” (all patrons) campaigns.

A 90-day fundraising period was launched in February with events in Rome, Milan, London and New York. “The money donated will go to a dedicated bank account. The funds will be spent by the curator, in collaboration with Italy’s ministry of culture,” says a project spokeswoman. More than €140,000 had been raised as we went to press. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Spanish pavilion, which is partly funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declined to comment on whether funding levels for its show of work this year by the artist Lara Almarcegui, had increased compared with previous biennials.

Established and emerging countries represented at the biennial maintain and fund their pavilions in different ways. The 29 pavilions in the Giardini, many of which were founded in the early 20th century, are the property of the individual countries and are managed by their ministries of culture, says a biennial spokeswoman.

“The new permanent pavilions at the Arsenale—Argentina, Holy See, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates—sign an agreement to pay the costs of renovating the assigned spaces in exchange for a long-term lease,” she says. The countries at the Arsenale that request a temporary exhibition space, such as Turkey (see below), pay a hire fee per square metre.

Greece

“In spite of the deep current crisis we are going through, we are still there [in the Giardini] and we want to maintain a strong presence in the international art world. The difficulties our society has experienced over the past few years has released a great amount of artistic creativity,” says Syrago Tsiara, the curator of the Greek pavilion, which will house Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s work History Zero. The total budget for the Greek pavilion this year is around €350,000. The state provides €250,000, which mainly covers the production costs for the artist’s work, the exhibition and catalogue, with the remainder coming from private backers. “Concerning state funding, there is no change compared to the 54th Venice Biennale. It is exactly the same amount,” Tsiara says.

Turkey

The surprise backer of the Turkish pavilion, which this year is located in the Arsenale, is the Italian firm Fiat, which provides 65% of the €450,000 budget (the car company also funded the pavilion in 2011). Meanwhile, Saha, a Turkish version of the London-based patrons association Outset, will contribute around 11% of the production costs for artist Ali Kazma’s multi-channel video installation entitled Resistance. The Turkish government will pay the organisers of the Venice Biennale around €100,000 to lease the Arsenale venue, support that demonstrates that the state finally sees the point of investing in culture at an international level.

Germany

“The Foreign Ministry has been responsible for the pavilion for more than 50 years, and for the 2013 edition it has significantly raised the basic budget to €500,000,” a pavilion spokesman says. The Goethe Institute and the Friends of the German pavilion organisation are also funders. The Sparkassen-Kulturfonds (culture fund) of the German Savings Banks Association is the main sponsor. This year, the pavilion, which will swap sites with the French pavilion as part of an exchange scheme, will display works by four international artists: Santu Mofokeng from South Africa, German-born Romuald Karmakar, the New Delhi-born Dayanita Singh and the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

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