Over the course of one week in May, hundreds of the world’s wealthiest people converge on Venice for a bacchanal of openings, parties, and receptions that revolve around the commencement of the 57th International Art Exhibition, an ostensibly not-for-profit art show that’s known colloquially as the Venice Biennale.
The Biennale comprises 85 national pavilions, 29 of which are in a leafy park called the Giardini, where countries that include the U.S. and Russia host contemporary art exhibits. The rest of the official show is in the Arsenale, a massive warehouse complex in which one curator (this iteration was organised by Christine Mace, the chief curator of the Pompidou Centre in Paris) assembles hundreds of artworks around a theme.
Satellite exhibitions will also be sponsored by philanthropies and museums, and in the case of the Punta Della Dogana, by billionaire François Pinault. (As Maramotti spoke outside, Pinault exited the building, which is currently hosting an exhibition of controversial and potentially vastly lucrative set of new works by artist Damien Hirst.)
Because of the large number of global rich, not to mention the cadre of art dealers who cater to them, the Biennale has become an unofficial forum where consensus is formed about art market standouts. (On the first few days pharmaceutical heiress Maja Hoffmann, San Francisco-based philanthropist Pamela Joyner, Farah Pahlavi, the exiled empress of Iran, and U.K.-based magnate Poju Zabludowicz were spotted at various events.) New artists are anointed as stars, and the status of existing art celebrities is reinforced.
“It doesn’t always make careers, but it definitely can make careers,” said Heather Harmon, a director of the New York-based art advisory KCM Fine Arts, which is helping to build billionaire Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté’s collection, Lune Rouge.
Because of the large number of global rich, not to mention the cadre of art dealers who cater to them, the Biennale has become an unofficial forum where consensus is formed about art market standouts
Other standouts included a video by New York-based artist Rachel Rose in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, Brooklyn-based artist Carol Bove’s sculptures in the Swiss Pavilion (Bove is co-represented by mega-dealer David Zwirner), and George Drivas’s installation at the Greek Pavilion, which included a shining, mirrored maze and a movie starring Charlotte Rampling.
Hard to find (at least, less-publicized) shows have also emerged as must-sees, including the Future Generation Art Prize, which features an exhibition of 21 shortlisted artists in an ornate palazzo. One of the artists in the show is Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a Los Angeles-based artist whose last painting to sell at auction was estimated from $515,680 to $774,000 and sold for $3.2 million in March at Christie’s London. Before that sale, just two of Crosby’s works had ever gone to auction, according to Artnet.
Another must-see ancillary event is at the Palazzo Fortuny, a gothic mansion that Belgian dealer Axel Vervoordt turns into an exhibition space featuring contemporary photography, medieval drawings, neolithic sculptures, and Japanese pottery. “The whole art world is in Venice,” said Vervoordt. “All the collectors, all the art museum people, they’re all here. It’s the best period.”
Not that Venice is the only art world event to attract a global audience. Art fairs, including Frieze in London, TEFAF in Maastricht, and Art Basel in Switzerland, attract comparable levels of wealthy collectors and influential curators, and the documenta art exhibition in Kassel, Germany, has a reputation for its outsized impact on curatorial taste.
But whereas documenta is often inscrutably avant-garde, and art fairs are by definition strictly commercial, Venice manages to find a sweet spot somewhere between the two. If someone goes to art fairs, the level that could be found in Venice is so much more elevated.