These Galleries Have the Most Artists in the Venice Biennale
Venice Biennale, 2013. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
Officially, nothing at the Venice Biennale is for sale. In 1968, a student uprising blasted the world’s most important contemporary art exhibition as a “playground of the rich.” Protesters took to the Giardini, yelling: “Biennale of capitalists, we’ll burn your pavilions!” Five years later, the top brass shut the sales office. Towing the party line means treating La Biennale as a richly curated show, and not, say, a sale at Christie’s.
But the art market is always very much present at La Biennale—and, for the right price, anything is for sale. There’s a reason that in 2017, the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth—which represented the artists occupying both the U.S. and British Pavilions that year—rented out a 15th-century palazzo to fête collectors under Renaissance frescoes. The not-so-hidden presence of dealers darting around the Giardini with iPads during the VIP week that kicks off La Biennale hints at the larger art-market machinations going on amid the spree of prosecco-soaked parties and dinners of risotto nero.
All this behind-the-scenes commercial activity begs the question: Which dealers will come out on top at the Olympics of the art world this year? After a deep analysis of the 83 artists in the main exhibition and the 200-plus artists in the national pavilions, it seems that while artists represented by powerhouse galleries abound, the list does not exactly kowtow to the market. Most notably, there are no artists represented by Gagosian in the Biennale this year; Pace and Hauser & Wirth have just one artist apiece.
Venice Biennale, 2013. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
White Cube, Jay Jopling’s hugely influential outfit with spaces in London and Hong Kong, as well as an office in New York, has the most artists in the 2019 Venice Biennale, with seven. Five White Cube artists will be featured in curator Ralph Rugoff’s central exhibition, “May You Live in Interesting Times”: Julie Mehretu, Danh Vō, Christian Marclay, Michael Armitage, and Liu Wei. In the national pavilions in the Arsenale, He Xiangyu will be one of the four artists representing China, and Ibrahim Mahama is one of the six artists in Ghana’s first-ever Venice pavilion.
Mexico City’s Kurimanzutto has six artists in the show, marking a robust achievement for a gallery that began as a nomadic concern staging shows in street markets and movie theaters. The gallery’s artists in the main exhibition are Tarek Atoui, Nairy Baghramian, Jimmie Durham, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Vō, who lives in Mexico City and had a show at the Condesa gallery in 2013. Additionally, Kurimanzutto artist Leonor Antunes will represent Portugal and have work showing at the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin, home of the Fondazione Ugo e Olga Levi Onlus.
Three galleries have five artists in the show. Sprüth Magers, the deeply important Cologne-born gallery that now has spaces in Berlin, London, and Los Angeles, will be represented by George Condo, Cyprien Gaillard, Rosemarie Trockel, Jon Rafman, and Kaari Upson, all in the main exhibition. Gavin Brown’s Enterprise has Avery Singer, Ed Atkins, Arthur Jafa, and Frida Orupabo, an Oslo-based artist and sociologist whose collage works were first shown when Jafa included them in an exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries in 2017. The duo of Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, also represented by Brown, will take over the Belgian Pavilion. Marian Goodman—which recently hired as a chief executive director Philipp Kaiser, who curated the Swiss Pavilion in 2017—shares representation of Baghramian, Vō, and Antunes with Kurimanzutto, and shares Mehretu with White Cube. In addition, gallery artist Kemang Wa Lehulere is in the main exhibition.
The 2019 Biennale will also feature four artists represented by Andrew Kreps, the New York gallery currently sharing a project space with two other dealers while its new location gets built out for a May 2019 opening: Darren Bader, Hito Steyerl, Michael E. Smith, and Xiangyu (the latter of whom Kreps shares with White Cube). That’s more than one-eighth of Kreps’s entire roster! Compare that to Gladstone Gallery, which has four Venice-bound artists—Gaillard and Trockel, as well as Cameron Jamie and Ian Cheng—out of its 57-strong artist roster; and David Zwirner, which has three artists in the Biennale—Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Carol Bove, and Stan Douglas—out of the 64 artists it represents. Other galleries with three artists are New York’s 303 Gallery, and Xavier Hufkens, which has two spaces in Brussels.
It’s tempting to think that the looming presence of outfits such as Kreps and Kurimanzutto, combined with the near-absence of Pace, Hauser & Wirth, and Gagosian, constitutes a sea change—the ascent of a new set of galleries shaping narratives in contemporary art. However, it has more to do with Rugoff’s vision for the 2019 Biennale, and his desire to spotlight millennial artists such as Yu Ji, Mari Katayama, and Neïl Beloufa, which tends to favor younger and smaller outfits over mega-galleries. Rugoff said in his introduction for the Biennale that he chose artists who make “artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the ‘post-war order’”—criteria that don’t exactly point to the inclusion of artists who have already achieved blue-chip status.
Buying up the Biennale
Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh for Artsy.
Regardless, galleries will be present. Even if La Biennale washed its hands of the stain of commercialism, dealers still pitch in for shipping and installation, and help fund their artists’ pavilions. The 2017 catalogue noted that the British Pavilion’s presentation of work by Phyllida Barlow, for instance, was “made possible with the generous support of Hauser & Wirth,” Barlow’s gallery.
Collectors will be there, as well, some with yachts parked on the Grand Canal. In an interview with Artspace, Belgian collector Alain Servais called Venice the world’s best art fair, obliterating the line between the marketplace and the exhibition space. And he maintained that he competes with the world’s major collectors whenever he arrives in Venice. “Am I the only one? Absolutely not,” he said. “Is it funny? Yes, because you’re fighting with the biggest at full speed.”
Case in point: The mega-collector François Pinault is known to go on shopping sprees through the Giardini, once snapping up the entire Italian Pavilion filled with Sigmar Polke works. At the 2015 Biennale, Pinault bought eight large Georg Baselitz paintings from the Okwui Enwezor–curated central exhibition to the tune of €8 million ($8.9 million).
In 2017, Mark Coetzee, who at the time was the director of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA)—the Cape Town institution started by Puma shoe baron Jochen Zeitz—told the Financial Times: “There’s no point in pretending any more; biennales are as commercial as art fairs.” He noted that in 2013, his institution bought the entire Angolan Pavilion filled with work by photographer Edson Chagas.
“Ninety-nine per cent of our acquisitions are made in biennales,” he said. “Fairs cannot provide the scale of works we want, nor the critical importance; artists push themselves more for biennales.”
It remains to be seen whether Zeitz MOCAA will pad its collection with pieces from this year’s African pavilions, or if Pinault will again snap up whole suites of work at once, but expect the dealers to be on hand to wine and dine collectors in palazzos and sell them fresh work by the world’s most exciting contemporary artists. And that’s just the beginning of the Biennale boom. A show-stopping presentation in Venice can reverberate across the art market—through fairs, galleries, and auctions—for the next two years.