Trump’s State Department Is over Three Months Late Announcing U.S. Artist for Venice Biennale

Installation view of Joan Jonas, They Come to Us without a Word in the United States Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.

The art world already has a good idea of what’s going to be on view in next year’s 58th Venice Biennale, as 25 countries have already announced the artist that will represent them. In the Giardini section, home to 29 permanent country pavilions, nearly half of the participants have announced their artists.

The British pavilion will hold the whimsical, puzzling installations of Cathy Wilkes, the French pavilion will feature the multidisciplinary Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost, and the Austrian pavilion will be home to work by feminist elder stateswoman Renate Bertlmann.

The U.S. is usually among the first countries to announce its artist, but as of late July, it is still unknown who will represent the United States of America at what’s referred to as the Olympics of the Art World.  

The announcement is usually made more than a full year before the exhibition, to give the artist time to create new work that can fit into the pavilions. But this is the first time an artist is being chosen by the State Department in a government run by President Donald Trump, and it is taking much longer than usual. The last two artists—Mark Bradford in 2017, and Joan Jonas in 2015—were announced by April of the year before, and for the 2013 show, Sarah Sze’s representation was announced in February 2012. Occasionally, like with Bruce Nauman’s participation in 2009, the announcement can come in January 2008, a full 16 months before the show.

Now, with just over nine months to go and no announcement, some are worried that the State Department—overseen by a president who has few fans among the art community, and has tried to slash the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities until they effectively do not exist—may not select an artist at all. Some curious irregularities suggest that, even if the U.S. does in fact plan to name an artist selection eventually, little attention is being paid to the rollout. Currently, there is no website for the 2019 Venice Art Biennale—the link that should go to the Venice Art Biennale site instead redirects to the site for the Venice Architecture Biennale, which is currently on view through November of this year.

When searching for Venice-based exhibitions on the website of the Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Exchange Programs, the results show three listings: two for the Venice Architecture Biennale and one for the Venice Art Biennale. But over the search result for the Art exhibition, watermarked block letters appear, spelling out “UNPUBLISHED.” It is not listed among the exhibitions that appear on the arts and culture page within Bureau’s website, where the architecture biennale is listed.

Although the Trump administration has not yet named an artist, the administration itself may be the subject of some of the art at the biennial. This week, the next edition’s curator, Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff—who is, incidentally, the first American to helm the Biennale in over a decade—announced that the exhibition will be called “May You Live in Interesting Times.” It will address the way art is made “at a moment when the digital dissemination of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding political discourse and the trust on which it depends,” according to the press release.

When asked to explain the lack of an American artist, Rugoff told Artsy in an email: “Until the situation is clarified I don’t think there’s anything I can comment on.”

To be sure, it is possible the delay is simply due to a lack of resources given the State Department’s “hollowing out,” due to a spate of departures and the paucity of appointments to key roles. An announcement this late isn’t unprecedented: The announcement that the Puerto Rico-based artist duo Allora and Calzadilla would represent the United States in the 2011 Venice Biennale didn’t come until September 2010. State Department spokesperson Elaine Clayton said that “U.S. participation in the Venice Biennale will be announced soon, and when that information becomes available, we will add it to our web page.”

Clayton did not say when the announcement would be made.

Each country has its own selection process for the Venice Biennale. In the U.S., the selection process is complicated. Those who put their hat in the ring—usually curators on behalf of an institution, though independent curators have been selected in the past—submit proposals of how an artist or multiple artists can fill the four galleries and rotunda room of the pavilion, which was built in 1930 and was purchased in 1986 by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. (The Venice-based Peggy Guggenheim Foundation still helps put together the Venice Biennale exhibitions, alongside the State Department, the United States Information Agency, and the Fund for Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions, and is also funded by other private donors each year.)

The proposals are then examined by the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions, a panel of scholars, professors, and artists convened by the National Endowment for the Arts. This body then recommends one application from the pool of proposals and sends that to the State Department for final approval. The NEA referred questions about the selection process to the State Department. The website for the Office of the Federal Register has a notice of a meeting for a “review of applications” was set to be held on March 22nd, but the meeting notes are not publicly available.

Christopher Bedford, the Baltimore Museum of Art director who proposed Mark Bradford for the 2017 U.S. pavilion and curated the exhibition, entitled “Tomorrow is Another Day,” said he did not have any insight into the delay in this year’s selection. But Paul Ha, the director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the co-curator of Joan Jonas’s 2015 U.S. pavilion show, was concerned about the delay, given the President’s known antipathy towards the NEA.

He said the approval for his project came in March 2014, which was later than he had anticipated. The selection process was supposed to have been wrapped in December 2013, but the State Department told him there was an extra layer of approval, which delayed the entire process.

“With the current administration, who wants to zero out the NEA and NEH—it is not really a huge surprise that it has taken so long,” Ha said in an email. “I hope it still happens. [I] would hate to be the one country that is not represented in the Giardini.”

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