What the Venice Biennale Means for Galleries
Gian Maria Tosatti, Terra dell’ultimo cielo, 2016, installazione ambientale, site specific. Courtesy of Galleria Lia Rumma Milano/Napoli.
After a slightly longer than usual wait, it’s nearly time for the art world’s glitterati to descend upon the canals of Venice, in search of the finest contemporary art to experience and, for some, perhaps, to collect. For now, many details about the main show, “The Milk of Dreams,” organized by High Line chief curator Cecilia Alemani, as well as some of the highly anticipated national pavilions, are still under wraps. But in advance of this contemporary art extravaganza, galleries have been working hard behind the scenes, supporting their artists in presenting their work on one of the most high-profile international stages.
Works in the main show at the Biennale are technically, of course, not for sale. In this sense, the carefully curated exhibition stands in contrast to the (somewhat more drab) halls of a top-tier art fair, where many of the same artists could be on show. Historically, however, this distinction wasn’t always so clear. As the New York Times noted, until 2019, the main show had labels naming the galleries representing the artists included, and the Biennale itself ran a sales office until 1968. And then there are the collateral events, official and unofficial, that appear to capitalize upon the influx of art-collecting wealth in Venice: Who could forget Damien Hirst’s Palazzo Grassi mega-show “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” which opened to coincide with the 2017 Biennale, described by one critic as a “showroom for oligarchs”?
Already this year, there are signs that dealers and auction houses are keeping a close eye on plans at the Giardini and Arsenale, which will undoubtedly affect interest across the market. Surrealism, highlighted in the main exhibition’s artist list and title (taken from a book from Leonora Carrington), is having a moment: Sotheby’s just hosted its first-ever Paris sale dedicated to the movement, including a painting by the lesser-known Czech painter Toyen, who is included in “The Milk of Dreams” (it sold for €1.5 million [$1.6 million], double its high estimate). Victoria Miro, meanwhile, will complement Paula Rego’s inclusion in Alemani’s exhibition by concurrently opening a show of works by the Portuguese British painter in its Venice space.
After all, galleries who represent artists showing in Venice are often involved in financing the work, from fabrication, to studio assistants, to transport. With this in mind, how do galleries manage their own, and artists’, interests while also adhering to the Biennale’s spirit of a market-neutral gathering?
Gian Maria Tosatti. Photo by Maddalena Tartaro. Courtesy of Galleria Lia Rumma Milano/Napoli.
According to Paola Potena, director at Milan’s Galleria Lia Rumma—whose installation artist Gian Maria Tosatti is representing Italy at the Biennale this year—the curatorial rigor of the Venice Biennale is what sets it apart from other art events. “This [neutrality] generates a special attention…towards all the artistic projects presented and therefore also an increase from a commercial point of view,” she said. Potena noted that part of the gallery’s support of Tosatti had come in the form of fundraising for the work he will present at the Italian pavilion through a network of collectors and sponsors. For Potena, this is a natural part of how the Biennale comes to fruition: “As long as the curatorial choices of public events are independent, I don’t see any friction if private supporters intervene to help projects. They all work toward the same goal: that of promoting art and artists.”
Almost all of the galleries I spoke to for this piece emphasized the difference between sales events like art fairs and the rigorous, independent curation of the Biennale. “You can’t compare an art fair, where people are asking the price, to the Biennale where…most of the time, people are smelling, eating, drinking art,” said Kamel Mennour, rather poetically. “In a fair, people are really consuming art.”
Zineb Sedira, “Dreams Have No Titles,” French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. © Thierry Bal and © Zineb Sedira.
Mennour’s Paris- and London-based gallery is helping to produce two national pavilions—Zineb Sedira’s works for the French Pavilion and Latifa Echakhch for the Swiss—as well as two collateral exhibitions—Ugo Rondinone’s “burn shine fly,” and a two-venue exhibition of Anish Kapoor at Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia and Palazzo Manfrin.
Even so, Mennour noted that gallerists were still having conversations about sales during the Biennale, though the boost was mostly in works not on show in Venice. “Most of the time it’s not works in the events,” he said. “People come to the pavilion and they ask about works we have in the gallery.”
Allison Katz, Noli Me Tangere!, 2021. Photo by Farzad Owrang. © Allison Katz; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, Gió Marconi, Milan, dépendance, Brussels, and Antenna Space, Shanghai.
Of course, some artworks shown at the Biennale are placed in collections ahead of time. For example, New York gallery Luhring Augustine recently began representing Allison Katz, who will be showing a series of five paintings in the Biennale’s main show. Several of these have already been placed into museum, private, and public collections, said Donald Johnson-Montenegro, partner at the gallery. It’s a major year for Katz, who has just closed a critically acclaimed show at the Camden Art Centre, and Venice will be a new chance for her work to be seen in a major international context. “The Biennale is on for an extended amount of time, which means that people are able to return to it and really spend time with the work, like a museum exhibition,” Johnson-Montenegro said.
For artists, Venice is an unparalleled opportunity to make a mark. “Sometimes artists need some huge space to realize their dreams,” said Lorenzo Fiaschi, co-founder of Galleria Continua. Alongside its artist Jonathas de Andrade, who is showing in the Brazilian national pavilion, the gallery is supporting a range of collateral events, including an installation at Fondaco dei Tedeschi of the late Franco-Moroccan artist Leila Alaoui, and the monumental installation Cooking the World (2017) by Subodh Gupta, in the garden at the Belmond Cipriani Hotel. Though Alaoui’s works are not for sale, Fiaschi said that Gupta’s huge, house-shaped installation made of hanging, used aluminum cooking utensils was available for interested parties: “If a museum or someone wanted to buy it, why not?”
Galleria Continua is also supporting a show by the Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadyrova, named “Palianytsia,” the Ukrainian word for bread, which has become a sort of local password in Ukraine, due to invading Russians’ difficulty in pronouncing it. Works from this show will be on sale, Fiaschi said, with proceeds going to Ukrainian charities for women and children.
For Argentine gallery Barro, which represents Gabriel Chaile (whose work is also part of the main exhibition), the Biennale is a crucial place to meet curators and museum directors, in person, explained the gallery’s director Nahuel Ortiz Vidal: “Buenos Aires is too far away from the U.S. or Europe, where the mainstream happens.” In this social sense, it was similar to art fairs like Frieze or Art Basel, he explained. “Biennials, art fairs: it’s always a mix,” he said, nodding to the potential crossover in these models. Take Art Basel’s Statements sector, where Chaile was included in 2019: “That was a solo project and he was selected for it, so sometimes, a good solo project can work like a biennial for a young artist,” Vidal said.
Firelei Báez, Untitled (Temple of Time), 2020. © Firelei Báez 2022. Image courtesy the artist and James Cohan, New York.
But does this crossover have more to do with the ambitions of art fairs, than any commercial elements of the Biennale? David Norr, a partner at James Cohan, which represents Firelei Báez and Elias Sime, both included in the main exhibition, said there was no comparison between the two. “But it speaks to the success of how art fairs have kind of infiltrated the consciousness of our audiences, for anyone to think that they are curated events, or cultural events,” he said.
Instead, Norr characterized this year’s Biennale as a rare escape from the sales opportunities the art world was so adept at providing. “I don’t think [Alemani]’s vision has anything to do with the market,” he said. “It’s increasingly rare that we have the opportunity to see major, international, curated group exhibitions. I think we need it more than ever.”