The Venice Biennale Is the 'Olympics of Art'

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 

Biennale
Lorenzo Quinn's "Building Bridges" was a highlight of the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019 in Venice, Italy. Six 49-foot-high (15-meter) pairs of hands formed an arched bridge over a Venetian waterway, representing the universal values of wisdom, hope, help, faith, friendship and love. David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images/Halcyon Art International

Since 1895, the city of Venice, Italy, has hosted a 7-month-long public art exhibition every two years. Called the Venice Biennale (that's pronounced "Bee-a-nah-lay"), this artistic extravaganza is more than a mere exhibition of world-class art.

"The Biennale establishes trends for art and can elevate and change people's careers or perspectives on contemporary art movements around the world," according to Miranda Kyle, the arts and culture program manager for the Atlanta BeltLine.

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That kind of influence is nothing to sniff at. And it's backed up by 127 years of history with very few interruptions. World Wars I and II caused the cancellation of the Venice Biennale in 1916, 1918, 1944 and 1946. In 2021, the exhibition was postponed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The only other disruption to the Biennale occurred in 1974 when Biennale-related events took place but, in solidarity with the nation of Chile, a full-fledged exhibition wasn't held. (Italian communists on the Biennale committee sympathized with those in Chile after a coup put dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in power).

The first Biennale opened April 30, 1895, to toast the silver wedding anniversary of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita di Savoia of Italy. The city of Venice wanted to establish a biennial (which means every two years), and highlighting art made sense, as the city was famed for its exhibitions. The first show included 516 works of art — 188 by Italians and the rest by artists from 14 other countries. The exhibition was a great success. By the time it ended, more than 224,000 people had come through. That's a lot of folks, and it demonstrated that a Venetian exhibition of art from all over the world could be a tourist draw and destination.

Among the Biennale's unique features is its scope, and there are several parts that make up the whole:

  • the International Art Exhibit located at the Giardini park, anchored by the Central Pavilion (site of the original Biennale);
  • the Arsenale (a former shipbuilding complex added to the Biennale in 1980);
  • the national pavilions, which show the work of artists of a specific country (countries began building their own pavilions as early as 1907 — there are now 29); and
  • the collateral exhibitions — independent works, often created by groups, entities or institutions which are typically displayed at the Giardini or Arsenale.

Who Curates the Biennale?

The Biennale is curated by a single artistic director who selects the show's theme. The 2022 exhibition, the 59th, runs from April 23 until Nov. 27, and is curated by Cecilia Alemani, the director and chief curator of New York City's High Line Art. Alemani is the first Italian woman to serve as curator of the Biennale. That's "kind of a bonus," says Kyle.

Biennale
The 59th Venice Biennale, "The Milk Of Dreams," is curated by Cecilia Alemani and hosted by the president of the Venice Biennale, Roberto Cicutto.
Stefano Mazzola/Getty Images

"The real key here is that Cecilia is brilliant," she adds. "She has an exceptional vision of contemporary art, particularly amazing art that maybe the rest of the art world hasn't caught onto yet. Many times, it's the next spectacular thing. She's trilingual and immersed in contemporary art movements around the world. Making her the curator was also brilliant because she's an expert in public art. She can specifically create transitional spaces in how people can navigate and experience the city."

Alemani chose the title of a children's book, "The Milk of Dreams," ("Il Latte dei Sogni" in Italian) by surrealist painter Leonora Carrington as the exhibition's theme. The book's stories, paintings and ideas of transformation inspired her, according to The New York Times. She then organized the Biennale exhibition around three themes of transformation (inspired by the artists) — the representation of how bodies can transform; the relationship between individuals and technology; and the connection between bodies and Earth. This year, the majority of the artists are female or non-gender conforming. Over half the artists have never been to the Biennale before, and five countries will be participating in the national pavilions for the first time: Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Oman and Uganda.

"I'll say something controversial: I don't think someone who had not been a mother would've chosen [a theme] like that," Kyle says. "I think Cecilia is definitely nodding to her own experience as a mother, and the idea of mother-ness is universal across the creative sphere. Even if it's not a biological child, this gestating and bringing forward an idea definitely feels like a transformational labor."

Biennale
The 59th Venice Biennale will be open to the public from April 23 to Nov. 27, 2022.
Stefano Mazzola/Getty Images

Kyle feels the past few years have demonstrated to the world how essential it is to thrive, to nurture and be nurtured.

"Whether that is your ideas, other people or yourself, I feel her insight into those themes is a response to what the last few years have taught us," she adds.

In the past, more than half a million visitors passed through the Biennale during the seven-month exhibition. Kyle thinks the Biennale committee made the right choice selecting Alemani as the first post-pandemic Biennale curator.

"It goes back to Cecilia's area of expertise, public art," she says. "I think we'll see a Biennale unlike what we have seen before specifically because she is going to have a keen sense of our shared commonality once she gets ahold of that city."

And will the people come?

"We just saw record-breaking crowds in Los Angeles for the Frieze Fair," says Kyle. "I imagine it's going to be a madhouse. I think everybody's going to go."

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