The trigger to rethinking Australia’s Venice Biennale management

Gina Fairley

Directives from the Venice Biennale have had a ricochet effect that’s rocked arts philanthropy to its core back in Australia.
The trigger to rethinking Australia’s Venice Biennale management

The Australian Pavilion at Venice Biennale; Photo John Gillings, supplied

On Saturday 28 October, the Australia Council for the Arts released a media statement calling for Expressions of Interest for the 2019 Venice Biennale, and announcing its new approach for the in-house management of Australia’s representation at the international event.

The following day, the Sydney Morning Herald broke with the story that two of Australia's leading arts donors – Neil Balnaves and Simon Mordant – had indicated they would suspend their financial support of Australia's participation at the Venice Biennale due to the changes. They also accused the Australia Council of "outrageous behaviour" in its failure to consult major donors over the change. 

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‘After so many years we would have thought that there would be a bit more consultation,’ general manager of the Balnaves Foundation, Hamish Balnaves, told The Australian. Balnaves learned of the changes just over a week ago.

In a formal statement issued this morning, they added: 'We believe the changes announced by the Australia Council for the Arts today, 30 October 2017, expecially internalizing the role of the Commissioner within the Australia Council are ill-conceived, misguided, and will destroy a successful public/private partnership.'

The Australia Council said the changes to the commissioning model were driven by La Biennale di Venezia. New requirements stipulate that National Participation from countries that have a permanent Pavilion at Giardini must comply with the following conditions:

The Commissioner will have to belong to the Governmental Authority or to the delegated Public Institution representing the Country. 

As representative and direct expression of the Governmental Authority of the Country, the Commissioner will guarantee the transparency of the organizational process, supervise the project of the National Participation and be responsible for the exhibition in the Country’s own pavilion, in agreement with la Biennale and in compliance with the Exhibition’s cultural and organizational standards.

The Australia Council has abolished its tradition of appointing an independent commissioner – usually an eminent art expert or patron – to select the artist who will represent Australia in Venice.

In the past this role has been twice filled by Mordant, as well as arts philanthropists John Kaldor and most recently Naomi Milgrom.

The independent Commissioner will be replaced by an independent external selection panel. This panel will be chaired by artist and academic Callum Morton, who represented Australia at the 2007 Venice Biennale. 

Mordant said that an open application process would see the calibre drop in applications, however it could be argued that the changes will make the process more democratic.

Previously, only a small number of artists were invited to submit proposals, and the numbers show that represented artists were dominated by two of Australia’s leading commercial galleries.

Read: Art titans wield power over Venice Biennale selection

Along with a change in this selection procedure, the Australia Council has also introduced a Venice Council, which will comprise leading donors and arts figures and spearhead the fundraising, but Balnaves says the new model’s separation of artistic and philanthropic roles will not generate the same level of interest.

‘The changing of the independent commissioner and the bringing it under the control of the Australia Council will severely reduce the amount of money donated towards it,’ Balnaves said.

'A Commissioner that is independent of the Australia Council has been key to Australia’s success at Venice. Not only has it been integral in raising significant funds from the corporate and private sector, but more importantly each Commissioner has brought to the table extensive knowledge and experience in the visual art sector, vast connections and networks and the ability to advocate globally, something that the Australia Council simply cannot replicate.

'We believe the proposed Venice Council will not be able to fill the gap, it will be hamstrung by its narrow scope, which doesn’t include the role of Commissioner or the selection of the artist,' Balnaves concluded.

Australia Council Chair Mr Rupert Myer AO said: ‘Many elements of the project will continue with little change. The Australia Council has been the pavilion owner and project manager for many years ... The highly successful public-private partnership model will continue to be absolutely central to realising Australia’s representation in Venice, with advocacy and fundraising led by the Venice Council, an external group of leading contemporary visual arts advocates and distinguished arts philanthropists.’

The Australia at the Venice Biennale project will now be managed thus:

  • For 2019 Venice Biennale representation, management will expand to include a panel of external experts through the Artistic Selection Panel and Venice Council.
  • The Venice Selection Panel will be comprised of national and international visual arts experts, and will be chaired by Callum Morton.
  • The Venice Council will be comprised of leaders from the contemporary visual arts community and distinguished arts philanthropists, who will spearhead advocacy and fundraising efforts.
  • The Venice Commissioning Panel will be comprised of Australia Council Board members, to provide project strategy and governance oversight, chaired by Sam Walsh AO.
  • The Council has extended an open call for artistic proposals for the 2019 exhibition at the Australian Pavilion in Venice, enabling all Australian artists and curators who meet the published criteria to submit proposals. This opens 30 October.

Mordant told the SMH that he called Australia Council CEO Tony Grybowski on hearing the news of the changes, warning: ‘I'm concerned that you don't have the skills in-house or the connections to advocate for Australian artists in Venice.’

The Council reminded in a formal statement that it had presented 38 artists at Venice since 1954.

In January this year, Mordant on behalf of the Mordant Family, came together with Australia Council to offer the Affiliated Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. In a formal statement at the time he said that he was delighted to continue working with the Australia Council. The closing date on applications is 21 November 2017.

He said: ‘The Australia Council is committed to growing private, public and philanthropic funds to support the arts and this targeted investment by the Mordant Family for a Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome realises our shared vision to enhance the profile of Australian artists internationally.

‘We are proud to support this important opportunity and working with the Australia Council to strengthen Australia’s artistic dialogue overseas,’ Mordant concluded.

Ten months later and it would seem that more than a decade of financial support towards Australia's Venice representation and its Pavilion by Mordant has been jeopardised by a lack of appropriate consultation.

With the call for EOIs open today, we are soon to know how the new independent selection panel will perform. One thing that is certain - the new process is more egalitarian, and that could only be a good thing, right?

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.