The impact of the Venice Biennale on the worldwide art market

Jeff Koons multicoloured steel Tulips, on show at Prada’s Ca’ Corner (photo by Christian Jungeblodt for The Gardian)

When the Venice Biennale was founded in 1895, one of its main goals was to establish a new market for contemporary art. A sales office assisted artists in finding clients and selling their work, a service for which it charged 10% commission. The office was successful: by the end of the first edition, more than half of the works exhibited had been sold. The organisers earned so much in commissions that they were able to donate a handsome amount of cash to charity.

Sales remained an intrinsic part of the biennale until 1968, when leftist students and intellectuals sought to occupy the Giardini’s exhibition grounds as part of their widespread revolt against bourgeois culture. They vilified the biennale as a playground of the rich that promoted the commodification of culture. During their occasionally violent clashes with the police, students carried posters with slogans like “Biennale of capitalists, we’ll burn your pavilions!” and “No to the biennale of the bosses.” Their protests did not go unnoticed, for the biennale’s board decided to dismantle the sales office. Commerce was now taboo in the Giardini. While many of the achievements of 1968 have since been discarded, the biennale’s ban on sales remained. Its commissioners and curators have time and again framed the exhibition as a locus for experiment rather than commerce, elaborating on the fundamental differences between the institution and the art fair, and downplaying its impact on the market.

But if past attempts to ban commerce from the biennale have been serious, they have also been in vain. For instance, in 2007, London’s White Cube gallery had sold the majority of the works by Tracey Emin in the British pavilion before the biennale had even opened officially. In the same year, the French super-collector François Pinault snapped up a series of paintings by Sigmar Polke in the Padiglione Italia, much to the dismay of some museum directors, who, as Pinault put it mischievously in a recent interview with the Financial Times, arrived “un peu après”.

This year’s Padiglione Italia (Italy’s Pavillion) debuts with «L’Arte non è cosa nostra» curated by Vittorio Sgarbi. And PRADA is joined by another Italian fashion brand TRUSSARDI which, celebrates this year its centennial.

PRADA‘s Ca’ Corner della Regina includes, Anish Kapoor’s Void Field: a series of sandstone blocks, each with a curious black hole penetrating its surface, giving the impression that these mighty boulders are at the same time hollow or weightless. In the surrounding rooms are Italian artworks from the mid-20th century and contemporary international pieces. Among them are Damien Hirst’s 1996 Loving in a World of Desire, in which a beach ball hovers, lifted by an air blower, several feet above the ground and Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled of 1997, a stuffed ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

Tucked beyond the elegant courtyard is Cell (Clothes) by Louise Bourgeois, which contains the only possible reference to the couple’s day job: nighties, little blouses and delicate 1930s dresses drape themselves emptily within the suggestion of a bedroom.

Speaking about their exhibit, Patrizio Bertelli, Miuccia Prada’s husband and company CEO says ”We didn’t seek advice: we studied, we went to museums. We attempted to understand how certain things happened in the arts.” This art-history course was not meant to result in a collection. “I hate being a collector,” says Prada. “We just bought some pieces. And now there is so much of it it’s a pity for it to stay in stock.”

The Ca’ Corner, which once housed the archive of the Venice Biennale, has recently lain empty. Last year, the Venetian authorities offered it to the Fondazione Prada, which has staged regular temporary exhibitions in the city. The foundation has the space for six years, with the option to remain for another six. Meanwhile, the couple are also building a large-scale, permanent gallery in Prada’s native Milan, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas.

Under Bertelli’s direction, a gentle restoration of the dilapidated Ca’ Corner has been undertaken. But this is no white cube: Pino Pasquale’s sculpture Confluenze (1967), which consists of shallow vessels of water placed on the ground, sits beneath a glorious painted ceiling on the piano nobile, while Jeff Koons’s multicoloured steel Tulips (1997-2005) glints nearby.

There are four of the Italian painter’s egg-shaped, slashed canvases on the palazzo walls. They generally buy separately, according to Prada, and only once have they fallen out badly over a purchase.

“It was the first piece I bought, and he sold it, because he thought it was horrible,” she says, laughing. It was a Dalí. Her strategy, she says, is to “never buy anything except those things that change my ideas, if only in a small way”.

No matter how hard its curators have tried to deny it, the biennale’s impact on the art market is notable: showing in Venice speeds up sales, gets artistic careers going, cranks up price levels and helps artists land a dealer ranked higher in the market’s hierarchy. While business may be conducted in a more circumspect way than at an art fair or in a commercial gallery, and money may not be changing hands in the Arsenale or the Giardini, the market is never asleep. During the biennale’s opening days, dealers such as Berlin- and London-based Sprüth Magers, with five artists in Venice this year, or Zurich-based Eva Presenhuber (seven artists in this year’s edition), will be gauging how deep the interest is in specific works on display, calculating the best way to “place” pieces in the hands of trusted collectors or schmoozing with museum curators.

So what causes the Venice Effect? The easy answer is that showing in Venice is widely perceived as a signal of artistic quality, lending legitimacy to an artist’s oeuvre and therefore contributing to shaping collectors’ tastes (read: their willingness to pay for art). In this respect, Venice is, of course, far from unique. Dozens of other biennials around the world, such as Documenta in Kassel, but also museums and art critics, as well as influential market players such as Pinault, Charles Saatchi and the Prada family and dealers such as Larry Gagosian or Hauser & Wirth, send out signals of their own. The Italian media already speaks of a 2-1 win for Prada versus Pinault, the Italian family organizing an unprecedented exhibition at Ca’ Corner de la Regina Palace, steps from Palazzo Grassi. Apart from the main exhibition, Prada will organize a series of off Biennale shows such as a display of their family collection of jewellery.

While in the past, inclusion in the Venice Biennale would crown the end of an artist’s career, now it often marks its beginning. To show their independence from the market and their ability to spot new talent, the biennale’s directors and curators have increasingly focused on young artists who are not yet household names. In this competition to send out fresh quality signals, which has hotted up due to the worldwide proliferation of biennials, curators are now engaging in a reverse generational race. The press release of the list of artists invited by Bice Curiger emphasised that 32 were born after 1975.

The paradox is that the more virginal these young artists’ curricula are, the stronger the Venice Effect will be for them. Referred to by the late American sociologist Robert Merton as the Matthew Effect (“the rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” according to the gospel of St Matthew), their participation prompts many more curators and collectors to pay attention to their work. For the few older artists in Curiger’s “Illuminations” exhibition, such as James Turrell or Elaine Sturtevant, Venice will be just one more line on their CVs. Likewise, the market for Christopher Wool is unlikely to change much due to Curiger’s invitation: his 1990 canvas Blue Fool was sold at Christie’s New York last year for $5 million (with buyer’s premium), making him the most expensive artist included this year. But they are the exceptions to the rule. The market for most of the artists selected by Curiger are nowhere close to established. And while the commissioners of the national pavilions tend to invite artists who are better known, of all the participants this year, only one out of five has ever achieved an auction price of more than $25,000. Half of them have never been sold at auction.

Curators have another instrument to demonstrate their independence vis-à-vis the market: focusing on artists who make work that is hard to sell, such as installations or videos. In the past couple of decades, these non-commodities have slowly crowded out the commodities at the biennale. But paradoxically this has done little to decouple Venice from the market. One reason is that powerful dealers are interested in representing artists who create non-commodifiable art for similar reasons to curators: it allows them to prove that they not only want to make a quick buck from selling smart paintings and photographs or from trading on the secondary market. In other words, representing these artists produces symbolic capital for these dealers.

The Venice Effect not only depends on the purity, freshness and independence of its signals, but also on their high visibility. The 2009 edition attracted more than 375,000 visitors. In itself, this number is hardly staggering if one takes into account that the biennale lasts for almost six months. In the same year, solo shows of Pipilotti Rist at the Museum of Modern Art or Cai Guo-Qiang at the New York Guggenheim museum attracted more visitors. But in terms of the audience’s composition, the biennale is hard to beat: functioning as the art world’s equivalent of Cannes, which on the side of its film festival hosts the main international platform for the movie business, the entire industry convenes in Venice.

Obviously Venice’s importance to the art industry is related to its attractive location and to its status as the oldest biennale which has served as a (counter) model for the dozens of other biennials established in the last couple of decades. But another reason is its proximity – both in time and place – to the centre of the international contemporary art market: Art Basel, which opens only a week after Venice (the two usually follow each other) and attracts a largely similar crowd of art professionals.

The continuing success of both Basel and Venice in attracting art crowds should be seen in the light of a wider culture of events. Within this culture, the consumption (but not necessarily acquisition) of contemporary art is packaged as a social and cultural experience, livened up by the artistic performances, seminars and round table discussions of experts that have now become standard elements of both the fair and the biennale.

Basel and Venice derive their central role in the art industry from the latter’s status-driven nature: both the biennale and the fair are finely tuned tools that reflect and reproduce status hierarchies. They distinguish visitors by providing selected groups with VIP treatment, access to pre-(and pre-pre-) openings, after parties on expensive billionaire’s yachts, or visits to the villas of collectors living close by. Those types of access are broadly recognised as signs of status among the cultural elite: the more exclusive the venue, the more status access to that venue produces.

In short, asking what the impact of Venice on the art market is poses the wrong question: without institutions such as the biennale, it is impossible to conceive of a contemporary art market to begin with. And vice versa: without the art market, the biennale would no longer flourish. To annul the Venice Effect seems impossible, but if the curators and commissioners want to try, here is the recipe: follow Ireland’s example of appointing art dealers as the commissioners and curators; invite artists with a chock-full rather than a virginal curriculum; postpone the opening a couple of weeks so that it can no longer be attended as part of a 21st-century Grand Tour that also includes Art Basel.

It is unlikely that any of these measures will be adopted soon by the biennale’s organisers. And why would they? It may go a long way towards decoupling Venice from the market, but at the cost of turning the institution into an irrelevancy. In the end, the problem may not be the Venice Effect itself, but the art world’s anti-commercial ideology, which makes curators uncomfortable about this effect. As Curiger argued recently in an interview: “What happens to an artist once you’ve approached him or her is beyond your control. Artists are not throwaway objects – if they sell well, does that mean that their work doesn’t mean anything any more?”

from Il Giornale, The Art Newspaper, The Guardian