By Richard Riley

27 May 2015 - 08:46

'It was seen as a wonderful historic city, but they wanted to propel it into the 20th century.'
'It was seen as a wonderful historic city, but they wanted to propel it into the 20th century.' Image ©

Lau Svensson, licensed under CC BY-2.0 and adapted from the original.

Established in 1895, the Venice International Art Biennale today attracts more than 300,000 visitors every year. But how did it become one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world? The British Council's Richard Riley explains.

The first biennale was in 1895, but it was actually a successor to an earlier exhibition of 1887, when the city of Venice decided to regenerate or 'rebrand' itself. It was seen as a wonderful historic city, but they wanted to propel it into the 20th century and promote the fact that there was still an artistic community and contemporary art to be found there.

So they planned an exhibition in 1887 on modern and contemporary Italian art. They hosted it in an area of the city of Venice which had got rather run-down – the gardens in the Castello region of the city. Nobody was visiting that part of the city and so it was an attempt – rather like Tate Modern in London in the last 20 years – to regenerate the area.

The success of that first exhibition was unexpected and it drew very big audiences. It also had a commercial imperative. In a way, it was a bit like an art fair – there was work for sale – and because it was so successful they decided to open it up and make it international: they would run an exhibition every two years. Hence, it became the Venice Biennale. The first one opened in 1895 and they built a new building especially for it.

The first biennale itself drew more than 200,000 visitors – an extraordinary feat. Its success meant they were clearly going to continue. Then they decided to open it up even more and invite other nations to build pavilions in the gardens and create an area where countries would show every two years.

Between 1907 and 1912, around seven pavilions were built by the big imperial powers of the time. The biennale has continued to grow since then and has survived two world wars and political upheaval.

The biennale is now a foundation and it not only runs the international art exhibition but the Architecture Biennale every other year, too. It also manages the Venice Film Festival and manifestations in dance music and theatre. So all the major art forms are now covered by the Biennale Foundation.

I think the Venice Biennale is probably the equivalent of the Oscars or Cannes. It's the only major art exhibition in the world which has national representations. Countries are not pitted against each other but prizes are given, so there is a sense that it's the Olympics of the art world.

More and more countries have come on board but there isn't room to build more pavilions; China, for example, has no pavilion but instead has a space within the former arsenal of the great military shipyards.

The Venice Bienalle will always be slightly criticised for this. There are some people who think the pavilions should be divided up, that other countries should have an opportunity to show in these rather grand buildings. It's rather unfair that the old, established European nations still hog these great pavilions. But it is what it is.

Britain has presented most of the great British artists over the years. Certainly, from after the Second World War to the present day, most of them have been shown, including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Francis Bacon, Anthony Caro. In more recent times, Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin, and now Sarah Lucas have been shown in Venice. It's a fantastic asset for Britain to be able to present in this way.

This is an edited transcript of the podcast.

Artist Sarah Lucas is representing Britain at the 56th Venice International Art Biennale 2015 with her solo exhibition showing from 9 May to 22 November 2015. Visit our website for pictures from the installation and join our visual arts department on Twitter.

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