VENICE -- A month after its always-splashy June opening, the Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious art exhibition, had settled into a quiet, calm rhythm, like that of the waters lapping along the city’s canals.
A steady stream of mostly European (some Asian) attendees admired bowls of colored spices by Bolivian artist Sonia Falcone, took selfies in the mirrored, iridescent walls placed by Kim Sooja in the Korea pavilion, and sat mesmerized by Yuri Ancarani’s video, Da Vinci, 2012, of a laparoscopic surgery … that had views from inside the body.
But beyond the main locations at the Arsenale and Giardini, the effects of the Biennale, which ends Nov. 24, were still flowing into the art world -- and the art market, despite protestations otherwise.
At its founding in 1895, the Biennale had a sales office responsible for the sale of works exhibited there. After protests in 1968 that led to the abolition of grand prizes, and an institutional identity crisis in the early 1970s, the sales office was eliminated in 1973 because it was considered an instrument of the "commercialization of art," according to the Venice Biennale Foundation's Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts.
Since then, the official line has been that the Biennale is not about sales. But, as Olav Velthuis, a University of Amsterdam economic sociologist, says, “There’s this saying, ‘See it in Venice, buy it in Basel,’” which refers to Art Basel, the world’s largest art fair, which happens about two weeks after the Biennale opens. “Dealers do take into account which of their artists are in Venice, and if they are, they make sure their art can be sold in Basel.”
But beyond immediate sales, artists chosen for the Biennale see an even more significant long-term effect: a rise in demand, which in turn boosts prices. “In the end, success in the art market is not measured through sales, but on prices,” Velthuis says. “You are considered to be successful in the art market if your prices are rising quickly, and if you are able to sustain those high price levels. And that is exactly what this biennial enables an artist and an art dealer to do.”
The reason is simple: While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, when money is involved, it helps to know what other beholders think.
“People assume that implicitly there is some kind of quality stamp that this comes with -- with being invited to participate in these exhibitions,” says Tomasso Corvi-Mora, owner of London’s Corvi-Mora. That said, he didn’t benefit this year particularly even though three of his gallery’s artists are at the Biennale -- all of them actually sold their work before the opening. For instance, with Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, he says, “Her work is quite popular, and she … doesn’t release a lot of work from the studio. We had people who wanted her work, and as we received work that she made for Venice, we sold it to them -- as simple as that really.”
But the imprimatur of the Biennale can turn an admirer into a buyer. Photographer Zanele Muholi, who is showing her entire archive of Faces and Phases (plain and powerful black-and-white images of black lesbians and transgendered individuals), sold a collection of prints like those on display to a collector who was already familiar with her work.
“If an artist was selected to be in Venice, it affirms one’s judgment in a way,” says Joost Bosland, with Cape Town’s Stevenson Gallery, which represents Muholi.
But while lines may be drawn around pure art, to keep it unsullied by commerce, the truth is the Biennale needs the art market too. “Usually, artists hardly get compensated to show their work,” Velthuis says. “If artists show very expensive installations, they would not be able to do that without support from the dealers, so usually work gets financed by art dealers who represent this artist. So it’s kind of a symbiotic relationship.”
Top left: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye's Switcher, 2013 (Courtesy Collection Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Corvi-Mora, London and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)
Top right: photo of Campo de Color by Sonia Falcone (author's own)
Bottom collage: Clockwise from top left: Amanda Mahlaba, Mt. Moriah, Edgecombe, Durban, 2012; Ntandokazi Magaga, Makhaza, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011; Lungile Cleo Dladla, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011; Vuyelwa Makubetse, KwaThema Community Hall, Springs, Johannesburg, 2011; Vuyo Mkonwana, Site B, Oliver Tambo Hall, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 2011; Ayanda Magoloza, Kwanele South, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012 (All photos by Zanele Muholi, courtesy of Stevenson Gallery)