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Venice Biennale - Background Notes

Venice Biennale
Background Notes

What is the Venice Biennale?

The Venice Biennale of Art is arguably the most important, strategic and high profile visual arts event in the world. Established in 1895 to showcase the best Italian art of its time, it has evolved to become a showcase for contemporary art from around the world. It is now recognised as being the oldest, longest running cultural event of its kind, attracting hundreds of thousands of people to each event. Although there are now many other large-scale recurrent exhibitions, none compare to the Biennale in terms of international networking and promotional opportunities. To date there has been minimal representation from the Pacific.

The managing organisation of the Biennale event, La Biennale di Venezia, has recently been transformed from an Ente Autonomo (independent company) to a Societa di Cultura (a special non-profit making foundation open to contributions from the private sector). The Biennale enjoys the support and backing of the Italian government and parliament, who have defined it by law as an organisation of national importance.

La Biennale di Venezia is responsible for the organisation of the Biennale of Art and the Biennale of Architecture which operates within the Biennale Gardens in alternate years to the art Biennale, and a range of other well known cultural events such as the Venice Film Festival held at the Lido and the Venice Biennales of Dance, Theatre and Music which take place throughout the city of Venice on an annual basis.

The Biennale takes place principally within the Giardini (located at the end of the Grand Canal), the largest public gardens within the city of Venice. During the Biennales of Art and Architecture the Giardini are used specifically for Biennale purposes.

The Biennale of Art

The largest and most well known of La Biennale di Venezia’s activities is the International Exhibition of Contemporary Art. This event currently operates for a five-month period every two years. Usually, this period incorporates the European Summer and Autumn from June through late October/early November.

There are a number of components to the Biennale of Art. There is a main thematic, curated exhibition developed by a guest artistic director. The Swiss-based Museum Director and Curator, Harald Szeemann, was appointed as the artistic director for both the 1999 and 2001 Biennales. There are also national pavilion exhibitions and non-pavilion based national exhibitions housed outside the Giardini throughout the city of Venice. New Zealand will be participating as such a country (see venue notes and accompanying location map and images), having received the endorsement from the Biennale to be included as an official national participant.

Why is the Venice Biennale such an important event?

The Venice Biennale of Art remains the most important event in the international visual arts calendar. In recent years a number of other biennial, triennial and recurring art events have emerged to rival Venice in artistic terms (particularly Documenta in Germany and Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil), however, no other event captures the attention and audiences of Venice.

The Biennale consistently attracts huge audiences of key international art professionals, media and general visitors, over 250,000 in 1999. This is partially due to its high profile location, reputed glamour and a capacity to attract world celebrities with an interest in art. Despite the glamorous façade, the event has a reputation within the international art community as a serious event, offering a showcase for new movements in contemporary practice.

What is the Vernissage?

The three days of the Vernissage (preview period) prior to the official opening is attended by VIPs, media and invited art professionals but is closed to the general public. The Vernissage has an important networking and promotional function. Of the more than 20,000 people that attend the Vernissage, the Biennale authorities estimate that over 10,000 official media representatives alone attend during those few days. Directors and Curators of all major museums mix with commercial gallery dealers, collectors, critics and artists and the plethora of parties, openings, media launches and private functions facilitate numerous professional exchanges. Although a non-commercial event, in many respects the nature of the Biennale means that many commercial opportunities are afforded artists and their representatives.

Dates for 2001 are:
The Vernissage takes place over three days 6 - 8 June 2001.
Opening hours are 6 and 7 June 10am - 8pm and 8 June 10am - 2pm.
The official opening is on 8 June.

The Biennale opens to the public on 10 June 2001 and closes on 4 November 2001.
Opening hours are 10am - 6pm (closed Mondays)

Benefits of participation

Benefits summary:
 Audience development
 Market Development
 Creative & Professional Development
 Cultural Diplomacy

The advantages of going to Venice are manifold. The audience development opportunity that this gathering represents is unrivalled – in 1999 250,000 people visited the Biennale. 20,000 of these saw the Biennale over the 3 days of the Vernissage. 10,000 of these were media. The Vernissage offers a concentrated audience of the world’s most influential artists, curators, critics and collectors, with considerable discussion and commentary in the arts and general press as a direct result. Representation at major recurrent international exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale, is therefore one of the most effective ways of promoting New Zealand art, ensuring maximum art industry attention and access to the general public.

This event will both promote New Zealand art to an international audience and contribute to the growth of existing international markets as well as the establishment of new ones. It will support the creative and professional development of artists both through the exhibition experience itself and by placing them alongside their international peers. The professional development of the New Zealand coordinating professionals and organisations will also be ensured through the complex logistical management of this event.

It is an extraordinary opportunity for cultural diplomacy with many occasions for the participating countries to develop their international relationships and pursue political and trade alliances.

While sometimes difficult to quantify, the benefits of this high profile international exposure continue for years after the actual event. A chance meeting between an artist and a curator or collector at a function can result in a major commission or the inclusion of work in another key exhibition.

By way of example, the benefits for Australian artists selected for the Biennale have been enormous. Artists involved since 1993, including Bill Henson, Jenny Watson, Judy Watson and Howard Arkley, have all had their national and international careers enhanced due to their selection, presentation and promotion in Venice. As an indication of the benefits, those mentioned were approached by international gallerists to represent their work; all received offers for solo and/or group exhibitions internationally; all sold work to international collectors and all had their work featured in international art journals, newspapers and non-print media. It would be difficult for an artist to achieve this level of exposure through any other single promotional activity.

The Biennale also presents a great professional forum for others involved in any national presentation, particularly for the curator, exhibition organisers and for those looking after the exhibition in Venice throughout the Biennale period. The ability to see a vast range of new art, and more importantly to meet significant artists as well as their international counterparts provides possibilities for longer term professional exchanges of ideas, exhibitions, and other joint activities. For those living in countries where such international interchange is limited, such as Australia and New Zealand, involvement in the Biennale offers a rare professional opportunity.

Principal Roles

Project Sponsor: Creative New Zealand
Project Management: Global Art Projects
GAP is an independent arts management and consultancy company based in Melbourne. They have been involved in managing arts events in Venice since 1991, working specifically for the Australia Council to develop and manage Australia’s official participation in the Venice Biennale of Art in 1999 and in 2001.
Commissioner: Jenny Gibbs
The Commissioner’s role is to formally represent both the country and the exhibition at the Biennale. The Venice Biennale advises that the Commissioner should be well connected both in their own country and internationally in the visual arts sector and should have a high visual arts profile.
Artists: Jacqueline Fraser
Peter Robinson
Curators: Greg Burke
Elizabeth Caldwell (co-curator)


An industry led selection committee, comprising academics and gallery directors have chosen two leading contemporary practitioners to represent New Zealand for the first time at the Venice Biennale. They are Jacqueline Fraser and Peter Robinson.

Their choice was governed by the following stylistic and professional criteria:

• artist should have an established profile within the NZ contemporary Visual Arts sector
• the artist will have international experience
• work contains regional/local references to NZ identity
• work is current as well as vernacular
• experience with logistically complex projects
• originality (a signature style)

Synergies exist between these two artists, both of whom have considered Maori identity and New Zealand’s history and culture within their practice for a number of years. Fraser and Robinson are experienced with large, international events of this kind. For example, Robinson took part in this year’s Lyon Biennale and Fraser has just returned from the Five Nations in One City exhibition in Mexico. They were also included in the international New Zealand exhibitions Cultural Safety and Toi, Toi, Toi. Such experience at an international level gives them an awareness of the requirements, pressures and deadlines associated with such events. Their existing international exposure means that there is already a degree of recognition of their work in Europe, which will assist to introduce them at this event.

Exhibition Venue

A two-room L-shaped space has been reserved by Creative New Zealand to be the exhibition venue. It is the St Apollonia Museum and is located beside the Doges Palace behind St Mark’s Square. Situated as it is between St Mark’s and the Giardini, it is extremely well located for a venue outside the Giardini (location map and site images on disk supplied).

Jacqueline Fraser (Ngai Tahu)

Auckland based, Jacqueline Fraser was born in Dunedin in 1956. She graduated from the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland in 1977. She was awarded the Moet & Chandon NZ Art Foundation Fellowship in 1992. Fraser has been included in several international surveys, including Prospect at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, 1993 and Localities of Desire, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney 1995.

Her work has also featured in significant surveys of NZ art including NZXI, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1986; Art Now, Museum of NZ Te Papa Tongarewa, 1994; Cultural Safety: Contemporary Art from New Zealand, Frankfurter Kunstverein, 1995; and Toi, toi, toi: Art from New Zealand at the Museum Fredericianum, Kassel in 1999.

Many of Fraser’s works for these exhibitions have been site-specific installations, and she has travelled widely with her work. This year Japanese Curator Fumio Nanjo selected Fraser’s work for inclusion in the Five Nations in One City exhibition in Mexico.

References to Maori tradition can be located in Fraser’s work both through the content and the materials used. She regularly employs fabrics and fibres and processes such as braiding and weaving. Since the early 90s she has made work that has both interpreted Maori titles and appeared to be concerned primarily with Maori myths and stories.

Many of her recent installations have been accompanied by texts written by Fraser that tell stories of Maori cultural events in specific locations in New Zealand.
Peter Robinson (Ngai Tahu)

Peter Robinson was born in Ashburton in 1966. In 1989 he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Canterbury. His work has been included in a number of important exhibitions of New Zealand art, including Art Now, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 1994; Cultural Safety: Contemporary Art from New Zealand, Frankfurter Kunstverein, 1995; and Toi, toi, toi: Art from New Zealand, Museum Fredericianum, Kassel, 1999.

Robinson is rapidly establishing an international reputation, undertaking a residency at the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst in Aachen in 1995. He was included in the exhibition Localities of desire, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1994; and nominated for the Seppelt Contemporary Art Award, 1997.

He has also represented New Zealand at the 1996 Sao Paulo Biennale, the 1996 Asia Pacific Triennial, the 1997 Johannesburg Biennale, the 1998 Biennale of Sydney and this year he was included in the Lyon Biennale. He is currently based in Berlin where he is undertaking the inaugural Creative New Zealand international residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien.

For the last decade Robinson has explored identity and ethnicity in his work. His symbol-laden work confronts issues such as our colonial history, assimilation, racism and prejudice. More recently, his work has also referenced the artist’s journey of careerism, especially an artist like him increasingly developing an international profile. It embodies a satirical interpretation of the ‘games’, ‘rules’ and ‘tactics’ employed to participate in the international art arena as well as exploring the difficulties of maintaining a personal cultural identity.


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