Australian Pavillion Venice Biennale 1954-2019
Since 1954 when Australia established its presence as a national exhibitor at the Venice Biennial, 39 Australian artists have represented Australia; 12 women (31%), 25 men (64%) and there have been 2 collaborative male/female duos (5%). Of the 39 artists 4 are indigenous women and 3 indigenous men (18%).
Venice Biennale was established in 1893 and the event is unanimously described as one of the most important, influential and longest running international art exhibitions still running in the 21st century. The Australia Council have owned and managed the Australian Pavilion site since 1978, one of only 29 national pavilions within the Giardani in Venice, their website describes the exhibition as follows;
The Venice Biennale provides Australian artists with critical international coverage, exposing them to key new audiences, markets and contexts. This exposure helps build the profile of Australian contemporary visual arts and establishes international cultural links, networks and dialogue for individual Australian artists. The Biennale represents a significant platform for the Australia Council for the Arts and our supporters to showcase contemporary Australian visual arts across global borders.
Artists considered for opportunities like this would have a distinctive track record of artistic excellence, originality and influence with considerable art-world support such as high profile gallery representation, inclusion in significant public and private collections, grants and commissions, exhibition history in national and international museums.
The first three exhibitions when Australia participated in the Venice Biennale (1954, 56, 58) all the six artists were men. This period was followed by a twenty year gap before Australia re-engaged in the event in 1978 after the establishment of the Australia Council in 1975. From 1978 until 1988 when the first temporary Australian Pavilion opens within the Giardani 10 artists were exhibited 9 men and 1 woman, Rosalie Gasgoine (1982). The following decade 1990-1999, women made up half the total of 8 artists; Jenny Watson was a solo female exhibitor in 1993, Judy Watson, Yvonne Koolmatrie and Emily Kngwarreye were presented as a group show in 1997, and the remaining 3 exhibitions were 2 male solo and 1 male group (2 artists).
During the 2000’s Lyndal Jones (2001) and Patricia Piccinini (2003) started the decade off well for women signaling the start of a fairer trend in terms of gender distribution. Since 2001 Australian Pavilion has exhibited 7 women (6 solo shows 1 group) with an additional 2 women forming part of a collaborative duo (also in group shows) out of a total of 15 artists – women made up 60% of the artists representing Australia at Venice during the last two decades. Meanwhile over the last two decades 90% of the curators have been women, but women make up only 20% of the commissioners.
Venice Biennale changed their National participation procedures before the current 2019 event to stipulate that Nations participating in the Venice biennale upheld the non-commercial nature of the event designed to facilitate cultural exchanges between nations and artistic traditions ensuring the credibility of the event requiring the selection of participating artists be influenced on the basis of artistic rather than commercial value – a very thin edge to be sure. The official procedures for national participation issued by La Biennale Di Venezia states:
“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.”
While a couple of the artists living today are not currently exclusively represented by a commercial gallery most enjoy representation at a relatively narrow selection of commercial galleries, a fact discussed by John Kelly who has critiqued the curatorial and commissioner independence in selecting artists to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale.
The basic argument of Countess since we began collecting data was the simple fact that over the past decades post 1970’s as a profession, artists and the contemporary art-world in general consider formal art training to be essential to identifying as a professional artist.
The most common characteristic shared by the pool of artists from which the Venice Biennale selection panel draws candidates is that most (85%) are graduates from tertiary degrees in visual and fine art, while the remainder informally attended art classes. Countess Report (2014) established that 75% of graduates from visual art and fine art degrees and therefore the pool of artists are women. Is the answer to graduate more men from visual art degrees to even out the numbers or could we just address the unconscious bias embedded within art-world gate keeping structures that produces these outcomes.
Another fact we were able to gather from this data set was the age of the artists when they showed at Venice, we found that while the majority (72%) of male artists exhibited at the Australian Pavillion in Venice did so when they were in their 30’s or early 40’s, but this number is flipped as our data shows only 33% of the women artists were in this same age bracket and rather 66% of the women artists were over 50 years old when achieving this milestone compared to only 16% of male artists over 50. Thats on average a fifteen year gap in age, and like the wage gap, fifteen years is a measure of the extra weeks, months and years it takes for women to achieve the same milestones their male peers enjoy.
Considering how prescriptive conventional corporate career models and timelines are transposed onto an artists practice, age becomes a potent indicator of expectations, aspirations and career success. Could the depth of experience of these women artists practices attest to their perseverance and talent and longevity also seen in recent curatorial and market trends of women artists being recognised and celebrated when much older indicating a broader shift away from outdated linier career paths and the prejudices and bias of traditional art history continues to be exposed and repositioned to involve varied gender and cultural stories.
Gordon N, Art for art’s sake – the financial complexities of the Venice Biennale Published Oct 23rd, 2018 by:
Elvis Richardson www.countessreport.com.au