For arts community, a muddled picture

Sponsorship issue could keep U.S. out of Venice Biennale next summer

August 04, 2004|By Carol Vogel | Carol Vogel,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Which artist will represent the United States when the Venice Biennale, arguably the most prestigious contemporary-arts festival in the world, opens next summer? Potentially, no one.

The committee that recommends an artist to represent the United States at the Biennale has been disbanded by its overseer, the National Endowment for the Arts, which is rethinking its involvement with federal advisory committees.

And the State Department, which is responsible for American representation at this and many other international exhibitions, is not only looking for someone to run it but also for someone to help pay for it.

Last December, the two private partners that have helped support American participation in the Venice Biennale for 17 years, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Rockefeller Foundation, withdrew their support, saying they were refocusing their grant programs. Staging the exhibition at the Palladian-style villa that has been home to the American pavilion can cost up to $1 million. The government and the two foundations together provided $350,000. For years, museums and artists have raised the rest of the money themselves or through corporate sponsors.

Now they will have to raise even more.

Desperate to find a quick solution, late last month officials from the State Department approached the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which owns the pavilion, about organizing the American exhibition at the 2005 Biennale. But Lisa Dennison, the Guggenheim's deputy director and chief curator, said the institution wasn't sure it wanted to take on the task.

"We're not champing at the bit," she said. "It's a lot of money to raise in a very short period of time."

The State Department's decision to ask a museum to organize the pavilion rather than let a committee decide is viewed by many in the art world as undemocratic and scandalous.

"Maybe it's appropriate that our national pavilion be empty and allow people to project their own image of what is on the walls," said Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Art Center in Minnesota, who has served on the selection committee. "This is not the time for a unilateral decision. It is particularly tragic at this moment that we will not have an open and clear process."

Joseph Merante, director of cultural affairs in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs at the State Department, would say only, "We the State Department continue to support the U.S. presence at the international Biennales." Merante pointed out that the State Department was giving $170,000, more than in the past. It gave $149,000 toward the Venice Biennale in 2003 and $145,000 in 2001. "We are doing as much as we can," he said.

Merante said the State Department had not formally asked the Guggenheim to organize the American pavilion. He declined to discuss the result of a State Department request for proposals to help organize the competition the way Arts International, a nonprofit organization, had managed it for Pew and Rockefeller. The letters were sent out only last week, Merante said, and he wasn't sure they had been received.

Committee decision

Since the mid-1980s, curators from around the country have submitted proposals for exhibitions to a committee made up of arts professionals under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts. That committee, in turn, makes its recommendation to the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and the State Department.

Meanwhile, some curators have developed proposals for exhibitions of American artists but have nowhere to send them.

Linda Norden, a contemporary art curator at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, has teamed up with Donna de Salvo, a curator who is joining the Whitney Museum of American Art in the fall, on a proposal to show the California artist Ed Ruscha at the 2005 Biennale.

"It would be a shame if this were decided by a single institution," she said. "All of us are just waiting." Norden tried to represent Ruscha at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and she and several other curators who were passed over two years ago, have modified their proposals and are waiting to hear who, if anyone, they can resubmit them to.

Putting together an exhibition in Venice is tricky and costly. The American pavilion was built by the architectural team of Delano & Aldrich in 1930 and paid for by benefactors of the Grand Central Galleries in New York. It is the only privately owned pavilion in the Giardini di Castello, the lush garden at the tip of Venice where the international pavilions are located.

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