Venice for the Inexperienced: Jeffrey Deitch Explains the Venice Biennale

Portrait of Jeffrey Deitch by Nadia Lee Cohen

When was the first Venice Biennale? 

The first Biennale was in 1895, it’s well over 100 years old but I’ve been going since the 1970’s. In the 70’s, it was an experience similar to much of the art world at that time, it was a very small community. You would, of course, meet people from different countries but I knew more than half the people that I would see walking around at the time. It went from a community to an industry, most of that transition started in the late 90’s. The Biennale used to be dominated by insiders, powerful curators, and dealers. 

The job of curator was usually a vision given to an Italian. Some of the greatest, most brilliant curators have been at the head of the Biennale. But in the past, the decision was politically oriented, the choice was based on who had connections to the government. The biggest change in the Biennale came when the overall curatorial project was introduced. Up until the 70’s, there was no overall thematic exhibition, it was just the national pavilion. Then, into the early 80’s, there were Arsenales, the Giardini, and the main Italian pavilion, where most international exhibitions were held. It was a huge shift to have an ambitious curatorial project and now, this is something that people really look forward to. 

What are the pavilions? 

They’re a collection of buildings within the Giardini which hold a variety of shows curated by different nations. 

Which countries participate? 

When I began going, it was the main European countries, England, France, Italy ect.. For many years there had been a Russian pavilion which is now not operative, but there still remains a pavilion for the United States, Japan, Korea, Australia, Canada. In the 70’s, the Biennale was void of a Chinese pavilion, Indian pavilion, African pavilion, and farce representation of Latin America. So the representation has become much more global now. 

What is the overall structure of the Biennale? 

So there’s a national pavilion and the artists for each national pavilion are chosen in different ways. For some countries it’s a government funded and run process. For the United States, it’s a rigorous process, but the government only funds a small portion, so a lot of private funds need to be raised. For certain countries it’s very politicized, so the artist or curator is someone who’s in with the government, so the quality often varies. Some pavilions only show artists from that country, some pavilions invite artist’s from other countries. But for the most part, I’d say 90% of pavilions exclusively show artists from that country. 

What role does the Venice Biennale play in the global art ecosystem? 

In the recent past, what you saw in the Biennale was more aligned with the art market, you would see the well known, up and coming art stars when you went. More recently, the curators of the thematic show wanted to diverge from the art market. So, artists who may not be “art market stars” started being featured more frequently. I always look forward to it because there are usually some pretty great surprises and learning experiences. Some people want to go to see the art stars, but I don’t want to see artists that I already see in the galleries. I’m more excited to see the showcase of new artists. 

What are the awards and how are they determined? 

There are different kinds of awards. There’s a Golden Lion award for career achievement that’s given to an artist that’s showing at the curated show or national pavilion for an outstanding career. There’s an award for the best pavilion and in the past, they’ve had an award for best emerging artist, but they haven’t had that for the past few years. The jury who decides the awards is appointed by the general curator of the biennial. 

How do you get around in Venice? 

A while ago, I used to rent a Palazzo and bring as many of the artists I represented who wanted to go. This year, I’m staying at the essential Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal, which is across from Harry’s Bar, a Venice staple. For me, it’s about convenience, I can get around a lot by foot, and for a more complicated journey, I’ll take a taxi boat. My favorite restaurant is La Madonna, everyone goes to La Madonna. It’s not pretentious at all and the food is phenomenal. I go there virtually every night except for Wednesday, when it’s closed. If you have the courage, you can get the black squid ink pasta, which is hardcore Venetian. I will say, Venice is so expensive — it’s one of the situations when you have to suspend your normal practicality, because there’s no way around it, you just have to accept it. 

What’s the party scene in Venice? 

When I started going to the Biennal, there were very few of the so-called “collateral events”. There were mostly dinners hosted by master collectors such as Peggy Guggenhiem and exhibitions of the highest level. Before, you could cover the biennial in two days and now I go there for two weeks and I still can’t see everything, sometimes I have to go back a second time. Some events are great, but some are very commercial and promotional. It’s getting a little crowded. There used to only be very elegant dinners hosted by esteemed art dealers but now there are many high profile, social dinners and parties. It’s a little bit like what goes on in Art Basel Miami Beach. I might go to a few social events but I want to be able to wake up early to see the art. But this is a good example of the art world at large, there’s very little difference between business and enjoying the artistic social life. 

Why should I go?

Every person interested in art should go to the Venice Biennale. When you have the greatest international curators holding up the highest standard of art, you really learn a lot. Not to mention, seeing the work of the great classical painters is also extremely inspiring. There’s so much to see, you can’t see all the old masters in one trip.