Over the course of the last month, the number of countries exhibiting at the 56th annual Venice Biennale has dropped from 90 to 88, following the withdrawal of Costa Rica and Kenya from the show.
The Art Newspaper reported that Kenya officially cancelled its pavilion on April 29. The Kenyan art community had been protesting the selection of mainly Chinese artists — none of whom live or work in the African country — to represent it at the international biennale. On April 14, after a Change.org petition garnered several hundred signatures, Kenya’s minister of culture publicly condemned the pavilion and its organizers.
Costa Rica also announced it would withdraw from the biennale on March 30 after it was discovered that Gregorio Rossi, the Italian curator organizing the pavilion, had been charging participants to show their work. He had invited some 50 artists to exhibit, each paying up to €5,000 (~ $5,600) for a spot. The payment scheme became known after Italian sculptor Umberto Mariani took to the magazine Flash Art to protest the “95,000 euro [fee] to exhibit my work at the Palazzo Bollani” (though he eventually arranged to take the entire first floor).
“It’s unacceptable,” commissioner Ileana Ordoñez Chacon, who was the liaison for the biennale at the Costa Rican embassy in Rome, told El País. In a letter to the institution, she wrote that her country’s withdrawal was due to “reasons beyond [our] control.”
An additional cause for consternation was the fact that only four Costa Ricans — Priscilla Monge, Rafael Otton Solis, Rosella Matamoros, and Rolanda Faba — were invited to be a part. Officials knew foreign artists would be showing at this year’s pavilion — the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD) in San José had been charged with selecting nationals, while Rossi was supposed to choose ones from different countries — but they didn’t seem to know there would be so many. In Ordoñez’s letter to the biennale’s organizers, she wrote, “the conditions imposed were not suitable and [involved] the participation of Costa Rican artists in a mixed space shared with artists from other countries in the same hall (known as Costa Rica).”
But according to El País, Rossi suggested it was the only way for Costa Rica to have a pavilion at all. The country had no official sponsor (which Costa Rican authorities apparently didn’t know), so raising the €200,000 necessary to rent out the elegant venue near Piazza San Marco for the duration of the biennale meant he had to charge artists, whatever their nationality, and to charge as many as necessary.
Nothing Rossi did was technically wrong, as the biennale doesn’t have any specific rules about such matters. In a statement, a spokesperson explained that it “does not in any way interfere with the organizational aspects of the participations of countries (the appointment of the commissioner and the curator, the curatorial project, the selection procedures for the artists, the choice of the venue, etc.), granting full autonomy to the participating country, as a matter of consolidated practice.”
Rather, Rossi’s actions are just another sad reminder of how unequal the international playing field still is for artists in less wealthy countries; they face far more challenges in just getting their work seen abroad than those in places like the United States or France. The debacle also highlights a major opportunity for arts patrons interested in bolstering the arts in developing countries — even if it’s just to reap the marketing benefits of doing so. Hopefully someone will take note for next year.