Australia’s participation in the next Venice Biennale, slated for 2019, has become engulfed in arguments and controversy over the process for selecting the artist for the country’s national pavilion, according to Elizabeth Fortescue in the Art Newspaper. Wealthy and influential patrons have pulled funding in protest, and top public art gallery directors have also expressed their dismay. The start of the issue came on October 28, when a new artist-selection model was announced by the Australia Council for the Arts, the government arts advisory and funding body that manages Australia’s representation in Venice.
The chairman of the council, Rupert Myer, released a statement saying that, in order to comply with the Biennale’s new rules for national participants, the council would no longer appoint an external commissioner to select the artist, and as a result it would call for expressions of interest directly from artists. Last year, the Biennale changed its rules for countries taking part in the exhibition: Commissioners for each national pavilion must work for the government organization that oversees the pavilion, though commissioners can still hire external curators to organize the artistic displays.
Responses have been fierce: Simon Mordant, a former Australian commissioner for the Biennale, who led fundraising for the new, permanent Australian pavilion in the Giardini (which opened in 2015 after he put about $1.5 million of his own money toward it), has publicly withdrawn his financial support from the country’s future participation in the Biennale. Neil and Hamish Balnaves, whose Balnaves Foundation has given more than $760,000 toward Australia’s representation in Venice in the past, have also rescinded their funding. Hamish Balnaves describes the new model announced by Myer as a “bureaucratic raffle.” The philanthropists have also complained that the Australia Council failed to consult them. Mordant claims he only found out about the change when he approached Myer after being alerted to rumors of it, and felt alienated by such a drastic shift, noting: “I don’t have an issue with change, but I do have an issue with change without consultation . . . To lose the goodwill of people who’ve been involved for twenty-plus years—that’s not a smart thing to do.”
Members of the Council of Australian Art Museum Directors (CAAMD) have also entered the fray, writing to Myer and urging him to reconsider the change while expressing the belief that the new model will fail to attract an artist at the level of someone like Tracey Moffatt, who represented the country at the last edition of the Biennale. The letter, dated November 3, was signed by CAAMD’s chairman and the director of the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Chris Saines. Other signatories include the directors Michael Brand (Art Gallery of New South Wales), Stefano Carboni (Art Gallery of Western Australia), Janet Carding (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery), Elizabeth Ann Macgregor (Museum of Contemporary Art Australia), Nick Mitzevich (Art Gallery of South Australia), and Marcus Schutenko (Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory).