Controversies Venice Biennale Ireland

Ireland’s choice provokes controversy

Alarm bells ring as commissioner and artist for Venice Biennale pavilion connected to the same New York gallery

Clockwise from top: Corban Walker's The Golden Bough, 2009, the artist, and Ireland's Venice pavilion commissioner Emily-Jane Kirwan

LONDON. It is relatively unusual for a director of a commercial gallery to be chosen as the commissioner for a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale—but when the artist then selected is represented by the same gallery, eyebrows really start to rise.

Emily-Jane Kirwan, a director at the Pace Gallery in New York, has been chosen as a commissioner for the Irish Pavilion in 2011, while Corban Walker, who belongs to the same Manhattan gallery, is Ireland’s official artist in Italy next year. An independent curator, Eamonn Maxwell, the director of the non-profit Irish gallery Lismore Castle Arts, will oversee the exhibition itself.

A Venice Biennale spokes­woman said that this scenario sets a precedent but stressed that the “final decision [to appoint a commissioner] is taken by the advisory body or institution in charge of the country”. The controversial appointment was made by the government arts organisations, the Arts Council of Ireland and Culture Ireland.

Madeline Boughton, the director of showcases and communications at Culture Ireland, responded: “Many artists exhibiting at the Venice Biennale are represented by major international galleries and it is a function of the scale and competitiveness of the international visual arts market that there are often close links between artists, independent curators and gallerists. The selection panel was aware of this when making its decision.”

However, other curators are less convinced. “This is a terrible decision. Everyone has become so cynical that they no longer see any difference between the public and the private sectors and simply do not care about conflicts of interest. Certain lines must not be crossed, certain categories must not be confused or conflated, and ethical stand­ards must be strictly ap­plied,” said a veteran biennale curator who did not want to be named.

Jenny Harper, the director of the Christchurch Art Gallery and the 2009 and 2011 New Zealand pavilion commissioner also expressed her misgivings at the “blurring of the lines”.

The selection panel included representatives from the aforementioned Irish arts bodies and a curator. Four applicants were shortlisted following an open-call. Boughton said that the Venice Biennale organisers had been notified of Ireland’s 2011 selections and that the commissioner selection criteria does not exclude applicants from working in the private/commercial sector. She also pointed out that the Pace Gallery did not apply for the commissioner position.

She added: “In the case of the 2011 process, the appointment was a tripartite one, with the commissioner appointed jointly with the curator and the artist. It is the entire concept that is shortlisted and subsequently selected by the panel. Kirwan has a history of working with Walker over many years, predating his representation at the Pace Gallery.”

Boughton concluded: “It is common practice for commissioners to combine their role as commissioner for Venice with their other commitments.” The Pace Gallery declined to

comment.

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