Latin America’s big biennial at risk
This year’s São Paulo Bienal shows almost no art: is this a conceptual choice or just lack of funding?
By Jason Edward Kaufman and Charmaine Picard. News, Issue 196, November 2008
Published online: 19 November 2008
SÃO PAULO. Since it was founded in 1951, the São Paulo Bienal has been the most important international art exhibition in Latin America. But after years of corruption scandals and chronic lack of funds, the continued existence of the biennial is under threat.
The result is that the 28th edition (26 October-6 December), is less an art exhibition than a colloquy on the biennial and its future. The programme consists mainly of lectures, discussions and performances that examine the history and potential of biennial exhibitions. The intention is to lay the groundwork for life-saving reforms of the failing institution, but with only a handful of works of art on display the biennial appears to be on its deathbed.
“There is a huge question mark in the air,” says São Paulo dealer Daniel Roessler, noting that “visitor numbers from abroad have dropped substantially”. Twenty museum groups visited his gallery during the last biennial, but this year he expects only two or three. He contrasts the São Paulo Bienal with the Mercosur Biennial, founded in 1997 in Porto Alegre. “The local business community in the south of Brazil is very supportive of their local biennial,” he says, noting that Mercosur is more professionally run and is growing. “One is going up and the other is in a big crisis.”
The São Paulo Bienal is operated by a private foundation that relies on funding from the city, state and federal governments, as well as from the private sector, but does not always receive it. The foundation has no endowment and has to raise money for every edition. Eight years ago financial shortfalls led the foundation to postpone the 2000 biennial until 2002, precipitating the resignation of board members and the chief curator, Ivo Mesquita, then director of the Museu de Arte Moderna in São Paulo. Scandals have sapped the confidence of corporate patrons and the art community, compounding the foundation’s inability to raise money.
The foundation’s president at the time, Edemar Cid Ferreira, was sentenced in December 2006 to 21 years in prison for bank fraud (He is currently appealing his conviction). The current president, Manoel Francisco Pires da Costa, hired his wife to serve as landscape architect of the gardens around the biennial pavilion, and used biennial staff to edit a magazine published by a company he co-owns. Last year, when a government audit uncovered the conflicts of interest, he was reprimanded but re-elected by the board.
Curators and other staff of the 2006 biennial were not paid until months after the exhibition closed, and the catalogue was not printed until recently. Brazilian curators Paulo Herkenhoff, Adriano Pedrosa, Solange Farkas and others reportedly declined to participate in the 28th biennial.
In autumn 2007 Mr Mesquita, now curator of Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, agreed to return as chief curator. At the time, he told The Art Newspaper that he could organise his six-week exhibition for $5m-$6m, significantly less than the $12m-$15m cost of the 27th edition. But he was given only R8m ($3.5m)—roughly one-third the budget of the 2007 Venice Biennale and not enough to mount a large international art exhibition. He proposed instead a conceptual project that would address the chronic structural problems of the biennial in the form of conferences, lectures and performances.
Controversially, the main exhibition space of architect Oscar Niemeyer’s biennial pavilion, its 250 metre-long second floor, has been left empty. Dubbed “The Void”, the non-exhibition has been condemned by artists who accuse Mr Mesquita of imposing an academic curatorial vision that deprives them of the opportunity to exhibit their works. Brazilian artist Jac Leirner told Frieze magazine that “the absence of art in a biennial feels like a punch in the stomach”. And on the eve of the opening, graffiti groups threatened to raid the pavilion and tag the second floor. But the Brazilian curator Moacir dos Anjos, speaking to the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, called the empty pavilion “an eloquent metaphor of the crisis through which the institution is passing”.
The ground floor of the biennial is a “public square” that has an event space for performances, music, cinema and seminars with artists, curators, critics, musicians, writers and architects. A video salon shows past performances and readings by artists as well as recordings of the biennial’s lectures and conferences. The third floor has a library with material about the history of the biennial and catalogues of 200 other biennials, as well as an auditorium for panels about the function, organisation and funding models of international exhibitions. A portion of the third floor is devoted to a modest exhibition with videos by Marina Abramovic and Eija-Liisa Ahtila, and works by Erick Beltrán, Matt Mullican, Sophie Calle and Dora Longo Bahia. Carsten Höller has erected tubular slides that extend out of the windows on the second and third floors and allow visitors to spiral down to the ground level—reprising his project from the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern.
All told, the show includes 25 artists from abroad and 15 from Brazil (including performers), but the foundation has had difficulty funding even this modest undertaking. Six weeks before the opening, president Pires da Costa instituted a 40% cut in the budget. Mr Mesquita responded in an email pleading to preserve the initiatives underway. “We are fighting for the integrity of the project,” he declared in the message, which was leaked to Folha de São Paulo and published on 27 September. The president replied in a letter to the newspaper, reassuring the public that “the integrity of the original project for the exhibition is, and always has been, the ultimate objective of both parties,” and that “no cutting…would harm or endanger its integrity”.
He also revealed that only about half of the R8m budget had been secured. He said the foundation expects approval of R3.6m from the federal Ministry of Culture, but the ministry only disbursed its 2007 allocations in 2008, and in the current economic crisis funding is uncertain. Funds have been raised from around six sponsors (the largest is R1m from Petrobras), the city of São Paulo, the federal government’s delayed 2007 funds, and foreign government agencies supporting participating artists. But according to a spokesman, the last-minute reductions were needed to bring expenditures back into line with the projected budget, which the curatorial project had exceeded.
The fiscal disarray is all too familiar. Former biennial president Julius Landmann told Folha de São Paulo that last-minute budget reductions were imposed on six of the eight biennials on which he worked. “It is always like that—60 days before the opening there is a ‘cash flow’ problem,” he says. Both the federal government and the state of São Paulo withheld funding this year. “People are not confident that the people running the biennial are using the funds wisely,” says the dealer Mr Roessler, “so the financial and business community is not feeling confident that if they fund the biennial a good project will result.”
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