What is the Venice Biennale?

Maria Papadimitriou (Greek; b. Athens, 1957), cowbell from Why Look at Animals? AGRIMIKÁ,Greek Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. 3 × 2 5/8 in. Clark Art Institute Library, Venice Biennale Ephemera Collection

The Venice Biennale is a cross-continental survey of contemporary art and the social issues it engages. Today an artistic director curates the main exhibition, which often features more than one hundred artists and is presented in two venues: the Arsenale, a former shipworks, and the Central Pavilion, a building situated in formal gardens in the city’s east end.

Those gardens, known as the Giardini, also feature the pavilions of more than two dozen countries, from the United States and France to Korea and Australia. Each country presents its own exhibition as part of the Biennale. Increased interest in recent decades means that countries now often rent palazzi and other buildings throughout Venice to stage their presentations. The 2019 Biennale, for example, features pavilions organized by eighty-nine countries.

Other Biennale-sanctioned collateral events complete the extravaganza. Despite the flourishing of more than two hundred other biennial exhibitions around the world, the Venice Biennale retains its primacy as a bellwether of the trends in contemporary art and the ideas of leading artists.