The British Council and the Venice Biennale
The International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia is one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world. Established in 1895, it invites an attendance today of over 300,000 visitors at the Art Biennale and over 129,000 visitors at the Architecture Biennale, which run in alternate years. The Biennale takes place in two official sites in Venice: the Arsenale, which hosts the international exhibition, and the Giardini di Castello in the east of the city, which houses the national pavilions including the British Pavilion.
In order to capture the memories and highlights of the UK at the Venice Biennale, we have searched our archives to find original photographs, correspondence, recordings and texts for this site. The building which later became the British Pavilion was built in 1887 and has an interesting history which is outlined visually on this site through a graphic timeline. We have commissioned essays on artists who have shown in the British Pavilion but, to be as comprehensive as possible, we have also included information on British artists who have shown in the official Venice Biennale international exhibitions in the Arsenale and in other exhibitions around Venice.
Although you will see content right from the very first Venice Biennale of Art in 1895, it was not until 1937 that the British Council assumed the management of the British Pavilion, taking responsibility for the British representation at the Biennale, organising its first exhibition there in 1938.
Since this time, the British Council has commissioned artists to show in the British Pavilion for the Venice Biennale of Art, with the advice of a professional selection committee made up of prominent art world figures. The selection committee is different each year, to reflect changes in the international artistic networks; the committee focuses on cutting-edge contemporary artistic practice to suggest artists of national importance who are at a stage in their career where this international opportunity would significantly raise the profile of the artist and the UK. During the mid-1960s it was decided to select only one artist or artist practice to show in the British Pavilion, and this has continued so far.
In 1980 the first International Architecture Exhibition took place, programmed as an exhibition alongside the Art Biennale, and various models were tried in the next few years until in 1991 the Architecture Biennale adopted the same framework as the Art Biennale with the national pavilions presenting individual exhibitions in the Giardini. At this stage the British Council took part for the first time, curating and organising an exhibition in the British Pavilion. Since then the British Council has commissioned architects, designers and engineers to put together exhibitions for the British Pavilion in the alternate years to the Art Biennale.
Due to the length of the Art Biennale (6 months) and the Architecture Biennale (3 months) the British Pavilion is rarely empty. In the intervening months, the Pavilion is stripped back to its natural state, restored and renovated. As a listed building, the British Pavilion needs constant maintenance to keep the building fully functioning in Venice's humid climate. The British Council works closely with the artists or architects chosen to plan and prepare the building for each exhibition. Every new exhibition demands significant building work and often takes several months to prepare, with a large team of staff, contractors and consultants.
Other festivals also take place in Venice, but the British Council does not programme or take part in the Music, Film, Theatre or Dance festivals. All these festivals, including the Art and Architecture Biennales are organised by the Venice Biennale Foundation. The British Council only organises the British Pavilion exhibitions at the Art and Architecture Biennales.
The British Council also supports independent exhibitions at the Art Biennale from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These exhibitions take place across Venice and are not part of the official national pavilions, but are classed by the Biennale Foundation as 'collateral' exhibitions. Since 2003 the British Council has worked in partnership with institutions across the devolved administrations of the UK and in 2009 a joint publicity campaign brought the programme together in a more official capacity as a UK at the Venice Biennale programme. For more information on the history of the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland projects in Venice, please see their own sites.