What is the Venice Biennale?
The Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia) is one of the longest-running cultural festivals in the world. In 1895, the Venetian City Council Mayor wanted to establish a prestigious Italian and international art exhibition, so the first Venice Biennale was launched. Welcoming over 200,000 visitors during its opening year, it proved to be a huge success and the festival continues to thrive today.
It now attracts up to 600,000 international visitors each year. The world's top curators organise ambitious exhibitions that are often considered to be highly political, provocative or groundbreaking. The Venice Biennale is renowned for setting new global trends and launching the international careers of many pioneering artists and architects.
How long does the Venice Biennale last?
The Biennale is open to the public for six months every year, from May until November, and alternates between art and architecture each year.
What is the British Pavilion?
The official Biennale exhibition is spread across two venues in the east of the city: the Arsenale and the Giardini. The Giardini, an area of parkland, houses the Central exhibition Pavilion and 29 national pavilions. Each of them, including the British Pavilion, presents its own showcase from a particular country or region.
The British Pavilion was originally a café-restaurant until it was converted into an exhibition space by British architect E. A. Rickards in 1909.
Formed of six galleries, the British Pavilion is a 19th century neo-classical listed building set in the leafy grounds of the Giardini.
The Pavilion has had a fascinating history, and in 1937 the British Council took over the building and became responsible for showcasing the best of UK contemporary artists, architects, designers and curators.
Why is the Venice Biennale important?
Exhibiting groundbreaking artists
From J. M. W. Turner to Tracey Emin, over 600 UK artists have exhibited in the British Pavilion since 1909.
Many artists were included in early group exhibitions (120 artists squeezed into the Pavilion in 1912) until in 1930 the Venice Biennale authorities asked Britain to reduce their ambitious selection. Since the 1970s the Pavilion has focused on one artist or artist practice per year.
The most influential 20th and 21st-century British artists have exhibited at the Pavilion.
The British Council’s early group exhibitions featured significant sculptors, such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and trendsetting painters, like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
In the latter half of the 20th century, solo exhibitions cemented the international careers of artists like Bridget Riley and Anish Kapoor. In recent decades, the Pavilion has shown artists who have helped to define and promote 21st-century British art, such as Rachel Whiteread, Mark Wallinger, Chris Ofili, Tracey Emin, Jeremy Deller and Sarah Lucas. Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen had a solo exhibition at the Pavilion in 2009.
Presenting pioneering architects
Since the first architecture exhibition at the Pavilion in 1991, the British Council has invited high profile names to curate and show. Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster have all contributed alongside other emerging and established architects, designers, artists and engineers.
The British Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale aims to create debate that both challenges and influences the future of British architecture.
Since 2012 the British Council has commissioned the exhibition through an open call. Curators have been encouraged to use the Pavilion as a space for research, alongside showcasing pioneering architecture and challenging ideas.
What is the British Council's role?
Since 1937 the British Council has organised the Pavilion exhibition, overseen the selection process of artists and architects, and preserved the historic building itself.
In 2014 the British Council created the Venice Fellowships programme to offer students, artists and architects the opportunity to spend a month at the Biennale conducting research alongside the exhibition.
The selection process for the British Pavilion
Many people are curious about how the artists are chosen for the Pavilion. The Visual Arts team at the British Council work with a committee of professionals from the UK’s contemporary art sector to choose an artist to exhibit at the Art Biennale.
The process for the Architecture Biennale is a little different. The British Council's Architecture Design Fashion team commission the Pavilion exhibitions. Each year the team runs an open call encouraging multi-disciplinary teams to submit proposals, which are reviewed by a selection panel of design industry professionals.
'The experience of curating the British Pavilion was profound. It provided the time and space to pursue research, and offered a platform to reach international audiences. It's a unique opportunity, a real challenge and incredibly rewarding.'
- Sam Jacob, British Pavilion co-curator 2014