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Discover the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

With up to 500,000 international visitors each year, the Venice Biennale is one of the longest-running cultural festivals in the world.

The opening of the British Pavilion 2016. Photo:Cristiano Corte © British Council

The Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia) is renowned for setting new global trends and launching the international careers of many pioneering artists and architects.

In 1895, the Venetian City Council Mayor wanted to establish a prestigious exhibition of Italian and international art 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.

The Venice Biennale is open to the public for six months, from May until November, and alternates each year between art and architecture.

The world's top curators organise ambitious exhibitions that are often considered to be highly political, provocative or ground-breaking.

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 Pavilion and 29 national pavilions. Each of them, including the British Pavilion, presents its own showcase from a particular country or region.

Peter Cook outside the British Pavilion, 2004. Photo: Hélène Binet © British Council

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 the UK's contemporary artists, architects, designers and curators.

Ground-breaking 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 (over 145 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 trend-setting painters, like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

Solo exhibitions in the latter half of the 20th century 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.

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 process. Curators have been encouraged to use the Pavilion as a platform for research and ideas.

How the British Council is involved

Since 1937 the British Council has organised the Pavilion exhibitions, 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, curator of A Clockwork Jerusalem, British Pavilion 2014

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Image credits:
- Gingko Pictures, Gilbert & George, British Pavilion, 2005. Photo: Prudence Cumming Associates © British Council
- The British Pavilion in 1948 © Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia – Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee- Installation view of I SCREAM DADDIO, an exhibition by Sarah Lucas at the British Pavilion in 2015. Photo: Cristiano Corte © British Council
- Graham Sheffield, Director of Arts at the British Council, and Vicky Richardson, former Director of Architecture Design Fashion at the British Council, opening the British Pavilion exhibition in 2014, A Clockwork Jerusalem, at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Photo: CristianoCorte © British Council