Scams and Shams in the Art World: Part 2

The Bogus Biennial

About a decade ago, in the wake of yet another failed romance, I decided to visit the Florence Biennale, an art extravaganza that has been in the works since 1997. A fellow art journalist was going, meeting up with a curator friend from Texas, and he urged me to get out of town: “Use your airline miles. It will be a good break for you. If nothing else, you can visit the Accademia and the Uffizi and cry your little eyes out”—whether over the dastardly beau or the glories of the Renaissance was left unclear.

But an art-dealer friend turned up her nose at the whole concept. “Everyone in the art business knows it’s not a real biennial. It’s not juried. You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

“Everyone in the art business knows it’s not a real biennial. It’s not juried. You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

And yet the names attached to the Florence Biennale in that particular year were impressive. Aside from the curator from Texas, the agenda included an art critic who had made her reputation during the heyday of formalism and was the author of several weighty monographs, along with an eminent historian of Renaissance and Baroque art, also with many books to his credit. A special exhibition was slated to pay homage to Opmeister Richard Anuskiewicz, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, winners of the Lorenzo il Magnifico award, were on the docket to give a presentation of some sorts. On the surface, it all looked pretty awesome.

The Fortezza da Basso in Florence, which encompasses three exhibition pavilions

The Fortezza da Basso in Florence, which encompasses three exhibition pavilions

So I booked my flight and landed in that storied cradle of the quattrocento and checked into a grim little hotel room not far from the main exhibition space in the Fortezza da Basso, an imposing 16th-century structure surrounded by steep walls. And after a brief nap I headed over to have a gander at the art assembled. And it was, for the most part, unbelievably bad: a lot of tired and slapdash abstraction, inept and uninspired realism, and clunky sculpture that even a mother would have a hard time loving. The most idiotic piece, as I recall, was a sort of choo-choo train that made its way along curving tracks carrying car-loads of plastic cartoon characters. But there were, to be fair, a handful of noteworthy and serious entrants, including sculpture from my old friend Millicent Young, whom I hadn’t seen in years . And off-site I first discovered the work of Karen Giusti, whose haunting installation “Safety Net,” made up of hundreds of handmade paper skeletons that cast lacy shadows on the stone floor, had the good fortune to be in a church away from the main event. Karen would also become a friend.

After another visit the next day, when my jet lag started to abate, I decided to avoid the Fortezza as much as possible and revisit the glories of Florence. You can’t be too miserable when you can feast your eyes on Ghiberti’s bronze doors, Donatello’s commanding sculptures, and the wonders of the Brancacci Chapel (but you can get pretty steamed when your art-journalist friend decides to yak it up in honking Brooklynese with a new-found boy toy as you are touring the Uffizzi, much to the displeasure of the guards and other visitors). The after-hours socializing was fun too. The eminent art historian invited us to his elegant book-lined apartment in a quiet Florence neighborhood, where a dark and mysterious Lorenzo Lotto portrait held pride of place and a cook dished up course after course of splendiferous local fare.

Millicent Young's Bobbin with Prayer Beads (2005), made from wood, fur, and clay, in an outdoor setting (not the Forence biennial)

Millicent Young’s Bobbin with Prayer Beads (2005), made from wood, fur, and clay, in an outdoor setting (not the Forence biennial)

There were a few memorable moments with the formerly famous formalist art critic, as well. She was seriously into the grande dame posturing, barking orders to a handsome black guy I assumed she had hired to drive her around and act as general factotum (turns out he was her boyfriend, a talented sculptor who fortunately moved on to marry a lovely German woman a few years later). In a trattoria one night, over plates of bloody steak and steaming contorni, she announced, “All women artists are beautiful, except the feminists.” Karen and I shot each other astonished looks. It didn’t occur to me till later that I could have strenuously objected: Hellooooooooo! Hannah Wilke? Carolee Schneemann? Barbara Kruger? Ana Mendieta? And on and on….but at that moment I was too squiffy on red wine, and possibly cowed, by her and by a bellyful of bistecca, to utter any protest.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude performed their roles much more charmingly—she in one of her trademark orange fright wigs; he at his boyishly Gallic best—to a rapt audience of artists who had shelled out the sizeable bucks it takes to participate in this inane extravaganza. And I went home the next day, more bemused than disappointed, and deeply grateful I wouldn’t have to write a word about it.

It didn’t occur to me till now, nearly ten years later and with the birth of Vasari21, to bring up the matter of the Florence Biennale, and to search the Internet for similar ventures that seem to me a huge rip-off. Reactions were mixed when I talked to others, and when I went hunting for info on the ‘net. As one dealer reported, “I get about five [announcements about biennials] per week of a similar ilk. Artists and galleries make good targets, as these people can then ask for exhibiting fees and make a lot of money. It may be they then mount a ‘biennale,’ but using broken English and unsolicited approaches; it’s guaranteed to be run very badly—so definitely steer clear!” And Vasari21 member Joanne Mattera also has quite a bit to say on the subject in her blog.

When I talked to two artists I know who have participated, at a cost ranging from around $4,000 in fees and shipping and on up to include hotel accommodations and meals, the takeaway from the experience was divided. “It was the first time that I exhibited my work internationally,” reports Millicent Young, who won a sculpture prize. “The experience did not amount to any sales but it did amount to something on my resume that made people look closer. It was a kind of calling card and that was how I made it into the global category.” But, she adds, “I was aghast at how bad much of the work was. The Florence biennial seems a perfect expression of the ignorance of the times we live in. It’s insanity to call so much of that stuff art.”

Dellamarie Parrilli, another Vasari21 member who sent work to Florence a few years ago, had a far more negative reaction.”They approached me, and at that point I was trying to get established, so it seemed like a terrific opportunity,” she says. “I very carefully shipped two paintings, but I couldn’t go myself because of health problems. I paid for return shipment but never got my paintings back. I wrote and wrote till I was blue in the face. All they had to do was put them in the boxes, slap on the labels, and send them home. I didn’t have the works insured because the fees were too steep for me.” For the time and money spent, and the loss of two paintings, Parrilli got a certificate saying she had participated in the Florence Biennale. “What you think is an opportunity turns into a frigging nightmare.”

If you Google “art biennials,” you will came up with an astonishing number (I counted about 170 before I gave up); you will also find lists of the 10 and 20 best (but none for the 20 worst). Why so many? Clearly, if the event gains traction, there is money to be made for the organizers, the host city, and the physical venue in tourism dollars and hefty fees from artists. It seems to me fairly simple to decide whether you want to participate: Do your homework. Check out the other artists exhibited, past and present. Decide if this is the sort of company you want to be in. Track down the people who have had work in these shows and ask of what benefit it has been to them. Did they make any sales? Did they meet curators? Would they do it again?

You have nothing to lose but your hard-earned dollars. And possibly your art.

Ann Landi

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