I’m always amused at articles that position the Venice Art Biennale as something to be looked down by normal people. Take, for instance, this Vanity Fair article that’s dripping with sarcasm about celebrities and the celebrity art world getting special treatment and noticed for their sartorial choices. Or this jaded editorial that laments a time when the Biennale was better. There was even official research done to disprove the idea that artists who participate don’t benefit. It’s not a new phenomenon–I found a think piece from 1978 lamenting that the Biennale had grown stale.
I mean, I get it–art collecting of this caliber is not for peons like me, and opening week is very much a scene. And there will always be artists who think they’re work is better than what has been chosen, or art lovers who like something other than what is on display–and this year (a year with a woman for a curator and a significant percentage of female and nonbinary artists, with two Black artists taking the Golden Lion awards) there are misogynists, bigots, and racists who can’t bear to see white dudes snapping up all the oxygen in the room, so to speak. I even understand when people assume that anyone visiting the Biennale is rich and disconnected from every day people because even the act of visiting Venice is a privilege. I particularly feel that assumption because on some level it’s true.
For me, though, the Biennale is…fun. It’s like visiting your local art museum–and I vehemently believe that art is for everyone. It should
be for everyone. Every Sunday the Philadelphia Museum of Art used to have a pay-what-you-wish day to make it accessible to any person, regardless of whether they were poor or rich.1
I used to go regularly on Sundays when I was in my twenties, making $18,000 per year and counting my pennies to buy a beer a few times each month and tip the bartender (after covering my rent and bills). For a poor girl who grew up in a relatively art-free rural Pennsylvania environment, getting to see art and understand what it was…that was a big deal. I even ended up taking a semester of art history in college so I could have more of a foundation. And while I used to think international travel was a huge thing and way above my class and pay grade, Mr. Pretty’s job benefits (super cheap stand-by air travel) have made going to Venice no more expensive than heading to Pittsburgh for a weekend.
I may not be making $18,000 annually anymore, but I’m no where near rich. I’ll never own art by one of the artists exhibiting at the Biennale. I’ll never attend one of the ritzy parties or be photographed because I’m ultra-fashionable. But that’s not why I enjoy the Biennale, and why next month will mark my third trip to Venice to attend. Maybe the people who write these critical articles and editorials about the Biennale forget what it’s all about: artists saying things about the world in which we live, and people–normal, every day people like me–getting to see art, thinking about what it means to them, and getting inspired. You know, because that’s what art is for, no matter where you get to see it.
1. Philadelphia Museum of Art still has pay-what-you-wish days, only now it’s the first Sunday of the month and every Friday night↩