An insider perspective: Art Curatorship at Venice Biennale

Established in 1895, the Venice Biennale is the world's oldest and most prestigious biennale of international contemporary art. The Australia Council for the Arts offers various positions for emerging curators and attendants to volunteer at the Venice Biennale. Among them in 2015 were Faculty of Arts alumnae Pippa Milne (MArtCur 2014) and Philippa Brumby (BA(Hons) 2013, MArts&CultMgmt 2014). Here they share their professional development experiences at one of the most important forums for countries to affirm their nation's artistic and cultural identity.

What was your role at the 2015 Venice Biennale?

PM: I was one of four emerging curators for Australia at this year's Venice Biennale. This was a professional development opportunity offered by the Australia Council, and one that provided a lot of scope for seeing art and meeting interesting people.

Each emerging curator represented a different state – I was the representative from Victoria. As 'emerging curators', we were given access to the pavilions and the curated exhibition of the biennale at the first possible opportunity – alongside VIP press journalists and curators from all over the world. From this experience, we were able to lead tours, engage in conversations and perform duties as a conduit between the patrons and the exhibition.
While seeing the art, and forming opinions on the exhibitions, we were also exposed to conversations with curators and artists from around the world. The Australia Council generously set up meetings with curators from around Australia, and some interesting international figures. For instance, I sat down and talked for an hour or so with the curator of the Cyprus Pavilion, Omar Kholief who is also the curator at Whitechapel Gallery, London.

PB: I was an Exhibition Attendant for the Australia Council Professional Development Team. I worked to support the Australia Council Team to deliver aspects of the exhibition installation, VIP events and opening events during the Vernissage week. I then worked in a team to invigilate the exhibition space, conserving the artwork and assisting with tours and other events.

What were some of the highlights?

PM: Working with the other three emerging curators, Megan Monte (NSW), Chantel Woods (QLD) and Andrew Morano (WA) was a highlight for me. It was so great to see so much art and to be able to discuss it, dispute it, make suggestions and compare notes with each other. There was ample opportunity to engage with patrons and peers who are much further advanced within the art ecology, and I learnt a lot from the repeated encounters with curators and directors from across Australia, but it was the sustained contact with a small group of engaged, emerging curators that was the ultimate highlight for me. I hope to work with them in the future and really value their opinions and suggestions.

The artists' talks that were arranged through the Australia Council were outstanding. We spent time listening to Fiona Hall, Emily Floyd, Marco Fusinato, Simon Denny and others, and this insight was invaluable. Another highlight was getting access to the pavilions to see a lot of art without the enormous crowds – the benefit of this access was brought home to us as we battled with the hours of queues and thousands of punters as soon as the pavilion was open to the Vernissage visitors.

PB: The biggest highlight for me was spending time with the artist, Fiona Hall. I have always admired her work and I had many opportunities to chat with her, watch her creating work and ask her about her ideas. She was just so generous with her time and a lovely person through and through. Having the opportunity to work with such an experienced artist in this international context was just so invaluable.

During Vernissage I was given the opportunity to meet some really interesting arts professionals and artists. We had astounding attendance to the exhibition and it was so exciting to chat to our visitors, find out where they were from and where their interests lie. Watching Marina Abramovich enjoy Fiona's work, welcoming Okwei Enwezor to the exhibition and discussing the exhibition at length with great Australian artists such as Mike Parr – there were so many wonderful moments like this!

What were the biggest challenges associated with your post?

PB: Fiona Hall's work is usually very delicate, sometimes using ephemeral materials and so there were several challenges relating to caring for the artwork.

Invigilation is at times physically difficult, standing for long periods of time. So I found it was challenging to maintain my energy in the space towards the end of my post.

PM: For me, the biggest challenge was seeing everything. Venice is utterly full of art over the Biennale and during the Vernissage week there are just so many pavilions and collateral exhibitions to see, people to meet, performances to see, artists' talks to hear and parties to attend…it's overwhelming. There was certainly the expectation that, as young and supported emerging curators, we were to be across everything and know what to recommend to anyone who might ask. The challenge was knowing what to see and what to leave, because there's no hope of getting to it all.

Do you feel your previous studies in your Masters program prepared you for the Biennale?

PB: Yes absolutely, in so many ways. Electives in Art History undoubtedly assisted me to assist visitors in their interpretation of Fiona Hall's work and museum studies subjects allowed me to talk about the architecture of the new Australian Pavilion with confidence. Subjects involving team management and leadership were particularly helpful during times when I was supporting the team to coordinate large-scale events. They assisted me to prioritise tasks and use my initiative when it was all hands on deck! Subjects in media and communications were vital when dealing with press. Though there was a dedicated press team for the exhibition, press enquiries were first dealt with by the exhibition attendants.

PM: I think that the areas of expertise that I began to explore during the Master of Art Curatorship with Melbourne Uni were certainly useful. Subjects such as Biennales, Triennales and Documentas, run by Professor Charles Green, and Writing for the Arts, taken by Dr Rebecca Coates, were especially useful for the specific areas that they investigated.

What are the benefits and pitfalls of volunteering your time for the arts?

PM: It's been incredibly helpful volunteering in the arts, both during my degree and even post-graduation. Despite working in the arts in a paid position, I've recently worked with curators I admire here in Melbourne in a voluntary role. Through this, I've learnt a lot that I've been able to take back to my other (paid) role at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, and to my freelance curating and writing.

PB: The benefits of volunteering are all about experience and networking. Not only meeting other arts professionals but also meeting fellow volunteers, as these individuals will likely be your colleagues one day!

Another less-talked about benefit to being a volunteer is that you get to ask more questions of your managers. What I mean by this is that while you are not being paid, you are there to learn, your payment is essentially through receiving guidance from managers. This enables you to ask the cheeky questions, you might not ask if you are employed by that organisation. Things like, 'What was your thinking about that decision?' 'How would you deal with this situation?' or 'Talk to be about the challenges involved in xyz?' Managers are also usually really happy to answer these kinds of questions – because you are there to learn!

I found at university that it was generally assumed a Masters student would be regularly volunteering for at least one organisation. It often wasn't acknowledged or talked about how challenging this is in terms of your own personal finance and time management. It is very difficult to live independently in an expensive city, work a paying job, study well and give your time to a volunteer organisation. There is so much pressure on an Arts Management student and I think students and staff need to talk about these challenges more to support each other!

Do you have any advice for art curatorship students wanting to become involved with the Biennale or work in the art arena?

PM: It's incredible to witness the juggernaut that is the Venice Biennale. No matter what the trends might be saying, in my experience, it's always been a vast and inspirational example of the arts in full motion. There are opportunities to invigilate the exhibitions, and I would recommend doing this. I was a venue attendant for the New Zealand Pavilion two years ago, and also the Melbourne University Intern for the Venice Biennale with the Australia Council. These experiences have been thoroughly worthwhile, both for the opportunities in the arts that they afforded, as well as the experience of living in the strange and wonderful city of Venice.

PB: All experience is valuable experience!

Pippa Milne is the curator at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne. She is currently working on an exhibition she has planned for July, entitled 'For Future Reference'. In the longer term, Pippa hopes to draw on some of the connections made during her time at the Venice Biennale, and plans to spend more time in Europe, working with galleries and art organisations.

Philippa Brumby also works at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, where she is Assistant Gallery Manager. Philippa hopes to use her experience and new connections from the Biennale, both Australian and International, to continue to improve the membership and volunteer program at CCP, focussing on the sustainable future of the organisation and its commitment to supporting artists.

Do you have a passion for the arts? Can you picture yourself in Pippa or Philippa's place? Learn more about the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Science's Masters programs in Art Curatorship and Arts and Cultural Management to take the first step towards a career in the arts.