Direct from Venice Biennale: Interview with Professor Charles Green

Explore the fascinating world of the Venice Biennale with Professor Charles Green, an artist, art critic, and eminent scholar of art history and curatorship. Professor Green specialises in the history of international and Australian art after 1960, with a particular focus on photography, post-object and post-studio art. He is currently writing a book that uncovers, maps and analyses the global history of contemporary art's biennials since the early 1950s.

  • Doctor of Philosophy (University of Melbourne, 1999)
  • Master of Arts (Visual Arts) (Monash University, 1994)
  • Bachelor of Arts (Honours) (University of Melbourne, 1988)
  • Bachelor of Arts (Fine Art) (Victorian College of the Arts, 1982)
  • Diploma in Education (Melbourne State College, 1981)
  • Diploma of Art (Painting) (National Gallery Art School, 1974)

The 2015 Venice Biennale unveiled Australia's new pavilion. What was the agenda behind the pavilion as a priority for Australia? What are the implications for Australian art and artists in the international arena?

Australia has participated in the Venice Biennale for more than 60 years, presenting exhibitions that have featured our nation's leading artists and placed them in dialogue on the international stage. This is why the Biennale of Venice is important. This rich legacy continues in 2015 with a solo exhibition by Fiona Hall and the opening of the new Australian Pavilion designed by architects Denton Corker Marshall. The debut of the new pavilion signifies a new milestone in the history of the national pavilions of the Biennale—our pavilion is the first new building in Venice in the 21st century and the only development in the Giardini—and ushers in a new chapter for the global visibility of Australian art and architecture.

The Australia Council committed $1 million (AUD) to the capital project, and raised $6.5 million (AUD) through private support. The Australia Council also provides a base budget towards each Australian representation at the Biennale, which is supplemented through contributions from sponsors, philanthropic foundations, and private individuals.

What is the University of Melbourne's role as a supporting partner of Australia's contribution to the Venice Biennale? What does your role as Deputy Commissioner for Australia at the 2015 Venice Biennale entail?

The University is a major sponsor of Australia's participation in Venice at the Biennale. That means that we are on the Commissioner's Council, which is a group of the major donors to the Biennale and which consists of some of the nation's leading art philanthropists. I have been the representative of the University since 2010.

For the last two years, ahead of this Biennale, I was privileged to be named the Deputy Commissioner, which meant simply that I supported the extraordinary Commissioner, Simon Mordant, with speaking to groups, hosting supporter events of Australian philanthropists and supporters here at the University, consulting with and advising where appropriate the marvellous and very dedicated Australia Council team managing the participation in the Biennale, and being available to the Commissioner as his sounding board.

What are your thoughts on the view that Biennales are about 'art stars' and as such, often showcase the same artists? Do you think Biennales provide an opportunity to discover new artists, or must they be already established in the industry? Who decides who gets shown, and what influence does the art market have?

Contemporary art has boomed since the late 1980s. The period's key art productions have clustered around spectacular, expensive new art such as video installation and large colour photography, implying venues are able to provide the resources, scale and public prominence required by these works. Biennials met these demands, offering newcomers to the global scene a stage on which to participate in the contemporary art industry, while enabling a dramatically expanded audience the chance to see recent art. Now, contemporary art is almost indistinguishable from its exhibitions, especially at these spectacles.

For some critics, the connections between politics and biennials are deeply problematic. Biennialization may, truly, be irrevocably tied to the spectacle culture of neoliberalism, with exhibitions sponsored through a potent mix of state and corporate support designed to lure international tourism to sites struggling on the edges of global trade. This has certainly been true of the "biennial boom" in postcommunist Europe since the mid 1990s. The diversion of state funds from many small-scale cultural projects into the single, short-term event of the biennial can cripple local cultural production, as occurred when Slovenia's capital Ljubljana hosted the Manifesta biennial in 2000, while the corporate sponsorship of some biennials has suggested that biennialization may be a potent way for funders to penetrate new commercial or cultural markets. As George Yúdice has argued of biennialization in Latin America, biennials and contemporary culture thereby become expedient means to support the political and corporate interests of their sponsors. Such accusations are common in contemporary art discourse. They need to be considered in any study of the function and influence of biennials.

Where my new book differs from the general demonization of biennials is in our contention that biennialization can offer profound, critical insights into art's nexus with globalised commerce and political interests, both after 1989 and, surprisingly, long before it. Biennials are an exhibition medium of great power and flexibility, and they are continually perceived as (and turn out to be) a context in which dialogue takes place, both artistic and social.

Different biennials include different types of artist: younger and older artists, less and better known. In my next book, we explain the new methods of biennial-making that appeared after 1972, and identify not just the emergence of a new cadre of biennial curators but the modes of biennial-curating that appeared in answer to successive artistic, political and exhibition problems. With regard to the latter, we trace the new genealogies of transcultural exchange that appeared through biennials. We show that the emergence of biennials around the world featuring little known artists in the decades prior to 1989 has been underplayed until now. Our book locates the cultural geography of biennials during this transition to contemporaneity: in the world at large, not inside one of its zones, looking out. We replace the usual, reductive, and immobilizing question—do biennials promote or subvert globalization—with the far more interesting question that others have also raised: are they the artistic playgrounds of neoliberal capitalism or do they enable the forging and testing of alternative, critical, even subtly subversive perspectives? We show that each biennial's success has been completely dependent on real and pressing contingencies, but also on understanding that neoliberalism and the critical were not mutually exclusive pathways. And from that, we show that biennials would still face a further question that artists themselves knew was far from trivial and which would remain unresolved: would biennials serve, lead or be passive spectators in their own communities?

How does the Australian art scene fare on the international stage? 

By the end of the 1970s, the arrival of relatively affordable international flights had pushed Australian artists, along with their peers from Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Korea and other long-established "peripheries" of art, into closer contact with North Atlantic art centers. The result was the beginning of a fracturing and opening up of art circles beyond New York and Western Europe and within each art center, a division into two overlapping art worlds: a provincial ghetto represented by one set of art galleries or an international art world enclave represented by another, usually smaller and more exclusive, number of galleries and, increasingly, some artist-run spaces. This was as true in Tokyo and Seoul as it was in Sydney or Melbourne. The two art worlds did not overlap but the latter world—that which saw itself as international and part of a nascent, globalised and contemporary art community—did not at that time or later necessarily renew itself from the former's talent-pool of the best and brightest, and then only reluctantly or in such a way as to reinforce North Atlantic primacy over the image of what was contemporary art. Many scholars' recent work has shown that this remained true even of the huge Asian biennials that flourished from the 1990s onwards though, increasingly, many younger artists moved easily from international artist residency to residency and from biennial to biennial.

By the late 1970s, Sydney's art world seemed to have reached a respectable if small critical mass in terms of self-sustaining size. This shift coincided with the third Biennale of Sydney, held in 1979, that launched the Australian city's biennial as an international event seeking to be an image of the world of contemporary art as it then stood. Biennials faced the problem of catering to two geographically differentiated audiences, two artistic groupings and two art worlds or realms: the local, regional and peripheral on the one hand, and the "international" (though, in reality, primarily North Atlantic) on the other.

How do you think contemporary art curatorship has changed since the days of scholarly art historians?

Since the 1990s, and gathering pace dramatically since the start of this century, there has been an enormous and unprecedented emphasis in art museums and the art market. At the same time, there has been a continued and large growth in grassroots, artist-run and emerging artist-showing, non-collection-based public art galleries such as Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, the Centre for Contemporary Photography, and Westspace. All of this means we need to revise our courses to take account of these shifts and to train an increasing number of curators who see their career paths in contemporary art. Curating contemporary art involves a set of skills that complement older skills but which are very different. It's also worth emphasising that in the discipline of art history a similar shift has occurred: a large proportion of students wish to study contemporary art. This study has evolved with the same scholarly rigour as older areas of art history and our discipline treat contemporary art with the same rigour as other areas.

Where once a degree in Art History was the prerequisite for the aspiring art curator, contemporary curators now find themselves facing a raft of higher degree opportunities: the MA in Art Curatorship has become an essential qualification for those aspiring to work in the field. Alongside these university degrees are a number of professional, though non-degree, courses such as Le Magazin, Grenoble, Whitney Study Program, New York, and De Appel, Amsterdam, both of which are highly professionally regarded and extremely competitive to enter. Alongside these courses – university and other – other organisations, including auction houses, offer a range of short courses and professional development opportunities: masterclasses, residency programs, and curatorial intensives now form an ongoing part of the preparation and research for certain international biennials, and the activities of organisations such as ICI, New York. Art Museums and galleries are similarly entering this realm, with research-focussed conferences, seminars, and programs aimed specifically towards professional development now offered by Tate Modern, DIA Beacon, the New Museum, New York, and others.

How do courses such as Art Curatorship and Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne, and subjects such as "Contemporary Art in New York", prepare graduates for entry into the industry?

Our students visit galleries and art museums that focus on contemporary art. We have created subjects to teach the specific skills and knowledge required to work with contemporary art: for instance, in early 2015 we piloted a new subject called "Curating Contemporary Art". We will gradually begin working with a cohort of research students who will prepare major exhibitions as part of their research degrees. Our students meet the curators who work in this vast range of institutions. The benefit of the New York subject (and now a similar subject taught in China) is total immersion overseas in the visual art industry and art museums: these are crash courses, and almost all the students who go on these overseas intensives end up working in contemporary art.

What advice would you give to our brand new graduates wishing to work in the Arts industry?

Volunteer. Volunteer. Volunteer. Go to exhibition openings, go to the free artist and curator talks, and symposia, that occur almost weekly.

'Biennials, Triennials and Documenta: Exhibitions that created contemporary art', written by Professor Charles Green and his co-author Anthony Gardner (also an art history alumnus  from the Faculty of Arts), will be published by Blackwell-Wiley in 2016. The book examines the history, display and transformation of art by one of the most significant phenomena in contemporary global culture: landmark international survey shows of contemporary art or, as they are also known, "biennials".  In particular, the authors examine the remarkable development of these exhibitions and their relation to both transcultural potentials and international politics.

Are you fascinated by the excitement (and politics) of the Venice Biennale? Hear from Faculty of Arts alumnus and Honorary Historian in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Michael Cathcart in his Radio National segment All the World's Futures: we review the 56th Venice Biennale.