Venice Biennale: an art feast with business opportunities galore

07 2015 | Issue 7

Text/Wong Io Man

For most people, the Venice Biennale in Italy is a spectacular art event held every two years, but for the small city of Venice and exhibitors from around the world, the occasion brings endless lucrative business opportunities.

Now in its 56th year, the Venice Biennale has been one of the world’s most important art exhibitions for over a century, with a duration that can scale up to six months. The event was first conceived as a royal celebration for the silver anniversary of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy. In addition, as rivalry developed between European nations to demonstrate their strength as a result of fervent nationalism during the late 19th century, the mayor of Venice decided to stage an art biennale to attract tourists and drive the economy with the support of the Italian government. The first exhibition turned out to be a tremendous success. Today, the Biennale has developed a very professional business model where the government is no longer involved in organising the event. Instead, the responsibility was handed over to an event consultant company through outsourcing.

Agnes Lam, member of the Committee of Cultural Industries, just visited the Venice Biennale in May. She said: “A curator plays the most important role in the Biennale. He has to possess not just a profound understanding of art, but also an extensive network of connections with top artists from around the world so he can solicit their participation to ensure the quality of the exhibition. A curator also has to exercise a vision and foresight that defines the direction of future exhibitions. Therefore, the key to the success of the exhibition is determined by event consultant companies and curators who are good at their jobs. Besides, the Biennale already secured a good reputation very early on with its long and rich history, and every year established and emerging artists from around the world take part in the exhibition with a sense of pride.”

While the Biennale is neither an art auction nor a trade fair, Lam pointed out that it generates a whopping revenue of two billion euros on the strength of the exhibitors and visitors alone.“That includes the venue rental for national pavilions and collateral events (hired by individual organisations). As far as exhibitors are concerned, paying as much as one million euros for the monthly rent to gain exposure in an international event is an investment well worth making. What’s more is that creative people and entrepreneurs, not just artists, can take advantage of the occasion to seek out talented individuals for collaborations or exchanges, which triggers a chain effect of positive impact on promoting the cultural industry as a whole.”

Apart from generating profits, the exhibition also benefits the infrastructure that supports it, such as transportation, logistics, customer service, food and beverage, hospitality and other related industries. More importantly, many local attractions and historically significant architectural sites are linked together with the exhibition so visitors can view the artworks while gaining a deep understanding of the local history and culture.

Agnes Lam believed that Macao could learn from the Venice Biennale in many ways.“There are many similarities between Macao and Venice. Both are small in size with historically significant old cities with the UNESCO World Heritage status and well-developed infrastructure such as leisure, entertainment and accommodation facilities. While Macao indeed possesses the inborn qualities to become Venice of the Orient, the key issue to be addressed is improving the ‘software’, such as how to curate an exhibition, bring together internationally renowned artists, and build word-of-mouth and brand awareness for the exhibition. What can be done to turn Macao into a city simultaneously famous for hosting the Venetian casino and having a rich legacy of arts and culture, as seen in the case of Venice – this is the direction where we are going to bend our efforts.”