Curator Barbara Fischer, executive director of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto, was nothing short of ecstatic when she learned last summer that her gallery would be Canada's ambassador at the 2009 Venice Biennale.
Starting June 4, her entry, featuring 50-year-old filmmaker Mark Lewis, will command the world's attention in Canada's corner of the hallowed Giardini, which over the years has hosted artists from Henri Matisse to Jackson Pollock, as well as such Canadians as Rodney Graham, and Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. It is the world's oldest and arguably most prestigious international gathering of contemporary artists. As Fischer says, "Everyone is at the table … That's where they go to see art, what is recent, what is new, what is happening in Albania, in Moscow, in Hong Kong and Beijing - in Canada. No other exhibition provides that."
But her initial exuberance was soon tempered by the grim realities of the road ahead. With the help of Lewis and Fischer's small staff, she realized she would have less than a year to raise more than $600,000, a figure that soon swelled by more than a third thanks to a weakening Canadian dollar, leaving Lewis to sell artworks in order to help fund the Venice project. To make matters worse, the global recession was sapping many donors of their philanthropic impulses.
Lewis's exhibition, entitled Cold Morning , is also technically complex, requiring multiple projectors, screens, and just the right lighting (the artist is a leader in rear-projection film technique). Canada's pavilion was ill-suited to host it, which necessitated renovations. Fischer had no experience navigating such matters on foreign soil.
"It's a bit of a pyrrhic victory," she says, echoing Doug Sigurdson, the Biennale's program officer at the Canada Council for the Arts, who described Fischer's triumph with exactly the same words. Adds Sigurdson: "We're sort of riding a bit on their accomplishments and abilities, to get it done." Both artists and curators, he says, are "really put to work."
The problems Fischer now faces first came into being, she says, when a new model for showcasing Canada in Venice was created - but left half-finished. From 1952 until 1986, Canada's entry at the Biennale had been managed and presented by the National Gallery of Canada, which also footed the bill. Its curators organized the exhibition, and it kept an Italian co-ordinator on contract to maintain the pavilion after it was built in 1958.
But after 1986, the National Gallery entered into a partnership with the Canada Council to create a model that saw smaller galleries with regional sensitivities apply to host Canada's entry. Since then, the Council has shepherded submissions and provided much of the government funding. Fischer thinks that shift to a competitive, regional model was a great decision - indeed, it is precisely what opened the door for her gallery to play host. But it also left her feeling like the beleaguered orphan at one of the world's top art festivals.
Courting, Selling, Hustling
Government funding has not met Canada's needs at the Biennale for some time, Fischer contends. This year's budget was estimated at $1-million, but according to Fischer, a weakening Canadian dollar relative to the euro made it more like $1.2-million.
The federal government chipped in $344,000: $254,000 from the Canada Council, an amount comparable to recent years; and $90,000 from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Fischer and Lewis were left to raise the rest on their own, from private sources. (The Conservative government has since cut Promart, the Foreign Affairs program that contributed that $90,000, meaning next year's total could be lower.)
The funding they received, said Lewis, "seems like a lot of money until you realize what your responsibilities are." Both artist and curator (whose Barnicke Gallery has only three full-time employees) said they were thrilled to be chosen, but blindsided by the amount of work ahead of them and the lack of a structure to support their efforts.