The day before her 40th birthday last month, Toronto artist Shary Boyle received some good news: She had been selected to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2013. She also received some bad news: She had been selected to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2013.
The Biennale, art's most historic and most prestigious exhibition, offers visual artists career-making exposure on the world stage. It's where the international art community assembles to decide what's hot in contemporary art, and its Golden Lion prize marks the trends and picks the players, elevating pop art when it was awarded to Robert Rauschenberg in 1964 or indicating Canada had arrived when it acknowledged Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller in 2001.
And yet, for a Canadian artist, the Biennale is one tough assignment. The artist has less than a year, without guaranteed funding, in which to create a site-specific work in an aging building in a foreign city that has no roads. The stewardship of the Canadian pavilion has always been erratic. The building, which has neither a washroom nor any storage, is in need of renovation, but it's not entirely clear who owns it, let alone who might pay for necessary improvements.
And now, even the selection process for this burdensome honour is controversial. Before the National Gallery of Canada officially announced Boyle's name Friday, curators, gallerists and critics were already hotly debating whether the Ottawa institution was rescuing the Biennale award – or hijacking it.
Boyle, who creates paintings, drawings and small ceramic sculptures that feature kitschy spirits and sprites with a dark, feminist twist, was chosen by a five-person national committee assembled by the NGC. It included curators from Toronto's Power Plant, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina and two NGC representatives. They did not invite applications but instead chose a winner from their own list of names.
As well, for the second Biennale in a row, NGC's contemporary curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois, who sat on the committee, will also curate the exhibit. Previously, institutions across the country would put forward proposals for peer review by the Canada Council.
That way, each Biennale put the spotlight not only on a Canadian artist who had sought the job, but also on a different institution and its curator.
The NGC says it will switch over to guest curators for future years and that this new selection process is merely a temporary solution that was assembled when the federal Department of Foreign Affairs pulled out of the Biennale after 2007. However, the situation isn't changing fast enough for a skeptical art community.
"I don't think the curatorial community is very happy with that," says Barbara Fischer, director of University of Toronto's Justina Barnicke Gallery , who took filmmaker Mark Lewis to the Canadian pavilion in 2009. "It's a hugely important event for an artist, but it is also for the curators to make connections in that world. And it energizes the cultural institutions of Canada."
Most other major countries in the Biennale use a single institution – often their national arts council – to drive the whole project, but Valentine Moreno, a curator at Toronto's Koffler Centre of the Arts and the author of an academic paper about the Venetian exhibition, says the system of putting forward a different art gallery or museum each time used to send a strong message about Canadian values at an important international gathering.
"The idea of having other institutions involved is unique to Canada," she says. "It shows that nothing but diversity can represent Canada."
The process has become contentious not just because Canada's caretaking of the pavilion has been so spotty, but also because the Biennale is so important to the art world.
"What the Olympics are to sport, it is to art. It's competitive," Fischer says.
Boyle's job in Venice is to create a visual art experience so stunning, so thoughtful and so novel that the world goes home talking about it, thus confirming Canada's reputation as a culturally alive, forward-looking and inventive place.
In stark contrast to the pristine conceptual work that has sometimes defined Canadian art to the world, Boyle comes from a more chaotic school, inspired by myth and nature . Unlike some art stars who rely on studios of assistants, Boyle also a craftsperson who insists on making her art herself in a wide variety of media. She's a change from what is sometimes seen in Venice and, importantly, she is an artist whose career is just starting to build internationally.
"Things are moving and people are interested. She's at a good moment in her career," says Drouin-Brisebois, adding that she particularly appreciates the poetic element of Boyle's work, her virtuosity in different media and her mix of the fantastical with social engagement.
Boyle herself is looking forward to the challenge of the notorious Canadian pavilion, which she scouted this week.
"The Canadian pavilion has a long reputation of causing frustration to artists and curators alike," she says , citing its small size, its spiral shape, its windows and its "cottage-like vibe." "It is a tricky space for many types of work. I, however, love it. There is a feeling of sanctity within its walls and natural brightness that is sure to influence my project ideas. There's chemistry."
As Boyle spends the next year realizing those ideas, though, she will probably be distracted by the need to raise some of her budget herself. Canadian biennalists in recent years have sold art work – often an edition of a single work produced in multiple copies – to raise money for their projects. It's a burden that angers many observers.
"They have to give away their own art work. Why should they do that?" Moreno asks.
Who is going to foot the bills, not only for the art show but for the upkeep of the aging pavilion? That's at the heart of the Canadian debate over the Biennale. Foreign Affairs reviewed its funding and pulled out before the 2009 Biennale; simultaneously, the NGC also pulled its smaller contribution to signal that the current arrangement was no longer working. The NGC is generally regarded as the owner of the pavilion and had been paying for upkeep, but had not programmed the space after 1988, when the system of a national competition for projects was put in place.
"We were basically maintaining a patch-and-paint role for the pavilion for a program which we weren't running," says NGC deputy director Karen Colby-Stothart.
The former system wasn't great for other galleries either. If they won, they were suddenly burdened with running a complex project in Italy without any support on the ground. (The Canada Council continues to provide as much as $250,000 toward the project, but it usually costs more than $1-million to mount an exhibition in Venice.) And the uncertainty over where the rest of the budget might come from and the difficulties of the site were discouraging artists from putting their names forward.
"Often, recognized senior Canadian artists have declined because it isn't the site they want or there isn't funding," says Vancouver art dealer Catriona Jeffries.
Paradoxically, although the NGC pulled out its own funding in 2009, it stepped up to administer the 2011 and 2013 Biennales so that the project would not founder. That initiative is controversial, so all sides agree a permanent solution is needed and most talk about creating a foundation with an endowment that would cover the annual costs.
"If somebody has better ideas – great. We are ready to have the conversation," Colby-Stothart says.