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.
In order to raise the $800,000-plus needed beyond the government funds, the duo has been courting hesitant sponsors, and hosting a slew of fundraising parties. The Barnicke Gallery was hoping to raise between $100,000 and $200,000 from a lead sponsor, but the largest cash contributor so far has been the DHC Foundation for Contemporary Art, which contributed $50,000. Aeroplan and Christie Digital Systems remain the lead supporters, having taken care of travel costs and furnishing the needed projectors.
Fischer says she has spent about 70 per cent of her time on fundraising - time she'd rather have spent preparing the project. Lewis says having to fly to Canada (born in Hamilton, Ont., he now resides in London) for weeks of fundraising dinners was delightful, but he would prefer to have been working on his art. And he is selling works, which would otherwise provide his income, to fund the foray to Venice.
Lewis selected two films he made in the last two years - 122 Leadenhall Street (2007) and 5262 Washington Boulevard (2008) - to be made into multiples and sold, hoping to raise $250,000. It's becoming a common model: The last artist to fill the Canadian post at Venice, David Altmejd, sold 15 multiples of a bronze sculpture at roughly $32,000 a piece to raise funds. "I don't want to sound like a whiner, but it's not fair for the artist to pay for [the project]" said Lewis. "As my wife said, you're representing Canada, you're not buying it."
As this month began, the project was still $115,000 short of its target, and although Fischer says the project is now stable, gathering the remaining funds has remained a constant distraction from her artistic preparations. "We're still fundraising, we're still wearing that hat, and we will," she says, "until the day we leave."
Rusting, Rotting, Leaking
Canada's pavilion in Venice is tucked away in the Giardini della Biennale, a leafy swath bordering the Canale di San Marco, about 15 minutes by vaporetto from the city centre. It's a cluster of 30 permanent buildings owned by the countries that exhibit in them every second year. In the first few days alone, thousands of pedestrians wind their way from one country to another, through pavilions that vary widely in both size and architectural style.
The pavilion is a mark of prestige for Canada; 60 countries without pavilions are forced to exhibit in off-site, temporary locations. But it's also part of Canada's problem. The pavilion is a half-century old: designed by Italian architects, the small building stands out among its neighbours, spiralling inward like a snail's shell. The matrix of steel beams clad largely in glass has been rusting, rotting and leaking, Lewis said. The responsibility for maintaining it, which officially still rests with the National Gallery, has been laid at the feet of the Canada Council.
In the past, according to Fischer, prominent Canadian artists have declined consideration, saying it wasn't worth wrangling with the pavilion to fit their work; others have called for it to be torn down and replaced. Fischer and Lewis were in charge of the renovations for this Biennale - the cost of which figured into the overall budget - and continuously drafted contingency plans in case of a funding shortfall or administrative holdup.
Over the last decade, Lewis has become a leader in rear-projection film, a traditional technique that overlays foreground action onto a separately filmed backdrop. It has taken on a special relevance as the film world finds itself sweeping into the digital age: Lewis's films blend backdrops shot on increasingly old-fashioned analogue film with foreground action captured in cutting-edge 4K technology. In order to be effective, his works must envelop the viewer. So the plan was to build a new pavilion entrance where a storeroom stood, and have the building's glass gradually darken as visitors wind from the front doors to the final room, which will host a series of projectors pointed at multiple screens.
It wasn't an easy plan to carry out. Nothing in Italy operates the way it does in Canada, says Fischer, lamenting the endless nuances and snags of European shipping, labour regulations, taxes, fees, permission processes and construction contracts. She and her staff have had to learn it all from scratch; will have to provide every service from ushers to servers to promotional materials at the exhibition; and have had to take all their own tools and equipment, as nothing is provided at the site.
"The pavilion doesn't even have a bathroom," Fischer says. "It's very improvisational."
The Canada Council has managed to continue subsidizing an Italian co-ordinator on a part-time basis, and Fischer was put in touch with past Canadian curators at the Biennale, but she points out they have their own busy lives and galleries to manage, so she has largely had to fend for herself.
Enduring, Hoping, Rejigging
What Canada badly needs, Fischer suggests, is a more co-ordinated approach: "There needs to be something like a foundation that takes care of this and has one office where the lists of supporters are maintained, where there is an ongoing conversation about it - where the pavilion is being taken care of."
She notes that the first three days of a Biennale see 6,000 members of the world's foremost media outlets congregate with 30,000 museum and gallery directors, curators, artists and collectors, not to mention donors and sponsors. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of visitors have flocked to the exhibitions.
Britain, France and the Netherlands each has a foundation or agency connected with the government's cultural arm that steers the project and handles all private fundraising on behalf of the curator and the artist, and each of those countries contributes at least 40 per cent of the project funding; the Netherlands provides nearly 85 per cent. Canada's funding represented about 29 per cent of the project's $1.2-million price tag (an overall budget roughly on par with that of other countries).
Sigurdson says the Canada Council is studying other countries' strategies, and he largely agrees with Fischer's assessment of what isn't working. Canada's weakness is "the lack of a mechanism" providing continuity from one project to the next, he says, adding that a "rejigging" of the program is, in fact, under way and that creating such a mechanism is a priority. But he also says the loss of the Promart money - which the Harper government maintains will not be reinstated - may necessitate "a more wholesale reinvention."
Fischer bears the challenges she's still facing with a good-natured but weary smile, sustained by her love of Lewis's work and her unflinching belief in what the Venice show can do for Canada. "The Biennale allows us to spread the word that there is great work here, that it's important to come and visit, that it's important to bring artists to the international gallery and museum world," she says. "The artists bring with them an intense connection to what this place is and what it has to offer, what its culture is, what its diversity is, what its points of view are."