When organizers with the State Department announced that Jeffrey Gibson would represent the United States at the 60th Venice Biennale next spring — the contemporary art world’s version of the Olympics — there were clear reasons to celebrate. Not only would the artist fulfill a personal dream, he would also be writing a chapter of American history as the first Indigenous artist to receive a solo exhibition there.
But with only six months until the April opening, the team behind his exhibition still needs to raise millions to reach the total of $5 million to complete work on the U.S. Pavilion. The government provides only $375,000 — roughly 7.5 percent of the projected cost of this year’s show. So a patchwork coalition of curators, gallerists, collectors and philanthropists is working overtime to secure donations to house and feed the artist and his workers, and install the Venice exhibition — while trying to ensure that Gibson isn’t saddled with debt for the honor of representing his country.
“The team is really focused on fund-raising for the pavilion,” said Gibson, 51, a sculptor and painter who lives near Hudson, N.Y., and whose works draw on his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage.
From the arts groups supporting his vision — the Portland Museum of Art and SITE Santa Fe — some collectors and foundations have received letters seeking donations of either $60,000 or $125,000. The gifts are funneled through the Portland Museum toward the Venice Biennale and are tax deductible, according to organizers; in return, they offer such perks as a cocktail reception with the artist, a private preview of the exhibition and a signed catalog.
“This global recognition celebrates Gibson’s career as an artist, and we are committed to ensuring the success of his presentation,” the letter said. “The special honor of representing the U.S. in Venice is a major undertaking.”
Gibson is known for his hyper-colorful paintings, beaded punching bags and intricate textiles that contemplate Native American and queer life. He estimated there are nearly 40 people working on the project inside and outside of his studio. And while the artist remains focused on completing nearly two dozen sculptures, paintings and flags, he is also making calls for donations for all aspects of the project, including a performance program.
“There are moments when I think it’s totally unfair,” Gibson said, “and then I realize that I’m the one who chose to make such an expansive exhibition.”
The cost of representing the United States at its space in Venice, a Palladian-style building designed in 1930 by William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich, has ballooned over the years, from about $72,400 in 1964 for Robert Rauschenberg’s exhibition (about $720,000 in today’s dollars) to nearly $2.5 million (roughly $4.4 million today) for Robert Gober’s 2001 exhibition, according to collectors involved in the fund-raising effort. Organizers said that last year’s exhibition there by Simone Leigh cost about $7 million. But curators say financial support from the State Department has not kept pace with the increases.
“We consider private-sector support a strength in our approach to this program, as it creates broad engagement with a wide variety of stakeholders,” a spokesman for the State Department said. “We always aim to optimize the value to the U.S. taxpayer.”
The budget for the Venice Biennale international exhibition, which hosts the work of dozens of foreign countries as well as Italy, was nearly $19 million in 2022, but it receives substantial financial support from the Italian government. (The budget is the same this year, according to the organizers.)
“I think there is an understanding even before a selection is made that if you apply, then you have the ability to fundraise,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, artistic director and chief curator at Madison Square Park Conservancy and the commissioner of the $3.8 million Venice exhibition by the sculptor Martin Puryear in 2019. “In that sense, it is self-selecting.”
Asking for donations from collectors and gallerists, while it has become part of the job, raises ethical concerns for some curators, including those who have previously run the show.
Robert Storr, who directed the 2007 Venice Biennale and is a former dean of the Yale School of Art, said the rising costs of shipping and other logistics make the system unsustainable.
“There are all kinds of hidden charges,” Storr said, recalling the repeated joke at the Biennales that it costs more to transport artworks by boat from the Venice airport to the exhibition halls than it does to fly paintings into Italy.
“Everyone makes a different deal with the devil to get their shows up,” he added. “If you want to do anything major, you must rely on artists having support networks available, which I disapproved of because I don’t think you should invite artists into pay-as-you-go arrangements.”
Storr and other art experts have also complained that only a handful of artists have the support of dealers who are able to pay the steep costs of organizing a U.S. Pavilion, and who can afford to take the risk that such a prominent exhibition will increase the artist’s value.
Several galleries represent Gibson, including Sikkema Jenkins & Co., which recently sold his beaded punching bags in an exhibition for more than $400,000 each. (Nearly a decade ago, with a previous dealer, buyers could snag a bag — inspired by the garments of Native powwow dancers — for about $16,000.) In the run-up to last year’s Biennale, Leigh was represented by Hauser & Wirth, the blue-chip dealers who also backed Mark Bradford when he represented the United States in 2017.
This year’s Biennale has presented even more challenges. The 2024 exhibition has had its preparation time shortened because of the pandemic and a late selection cycle at the State Department. Organizers behind the Gibson effort said that they have verbal pledges from donors but that very few have sent the money.
“There is a leap of faith,” said Louis Grachos, one of the exhibition’s commissioners and the director of SITE Santa Fe. “Once you commit to a program you have to build a strategy to fund that program.”
Kent Logan, a retired investment banker who has donated several of Gibson’s artworks to the Denver Art Museum, said he is eager to help whenever the call comes.
“The first question is, how much money I can afford to give,” Logan said. “I have always been interested in supporting artists who are making a difference.”
During a phone interview, Gibson said his exhibition — titled “the space in which to place me” — is taking shape. The beadwork on his sculptures is being set, artworks are being framed and other works are being prepared for shipment.
He knows his message will be set against the ongoing world events, including violence in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza. “It is impossible to not think about the state of the world, in particular nationhood and the lack of diplomacy,” Gibson said. “I’m like any other person figuring out what is important to say.”
The commissioners feel confident they can get the exhibition funded in time. “We feel there is great enthusiasm for this particular artist,” Grachos said. “And we have the capability needed to raise the money.”