The conference will focus on the paradoxical success story of how Venice, the dwindling city of the past, became the venue for one of the major modern art exhibitions in the world. The first International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice was opened on April 30, 1895. A little over 500 paintings, drawings, aquarelles and sculptures were exhibited. By the time the first exhibition closed, some 224,000 visitors had been registered.
At the 53nd International Art Exhibition in 2009 78 countries officially participated.
How did the Venice Biennale survive for 115 years? What were the key roles for this success? Who was responsible for the etstablishment of the flexible structures? By focussing on some important aspects in the history of the Venice Biennale like location, political support, lobbyism, sponsoring, advertising, celebrities, media and others I will try to give an instruction manual for success – hopefully useful for every Biennale organizer in the 21st century.


Jan May studied History and Art History in Berlin, Venice and Rome. He wrote his PhD on the history of the Venice Biennale from 1895 to 1948. He received scholarships from the Centro Tedesco di Studi Veneziani, Venice; the German Historical Insitute, Rome; the Center for Metropolitan Studies, Berlin; and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. His research interests are on the international exhibition and festival history in the first half of the 20th century. He works as an assistant curator at Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. In 2010 he curates the exhibition «World as Words» from the graphic collection of the Kunstbibliothek Berlin.

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