The New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which closed last month, was the most successful in terms of visitors of all the exhibitions over the past decade.
Bill Culbert’s Front Door Out Back attracted a record 218,000 visitors during its six-month exhibition. His installation of light and sculptures drew close to 2000 visitors a day during the opening week alone.
These attendance figures represent a more than five-fold increase on the 40,000 who attended the New Zealand pavilion exhibition of work by Michael Parekowhai in 2011.
The biennale's total visitor numbers were 475,000, an increase of 8% on 2011’s total of 440,000. So half those who attended the biennale went to see the NZ exhibition.
New Zealand’s Commissioner for the 2013 Biennale and director of the Christchurch Art Gallery, Jenny Harper, was delighted with the response to this year’s presentation: “Each time we go to Venice, we add to a subtle but strong impression of the variety and excellence of visual art made by New Zealanders," she says.
"The benefits of participation on this international stage have a habit of flowing on through cultural and economic food chains."
Arts Council chairman Dick Grant says the exhibition has attracted hugely positive responses nationally and internationally.
‘’While visitor numbers are just one measure of success, it is pleasing to see so many people engaged with the work,’’ he says.
The exhibition also gained praise from the art press, critics and collectors alike. London’s Sunday Times art critic Waldermar Januszczak named Front Door Out Back his pick of the 2013 Biennale, while ArtInfo wrote of Culbert: “His place in the history books should be reappraised and this stunning pavilion could well do just that’’.
There were other mentions in the press and on websites including Phaidon Press, one of the major art book publishing houses.
Even though critics made mention of the exhibition there were few substantial articles. New Zealand, like many of the other participants, tends not to garner more than passing reference for its exhibitions even though the references are very favourable.
But New Zealand is not alone. While the pavilions of the major countries such as the UK with artist Jeremy Deller attracted dozens of major articles in papers such as The Guardian and The Times, most countries suffer the same fate of gaining little international coverage.
Despite the fact that more than 7000 journalists attended the biennale, including 4655 from the foreign press, there is limited in-depth coverage of many of the participating countries.
Some of the other major shows which were on top 10 lists, such as the Irish pavilion showing the vast video installation by Richard Mosse and the Israeli installation by Gilad Ratman, received the same level of coverage as New Zealand.
Even Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis' huge metal and fluorescent tube exhibition, which has been compared with Culvert's, received only minimal coverage.
The problem is that art reporters and reviewers from the major papers of the UK, France, Germany, and the US generally only cover their national pavilions and those of other countries they are familiar with. Once they have covered half a dozen, they are down to the odd sentence or inclusion in the top 10 highlights but little critical analysis.
Probably Creative New Zealand should tale a leaf out of the PR bibles of creatives such as Peter Jackson, who have more proactive media campaigns aimed at getting and feting reporters and reviewers.
One of the main reasons for the high visitor numbers was its location on the Riva, the main tourist route along the lagoon up from St Mark's Square in Venice. Even before the show opened, tourists were trying to get into the building, La Pieta, which is famous for having been the location of the Vivaldi’s choir of girls and where much of his music was performed.
The use of a prime location points to the need to ensure future exhibitions are well located.
A survey of 1163 visitors to the New Zealand Pavilion found that 84% had never visited a previous New Zealand exhibition. As a result of their visit, 78% were interested or curious to experience more New Zealand contemporary art and 72% rated the exhibition either above average or excellent.
Creative New Zealand’s investment in New Zealand’s presentation at the 2013 Venice Biennale was $650,000.