Building an archive

The Venice Biennale in the Ludwig Museum

The Ludwig Museum has been responsible for organizing the participation of Hungary at the architecture and art exhibitions of the Venice Biennale since 2015. The national commissioner of the biennale is Júlia Fabényi, the museum’s director-general. The commissioner’s operative organisational unit is the Venice Biennale Office, whose setting up and management is entrusted to me. I and the commissioner had agreed that the tasks can be carried out on a broader and more solid base if they are not limited to managing the biennale exhibitions but a public collection pillar comprising a collection and archive element is added.

This idea came naturally since the Ludwig Museum already had works that had entered its collection from the Venice Biennale, partly through purchases and partly through donation. It seemed self-evident that from this point onwards the Ludwig collection should be enriched with works from the Venice exhibition donated by and selected together with the exhibiting artists. Gyula Várnai’s video work Lem, exhibited at the biennale in 2017, entered the museum’s holdings this way.

Two activities we wish to focus on as part of a public collection are documentation and research. Previous commissioners had partly or fully neglected these areas, which would have been difficult to tend to due to the old system of annually elected national commissioners, single-focus implementation, uncertain funding and fluctuating personnel and organisational conditions.

The opportunity to consolidate financing and to plan in the long term first arose within the institutional framework of the Ludwig Museum. The need to explore the past more in-depth also emerged as it would be a grave mistake to disregard the rich historical heritage represented by Hungary’s long-time participation in the Venice Biennale, the oldest international contemporary art programme. We knew it was important to preserve, augment and integrate the knowledge accumulated thus far into our activity.

The historical archive of the Venice Biennale, ASAC (L’Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee), whose collection is in Venice’s industrial belt, the Porto Marghera, has been systematically collecting the written, visual and audio materials of each exhibition from the late-19th century. In 2009 its library of 150 thousand volumes moved to the central pavilion at Giardini, the venue for national pavilions, thus establishing a yet closer link between living art and its documentation.

Compared with the Biennale archive of the Italians, ours is only a ’micro-collection’. In any case, participation in the Biennale is crucial for any work to be included in this archive and also for historical research. Artworks whose provenience includes the Venice Biennale often emerge in the art dealing circuit and at museum exhibitions worldwide. Thus, we should call museologists’ attention to the fact that an archive worth exploring has been set up in the Ludwig Museum.