BY Silas Martí in Frieze | 22 MAY 09

Bienal de São Paulo

Infighting and a shortfall in funding means that next year’s Bienal will be postponed to 2011

BY Silas Martí in Frieze | 22 MAY 09

While it becomes increasingly certain that next year’s Bienal de São Paulo will be postponed to 2011 due to insufficient funds and lack of a president, recent gossip has it that investor and art collector Heitor Martins will soon assume the presidency of the São Paulo Bienal Foundation. Aside from his credentials as a financial consultant and respected collector, Martins is married to Fernanda Feitosa, founding director of SP Arte, the city’s art fair, which finished last Sunday with 80 galleries showing in the same pavilion that hosts the Bienal.

The appointment would undoubtedly turn the couple into Latin American art royalty, controlling both the most important fair south of the equator and the second oldest curated show in the world. Feitosa was quick to dispel the rumours at the SP Arte opening last week, dismissing any possible conflict of interest while stating that Martins had yet to accept the position. Martins now has less than 30 days to decide.

If 2008 saw a literal void in the Bienal de São Paulo, with the second floor left empty by curators Ivo Mesquita and Ana Paula Cohen (an alleged attempt to pause for reflection amidst biennial fatigue), this year sees a void in the show’s administrative structure.

The presidency has already been refused by conservative politician Andrea Matarazzo (nephew of Ciccillo Matarazzo, who founded the Bienal in 1951), and Rubens Barbosa, former Brazilian ambassador to London and Washington. Both were regarded as the last beacons of hope by Bienal employees and collaborators. Their prestige in politics and the financial world was expected to salvage the ruinous state of the Bienal Foundation, but both said restoring the organisation would require a full-time dedication to which they would not be able to commit.

Current president Manoel Francisco Pires da Costa, who assumed the position in 2002, since when he has helped bring the Bienal to its decline, was expected to stand down in February, but has remained in power due to a lack of possible successors. Assuming his lame duck status, Pires da Costa now refuses to effectively direct the institution, which has been virtually paralysed by growing debts.

For the first time since 1993, the Bienal Foundation will not finance Brazil’s official representation at the Venice Biennale, which opens in two weeks. With a budget of just under US$170,000, artists Delson Uchôa and Luiz Braga will take their works to Italy paid in part by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture and partly by their respective gallerists, Luciana Brito and Eduardo Leme.

Pires da Costa told the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo that finding the money for Venice was not his prerogative but that of his successor. In any case, the Bienal Foundation has not yet cleared the debts of the last Bienal de São Paulo, owing substantial sums to artists, employees and collaborators. It was recently revealed that the institution closed its 2008 balance sheet with more than US$2 million in debts, and that its annual income of nearly US$7 million falls significantly short of the US$8 million it spends.

The situation reached a critical level in April 2007, when, for the first time in its 58-year history, the Bienal Foundation board rejected the president’s accounts. It was the same month Pires da Costa admitted to having violated the foundation’s statutes by hiring relatives, publishing a magazine unrelated to the institution using its funds and borrowing money at higher interest rates than those practiced by the market.

Since then, Pires da Costa has been dodging bullets from press and public alike. Directors of the Bienal Foundation board has labelled him an ‘unwanted president’, though has failed to find a successor, causing further damage to the Bienal’s public image. Besides having admitted that the next Bienal de São Paulo will be postponed to 2011, it is now certain that this year’s Bienal de Arquitetura, the architecture exhibition that alternates with the visual art festival, will not take place. It was tentatively scheduled for 2010, when the art show was slated to happen.

This administrative impasse has led to a subsequent gap in the curatorial staff. The foundation’s curator Jacopo Crivelli Visconti left the institution – citing ‘reasons everyone is aware of’ – shortly after the conclusion of the 28th Bienal de São Paulo, last December. Ivo Mesquita, curator of the last edition, ended up taking care of Brazil’s national representation in Venice this year, though the job is traditionally the responsibility of the next Bienal de São Paulo curator, a position that remains vacant.

Silas Martí is a writer based in São Paulo, Brazil, and an editor at Folha de S.Paulo newspaper.