The long path to the global arts scene. Bulgaria at the Venice Biennale

CICERONE is an EU-funded interdisciplinary research project which provides policymakers with a unique and innovative perspective from which to understand the cultural and creative sector (CCS). Previous analyses of this sector have typically mapped the location and the spatial distribution of clusters of creative activities. CICERONE innovates by exploring the wider context of these creative activities by looking at the wider production networks of which these are part, comprising not only production, but distribution, exchange and archiving tasks too. Analysing the CCS through the lens of the global production network approach, we focus on two key dimensions of these networks: 1) their spatial footprints and 2) governance configuration. The project then assesses to what extent these dimension correlate to the different levels of embeddedness of the production networks.

The project’s empirical backbone consists of a series of extensive case studies, each of which explores in-depth the networked production of a selection of varying projects in architecture, cultural heritage, artistic craft, design, the festival industry, performing and visual arts, music, publishing and the audiovisual and radio industries. The rich empirical case study findings are used to 1) assess which quantitative data are available for mapping these networks – and which not -, and how this data could be augmented with qualitative data as to enable a more accurate measuring of the societal impact of the CCS; 2) construct a typology of production networks across the CCS; and on the basis of which 3) the project then explores the implications for effective policy support for the CCS in the areas of labour, competitiveness, sustainability and crises resilience.

These findings and their implications for policy making will be communicated through an interactive cultural economy observatory which will be developed as part of the CICERONE project. This observatory, then, facilitates ongoing debates on the economic as well as sociocultural potential of the CCS.

The case of the Bulgaria’s participation in the Venice Biennale of Art

The case study analyses how the Bulgarian national participation at the Venice Biennale of Art served as an entry into the production network of the Venice Biennale. The biennale, founded in 1895, is one of the world’s largest and most influential visual art events and considered the pioneer of all art biennials, where contemporary artists are eager to showcase their work. The biennale was chosen to show how the participation of Bulgaria, a mid-sized European post-totalitarian country, evolved to become a highlight and a strategic priority in public policy in the course of more than two decades.

Bulgarian visual artists entered the international arts scene after 1989 largely unprepared. They were trying to navigate a turbulent political and economic transition, in the absence of a functioning art market and adequate public institutions. The aspirations to become part of global contemporary art movements, nevertheless, materialised for a few artists.

It took decades until the Bulgarian public institutions assume their strategic role in enabling a national participation in the Venice Biennale. The role of public institutions, in our case – the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture – is crucial, as they are the first to be contacted by La Biennale di Venezia foundation in their quest for curatorial projects. Public institutions are also responsible to set the stage for fully-fledged participation and secure the funding for it. This case unravels the production network looking at the most recent participations of Bulgaria – in the 2019 and 2022 editions. These two editions were the first with specifically adopted statutes by the public institutions, earmarked budgets and open competitions for curatorial projects.

Our case study method

The case study is based on five interviews that reveal the nature of the national participation in the Venice Biennale (the project) – as an entry point to the Biennale’s large network. The interviews with key actors shed light on the production network phases: strategic partners from the public sector – the Ministry of Culture and the National Gallery as commissioner – are involved in creation, production, distribution, exhibition and archiving phases. In addition, we used various publications to illuminate theoretical and practical aspects of the case.


The lead actor in this production network is the foundation that manages the Venice Biennale. The foundation defines the terms and the conditions of both national participations programme and the parallel curatorial programme. The Venice Biennale programming cycle starts with the announcement of the rules for participation in the next edition. Then, the rules are sent to the national contact parties – in our case, the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture (Strategic partner public sector 1). In Bulgaria, the Ministry has a strategic role by securing earmarked budget for the project and adopting the national rules for selection of artistic projects. It also appoints a national Commissioner (Strategic partner public sector 2), a compulsory role required by the Biennale, responsible to deliver a national pavilion exhibition according to the biennale’s high standards. The National Gallery in Sofia is appointed as a commissioner, after approval by La Biennale di Venezia foundation. The exhibition space in Venice is chosen and contracted before the start of the national competition.

Creation phase continues with the launch of the national competition for curatorial projects. One project is selected. Creators’ roles are shared between the curator and the artists. The responsibility for the creation of the Bulgarian pavilion during these phases lies with the Ministry of Culture.

The network of the creators spreads at European level. For example, the 2019 curatorial project “How We Live” by the curator Vera Mlechkova, involved two Bulgarian artists who work abroad – Rada Bukova, based in Paris, and Lazar Lyutakov – in Vienna. The 2022 project, entitled “There You Are” is by the curator Irina Batkova and the artist Michail Michailov who works in Vienna and Paris.

Apart from the Creation phase, which takes place predominantly in Bulgaria, all project phases are strongly embedded in the city of Venice, which is due to the strict rules and criteria for participation, and the main location: the pavilion space and the exhibition (exchange), where all project “meet” their public. The Venice Biennale has a significant social and economic impact in the city, notably also due to the requirement to recruit all possible production and specialised exhibition-related services locally (from space rentals, carpenters and electricians, to interior designers, catering and international communications).

Production phase starts when the national commissioner (National Gallery) contracts the curator of the selected project to implement it. This phase is completed when the artworks are finally installed in the exhibition space (national pavilion) in Venice. Production process includes also the publication of a national pavilion catalogue (in Bulgarian, Italian and English), and is accompanied by communications (distribution). Then, the exhibition starts. Inauguration is an important event for all national and international stakeholders involved: public institutions, diplomats, supporters, sponsors, and the artistic community. Exhibition lasts for about seven months.

Distribution phase starts with the selection of the national project, and its subsequent approval by the lead actor – La Biennale di Venezia foundation , which retains its central power position in all phases – creation, production, exhibition and archiving. National projects are included in the Biennale’s official general catalogue, and communications. The Biennale has the exclusive rights to film and video-record the works in the exhibition spaces for the official promotion of the art exhibition and controls all promotion and communication strategies and tools within its territory. Each country organises communications nationally as well as internationally, which in the Bulgarian case, requires different specialised service providers. The Commissioner therefore organises communications nationally (at production stage), and commissions international communication according to the Biennale’s standards in Italy (Specialised supplier 2).

Exchange phase in Venice does not [officially] involve sales of artworks on its premises. However, in real life, deals often happen before the exhibition had started and the works are then acquired by galleries, collectors and investors after the show. The Venice Biennale in 2022 included national participations of 80 countries, among which five countries are represented for the first time. In parallel, the International exhibition in 2022 includes 213 other artists in 80 new projects from 58 countries, which increases the global expansion of the exhibition phase.

Audiences are key in the exchange phase. The number of visitors to the Biennale reportedly increases with each edition in the past decades. A record high number of visitors came in 2022 with over 800,000 sold tickets, comparing to 618,378 real visitors in 2019 (The Bulgarian pavilion in 2019 was visited by 17,200). According to the official website of the Arts Biennale, there were 59% foreign visitors and 41% Italian. The impact of the Biennale through its website and via social media is steadily growing, comparing to the preceding years: 9,5 million webpage views for 2019 (with 1,1 million via mobile devices).  The Biennale involves many young people, students and pupils through special education programmes and this number increases as well. The published figures on the official website quote an increase of 23,67% of the participants in educational activities and guided tours, to a total of 79,402 people.

Archiving is the responsibility of the Biennale library, where all art pavilion catalogues must deposit a copy. At national level, the National Gallery collects resources and keeps archive on the national pavilions, and researches the Bulgarian participations in Venice in the 20th century.

Exploring this case study has confirmed the very powerful position of the Venice Biennale in a global network of 80 countries (2022), demonstrated by its large span of control, strict rules and high quality standards, and brand image attached to Venice itself. This way, the Venice Biennale has been able to maintain its position as a world-class artistic event. The strong concentration of power, the steady evolution for over a century, and the focus on maximising local economic and social effects, makes the Biennale a vital element of the local cultural ecosystem.

Societal embeddedness of the network is defined and centralised around the biennale’s regulations for national participation. The national regulations, statutes, contest, selection, commissioning, and production are aligned with La Biennale foundation.

Territorial embeddedness in Venice and global effects in terms of artistic influences. The national pavilions are produced and shown only in Venice and the lead actor pulls the strings of all the production phases Creation, Production, Distribution, Exchange and Archiving. It reflects the central role of Biennial Foundation vis-à-vis all participants, and this has substantial economic and social local impacts on tourism, local transport, accommodation, restaurants, international prestige. The Biennale attracts visitors from all over the globe. Through art dealers, potential buyers, curators, international artistic community the Biennale’s intangible effects spread globally.

Connectivity of relationships within network. Professional networking in Venice is essential for artists and curators, thereby contributing  to extending and deepening the linkages with the global arts community and markets.

Being represented at the Venice Biennale may have important social and political effects for the participating country. It has evidently created new opportunities and dynamics in the Bulgarian visual arts scene. Exhibiting one’s work in Venice places the artist on the international map, and gives access to a vast international network of intermediaries (art dealers, museum curators, collectors, but also fellow artists). Works of the artists who participated in the Bulgarian pavilions were bought for international collections in Europe after their Venice shows boosting their careers and thus confirming the “Venice effect” (Johanson et al. 2021).

Securing participation by the national authorities and enabling a more transparent process has been long awaited in Bulgaria. This case has demonstrated the value of a strategic and sustainable approach of building   the country’s artistic presence at the Venice Biennale by adopting the first national statute in November 2018, launching public competitions and allocating specific budget. What would benefit this system further, is to enable private donors or private-public partnerships to emerge and benefit the future editions of the national pavilion.

Written by Diana Andreeva, Bilyana Tomova and Tsveta Andreeva

This blog relates to a case which is part of the report “Production networks in the cultural and creative sector: case studies from the visual arts industry”. This full report can be access here.

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