Marketing Mondays: Scam or Opportunity?

You know how I feel about Vanity Galleries. Indeed, my outspokenness has earned me the Angry Hillbilly Award from Ico Gallery, a vanity in New York City.  (As you may recall, we had so much fun with the "award"--move over, Granny and Jethro--that they eventually took the post down, presumably from extreme mortification. But not before I dumped the contents here. )

Are those red flags?
Now comes the Bienniale Internazionale Dell'Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy.

They want me--they've already emailed me twice--but they want me to pay my own way, or get an organization to sponsor me. They found me via the Internet. Here's a red flag: The message was diverted to my junk email file. Here's another: You're automatically invited to participate if you have an Internet presence. Um, so my website with the paintings of big-eyed kittens in tutus and toe shoes makes me eligible?

Have you received one of these invitations, too? Maybe it's a legitimate exhibition, but those flags are waving. I don't care if Marina Abramovic did receive the Lorenzo Il Magnifico award from them. Here's the email:

Dear Artist,
We would like to invite you to exhibit your artwork in the next edition of the Florence Biennale. After reviewing your artwork present in internet, the Internal Committee has expressed favourable opinion for your participation. The Eight edition of the Biennale will be held from 3 to 11 December 2011.

Marina Abramovic and Shu Yong in 2009, Gilbert & George in 2007, Christo and Jeanne-Claude and Richard Anuskiewicz in 2007 and David Hockney in 2003 were awarded with the maximum recognition, the Lorenzo il Magnifico award for their career. The Biennale attracted an impressive number of enthusiasts, artists and visitors. Each day of the seventh edition was studded with collateral events and conferences, such as that of Gregorio Luke, Former Director of the MOLAA at Long Beach, among others that can be seen in our website www.florencebiennale.org.

The exhibition doesn’t receive any public neither private financial assistance. The exhibition is entirely funded by artists, that can search for sponsors independently in their own country. To those possible sponsors indicated by artists, Arte Studio will provide to send a formal nd request. Sponsors will be published both in the general catalogue and the website, as you can see by visiting the sponsor’s page present in our website, that helped some artists in the past biennales.

You will find all the necessary information in the participation documents, in order to send you these we kindly ask you to send us your postal address to the following e-mail biennalefi@artestudio.net.

Best Regards,
Internal Committee of the Biennale

If you know anything, this is the time and place to share.


Janine Whitling said...

Hi Joanne,

I too have been invited and subsequently did my own investigation. However I took the invitation seriously as i recently was awarded as a finalist in the Australian National Blake Prize. It seems that there are two responses to this and very briefly it goes something like:
1/ what a scam (pretty much from all people who can not afford to go), and
2/ yes, its not the Venice Biennale but nevertheless a wonderful opportunity to meet many artists and art workers if you consider the costs a marketing opportunity.

I know as an Australian we have many australian dignitaries, politicians and artworkers attending, and subsequent local exhibition for those having attending in Florence.

For me the debate is not so much is it a rip off but rather how much am I willing to spend to promote myself and make an international presence for myself.

This is a very interesting account of a first hand experience:

Janine Whitling

Glenn said...

I have also received a similar invitation to exhibit at the Bienniale Internazionale Dell'Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy... and couldn't hit the delete key fast enough!

Speaking of scams, out of no where this summer I had an interested collector of my work make herself known via email. She said she lived in NJ but her husband had been relocated to South Africa for work and they were in the process of packing up there house. She mysteriously came across my website and fell in love with my work (nice!) and identified 3 pieces she would like to purchase. Only one was actually available for sale and so I let her know.

At this point, the first big red flag for me was this individual's inability to use proper grammar when corresponding. It's one thing to make a few spelling errors, we all do from time to time, but I'm talking incomplete and incoherent sentences here. I had to work really hard at times just to decode her message!

I continued to engage cautiously with her by email, which dragged on for about a month, because the possibly of a sale (in the middle of the summer no less) had me hooked. She also mentioned she was pregnant, traveling to London to visit her sister before moving to South Africa, and would have the moving company come and obtain the artwork. She also requested my address and when that happened, another red flag went up.

So I decided at this point to research everything and anything I could about her based on the content of her email. I used her name, her email address and state she claimed to be from... and as it would turn out, I discovered this person was writing from some trailer park in Pennsylvania.

Needless to say I stopped responding to her emails and sure enough she disappeared into thin air.

Anonymous said...

Red flags? My first impression of the photo was that they were nazi flags. frightening.

ruth said...

I received the same thing so I requested more information. They sent me a packet with forms to fill out and a minimum of $5500 to rent the booth to show there... Yeah right!

Michael said...

I had email about the Florence biennale from a Spanish gallery two years ago; they invited me to contribute 1000 euros towards the costs.

And just a couple of days ago, I had an email from the Ico gallery inviting me to take part in their "Canned Oxygen" exhibition next year. Apparently, they thought my landscape paintings matched the style they are looking for... I'm a printmaker; I produce small, traditional linocuts of the English countryside. Not quite sure how my work would fit the gallery's mission "to restore art to the sanctuary, the solace, the anodyne, the place between places that affords each soul a private liberty."

Thank you so much for your blog.

Gale said...

And if you believe this, I have an antique bridge in Brooklyn to sell you . . .

Casey Klahn said...

One thing I know @ the Florence Biennial is that the one work you exhibit is 9 feet from the floor, stacked with 40 other paintings.

If they want to redeem this, I would say they should cut the exhibition to 200 works, and jury it well. Then, pay the tab via their own sponsors.

ken weathersby said...

"Bienniale Internazionale Dell'Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy"

= "delete"

Although the first time I heard from them I had to read it pretty carefully. The invitation sounds exciting until you realize it's bogus as a meaningful platform for art: it doesn't confer any idea of quality, relevance or honoring of achievement. Plus the artists get to pay for it! (stating the obvious)

Re: Glenn's thought about out-of-the-blue emails from collectors interested in your work: I've had some weird ones that disappeared once I tried to follow up with them (I never found out what their angle was), and others, tellingly usually not so weird, that turned out to be for real and ended in sales of work. So it all depends...

Julie Sadler said...

I got an invitation from them 3 years ago. I got so excited, and actually thought I was somebody! I spoke with a collagist that had been there prior...and he said NO NO NO! Thankfully I listened to his advice. From then on, ALL emails from shows, books, or galleries that ask for money instantly are deleted.

Joanne Mattera said...

Well, this post has touched a nerve. I asked a Florentine friend if she has ever heard of this event and she said, "No." Bear in mind that art events in Florence are announced by banners all over town. If she hadn't heard of it, there wasn't much going on in the way of promotion.

However the link Janine provided, of a first-person account of an artist who participated, tells another story. Janine, do you now this artist? My questions would be:
. What US critics, curators, collectors attend this event?
. How does the "democratic" nature of the show--i.e. anythone with a website is eligible--affect the overall quality?
. Have any artists of note participated in this event? We're all judged in some way by the company we keep.

Glenn, I have found that when I get emails in which the conditional is used incorrectly (i.e. "will" instead of "would")that's a red flag, suggesting that the missive originated from another country. Mind you, I don't use the conditional perfectly in the other languages I speak, so I'm not being a monolinguist, just noting that scams often originate where the perpetrators would be harder to trace, capture and prosecute.

S.A. said...

I got the same invitation to the Florence "Biennale" --- as did some of my students! It's a nice opportunity to explore the whole issue of scam exhibitions with them. However, the first time I was aware of this show was a few years ago when a grad student told me he was going to be in it. I was of course immediately skeptical, and discovered that he had paid thousands of dollars to exhibit -- plus a few thousand more to ship a piece of sculpture. It's tragic really.

Janine Whitling said...

I'm not sure I can answer those questions you asked Joanne as i've not read any first hand experiences from people in the states having attended. It would be great to get more feedback from those having attended rather than those not attending as the latter will always be biased against. Perhaps you could email Joy directly because I understand that she made quite a few friends whilst exhibiting which could direct you to other artists and their experiences? Janine

Anonymous said...

I don't think you can call the Biennale in question here a scam. They are up front about what they expect of you and what they can provide, so its not a scam. I know one artist personally who participated and for him it was worthwhile because he was able to combine it with other European projects, I believe he had a sponsor-and so it was a great marketing opportunity but not a critical one.

Glenn, I also know of an artist who got swept up into the art scam you mention. To the point where she cashed the check but was waiting for the funds to clear before she let them collect the work. The bank told her the money had cleared, she was about to ship out the work when the bank called, the next day, to tell her it was a scam. She lost the money--but was able to get it back with a lot of arm twisting and friends in the right places--and best of all, she still had her work. Now thats a scam. Remember, the bank is legally obligated to release funds to you after a certain amount of time, but that doesn't necessarily mean the check has officially cleared.

Joanne Mattera said...

OK, so scam may be too harsh a word, but I think they are being disingenuous in promoting it as they have. And I think it's telling that no US art magazines have covered it, no US art critics have covered it. In short,except for their own promotion there has been no coverage of this event that I've seen. Those red flags are still flying as far as I'm concerned.

Fi said...

As soon as I started listing my website in online art related directories and promoting my blog I began getting these 'special invitation' emails. They all ask for money and simply seem to trawl online databases for artists to approach. No quality control, odd English and festivals no one has heard of. I roll my eyes and delete every single one.

Anonymous said...

I've gotten these before as well. Sometimes snail mail and sometimes email. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Buyer Beware.

Kim Matthews said...

What grabbed my attention right away was that there was all sorts of name dropping going on until the end: the email was signed "Internal Committee of the Biennale." Usually legitimate organizations include verifiable contact information for a go-to person. It may have been cheaper and maybe more profitable for that poor student to just fly to Florence and set up a stand in the piazza with all the other artists! At least he would have had a lovely trip in a fabulous city.

mel said...

Yes, I have also received this several times. The sad thing is the rush one feels in being invited to participate in something, and then the feeling of being duped takes over.

My favorite technique for checking out scams is to put a partial phrase in Google. Also there are some sites that exist to show different scams-- there are some artists who string along the would-be scammer.


Anonymous said...

Another red flag, when this is addressed to 'Dear Artist' instead of your name.

Helen said...

I've heard of all sorts of scams via the internet and this could well be one of them (it certainly sounds like it).

Always trust your gut, as it is usually right!


Anonymous said...

I dont' see a whole lot of difference between what the Florence biennale does, and a number of other trade shows, particularly those involving design and architecture--I think these are more popular and more prevalent outside of the US.

They often expect the participants to pay. And if you think about it, the art fairs are all trade shows as well. The galleries attending not only have to pay but also have to be invited, just like the Fl. biennale. Ok, not as prestigious, but you don't expect to get a critical review from showing in a booth at an art fair do you? Well, ok, maybe you do nowadays, not sure thats such a good thing.

I think what's tricky is that everyone sort of lumps it in with the Venice Biennale and thinks they are being duped. If you think of it as strictly a trade show, I don't think there is anything disingenuous here, but as always you have to pay attention and read the fine print.

Anonymous said...

There are all sorts of art festivals on zapplication.org, that involve booth, site or tent fees, where artists can show & sell their work at multi-day events. Most are juried, and have a reputation, like Paradise City Art Festival. But Florence Biennial is explicitly not involved in selling art. IT sees itself as more of a political tool, like the Art in Embassies program, although, the sponsorship idea is more like international sculpture symposia or sand sculpture or ice craving events where competitors seek commercial sponsors to pay their way or commercial sponsors put up the prize money for exclusive rights to advertise in the event. It seems like a fitting analogy.

Marie Kazalia said...

There was a long discussion on the Florence Biennale in a LinkedIN art group. FLorence Biennale pays art celebs like Gilbert & George to show up. That does not validate the op as valuable to the artists who pay. Do the celebs add FLorence Biennale to their CV? Or just go get the check? There is along artist on the Manhattan Arts site that gives the full details of the event. Here the link to the article:

I have traveled all over the world and I have the money to travel to Florence, but I would not waste my time on such an *exhibition op*. The big draw seems to be the formal dress Ball part of the event and many of the artist participants mention combining the event with a family vacation--it's become a way to be a different sort of tourist.

The same pregnant scammer moving to Jo'berg S.A.
contacted me too. Many red flags. I told her the money had to be paid via PayPal (since I'd already heard of her check scam), and never heard from her again.

mariandioguardi.com said...

As we say in Boston "everybody and their mother" got an invitation.

Anonymous said...

3 members from an art club I belong to went last year-each getting a large wall to exhibit-they didn't sell anything and spent thousands on shipping and entrance fees plus personal travel expenses(you are expected to sit by your art)if you want a vacation go for that but expect nothing more.

Joanne Mattera said...

Here's a surprise, the "Lorenzo Il Magnifico Award" is on Abramovic's resume: http://i1.exhibit-e.com/seankelly/55cac785.pdf

Joanne Mattera said...

. . . Not that I would participate in the Florence Biennale, let me clarify.

J. Nodine said...

I was selected/invited for the 2009 and 2010 and have passed on both. Last year after the first request, I contacted friends in Milan and Florence. One a PhD in art criticism and the others are private art collectors. All came back with similar responses stating that the Bienniale Exhibition in Florence is more about the producers of the exhibition and the $$ they make, and less about the art and the artists. My friends that live in Florence said they went one year out of interest and found the quality was very uneven. They stated that the audience was mostly the exhibiting artists and there were virtually no collectors, curators, critics or outsiders attending. These friends are connected with the Gallery scene in Florence and they said the galleries there don't take any notice of this Bienniale. I also emailed with an artist from Canada that participated several years ago and she said it was very expensive, not well organized and did not draw the crowds she expected. So from my research it is not a venue I would plan to pursue.

Anonymous said...

I know of someone who participated in the Florence Biennial who is now also participating in the "US Arts Biennial" in NYC and the "International Biennial" at Nina Torres Gallery in Miami. Both these shows appear to be spin-offs "honoring" participants in the Florence Biennial. To people who are not versed in the art world, these achievements probably appear legitimate and so in that sense they are functional -- at least, up to a point.

Cathy said...

I was approached by a 'collector' using a scenario similar to your experience. They identified two works they had viewed on White Columns slide registry and wanted prices. They were relocating to South Africa from Alabama and were stopping over in London, their shipping company would contact me, payment would be in form of cashiers check, etc.
Though the initial email seemed legitimate and their interest genuine, I asked them to submit payment through paypal and never heard from them again.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious to know if anyone has the same opinion about PhotoLA sinse it's the same deal with buy in for exhibiting...

Thanks for a good blog - I just bookmarked this :)

Julien Porisse said...

Hello everyone,
Hello to Janine Whitling who I met at the Florence Biennale in 2011.
Well…here comes my point of view (I must say that I attended the Florence Biennale in 09,11 and just recently in 2013) it ended yesterday and it was a farce.
Florence is a very Renaissance small city. The cradle of the arts. It is on the other hand, quite blocked in time and has nothing to show that is "contemporary" it is the Duome, The Ufizi, the Statue of David by Michelangelo and the miles you walk along the River Arno. The city is antique and hard on ones feet !
That said the price one will pay for a space is 3000-4500€ depending on the size. A 300cm x 250cm section or a double of 600cm x 250cm.
The exposition panels are grey gloomy looking chipboards and the lighting is about adequate although be prepared for shadows on your works.
The layout is hyper cluttered which looks very amateur.
The level of the art ranges from very good with the odd excellent to a majority of weekend artist rubbish.
More to come (trying out the system)

Julien Porisse said...


My account of the Florence Biennale is precise and also personal. I know the Biennale inside out, from the two Celona Brothers who are both President and Vice President to the Panel of Judges and to the admin team headed by Angelina Herrera who is one of the Biennale contacts to the artists.
Why did I go back three times ?
My answer would be "Cupidity" as in going for a better bash at getting a top 3 prize. Only that reason.
To meet other artists...really? okay one meets the odd artists and has good chats exchange cards and maybe continue on Facebook at best.
However, meeting Galleries, art institutions, curators etc it is a zero a huge ZERO. You meet nobody who is anybody there.
Very low. Only a few schools of young Florentine schoolkids come and take all the flyers make noise applaud in group photos and walk out leaving the Biennale quiet again.
At 10am you enter with the orange id around your neck, you say hello to the entrance desk, you walk to your paintings sit on a grey chair and wait wait wait.
Rarely do you meet any judges (most don't want to speak to the artists...That's what the Brazilian Judge told me (Elza...) and Dominique Baechler the Swiss/French judge also says he avoids the artists...
The two Celona brothers never speak to the artists either! never to me in 3 participations or to my brother in 2 or his wife who attended 3 ( 2003,5,7)
I was given a 4th prize in 2011 and it appeased my negative feelings. This time (2013 IXth edition) it had got much worse. to continue

Julien Porisse said...

My experience part 3

There is no point criticizing the Florence Biennale, it is what it is...an expensive Vanity Biennale.
Some pomp with the opening ceremony flags and the Florence International art Jury and panel of 'experts'.
10 days of nothingness, drinking coffees, eating in the Florence restaurants and basically avoiding boredom.
Attending Gregorio Luke's speeches in the Biennale auditorium...he's good. Only he has some idea of animation, the rest is drab and just not very animated.

The Biennale takes place at a moment when the Fortezza da Basso is not being rented and the price for 12 days rent (2 weeks) is bottom. Not on the ground level (more expensive) no, it is underground !

Facts :
The Biennale started in 1997 and had 300 artists
by 2007 it had hit a peak with 850-900 artists and was on the ground floor.
In 2009 my first participation it was down to 700
In 2011 down again to 450
and this year 2013 down to 370 artists.

The price to participate is above 3000€
The space you get is cluttered with other artists who overflow...
You get 1 light to illuminate your work.
Every artist gets his dossier with entrance badge and invitations...a map, some basic info, and the events program.
And the catalogue and certificate of attendance.

You hang your paintings and have some frictions possibly with psychotic ego inflated amateur artists...

10 days later the prize ceremony...let the fun and games begin.

The Florence Biennale has been renamed The New Florence Biennale, I wonder why? there was no difference, it's the same as ever.

Contemporary ? not in painting !
Only figurative and signed infront. No abstraction, no conceptual works. The judges only appreciate the classical approach to art. Certainly in the painting category.

Talking about this is helpful ???

I removed the Biennales from my cv as my gallerist asked me to do so, due to the lack of value and the fact that it is a Vanity Biennale that has zero respect from the top flight galleries and artfairs curators. Hush hush hush