The biennial fights for attention — and relevance


No, she didn’t actually sleep in the museum. But for three months, artist Dawn Kasper set up a “nomadic studio” on the third floor of the Whitney Museum in New York that acquired the lived-in look of a dorm room. By the end odd gifts from visitors, like stickers and record albums, joined her own piles of books, drawings, clothes and music.

Kasper’s studio was one of the projects — along with concerts, dance performances, poetry readings, film screenings and guerrilla art installations — that earned the 2012 Whitney Biennial some of its best reviews. Compared with previous editions, this one was messier, more intimate and more spontaneous, reflecting the artists’ creative process. It wasn’t the usual biennial — a supersized display of art objects.

Elisabeth Sussman, who co-curated the show, used the buzzword “durational” to describe it, referring to art that changes over time. “We wanted to make the experience of going to this biennial different than any other,” she said.


The Whitney isn’t the only biennial these days in the grips of serious soul-searching. Now that there’s a glut of biennials, triennials and other festivals worldwide, not to mention the art fairs that serve as their commercial counterparts, the competition for visitors is fierce.

It isn’t just biennial fatigue — it’s almost a backlash.

Why go to a biennial today when there are so many other venues for discovering new art? What does a biennial offer that making the rounds at galleries can’t?

Driven by such issues, many U.S. biennials are rethinking, refining or just plain abandoning their missions. And some of the biggest changes are happening outside of New York.

Building on its tradition of doing large group surveys of local artists, the Hammer Museum’s current biennial has an unusually tight focus: L.A. artists.

“Whether people love or hate them, biennials are very much anticipated, desired and needed by the artistic community,” said museum director Ann Philbin when announcing Made in L.A. “They are our versions of the Oscars or Emmys.”

Although not explicitly in response to the Hammer’s plans, the Orange County Museum of Art has radically reenvisioned its California Biennial, which was regional in focus, to include Pacific Rim artists for its 2013 edition.


“I don’t think we need a platform any longer for introducing California artists to Californians,” said Dan Cameron, the show’s curator. “I’d ask artists here how they would feel about being shown alongside one artist working in Chile and another in Bangkok, and they said it could be amazing.”

Cameron was previously the founding director of Prospect New Orleans, which has been trying to find its niche since its first ambitious biennial in 2008. It is touted as an “international biennial” though its schedule is closer to a triennial. The shift at Orange County is more explicit: Its new event is the “California-Pacific Triennial.”

“Without intending to we are following something of a trend: the transformation of biennials into triennials,” said Cameron, acknowledging the success of the New Museum’s triennial in New York. “It makes sense because it gives you more time for production, research and to raise the funds instead of cranking out a show every two years.”

Meanwhile, in one of the biggest but least discussed changes, Site Santa Fe, which has staged international biennials since 1995 under major curators like Dave Hickey and Robert Storr, has stopped producing its trademark show but promises to unveil plans next year for another sort of international exhibition with regional roots.

“It will not be called a biennial. And it will not be called Site Santa Fe,” said Irene Hofmann, director of the exhibition space that goes by the same name. “In the last several iterations, we saw a drop in audience. We’ve had to ask ourselves: How are we going to distinguish ourselves in a sea of biennials today?”

The field was not always so crowded. The earliest biennials started at a time when the audience for art was relatively small and the gallery system was in its infancy. The Carnegie International, a Pittsburgh event that has variously assumed an annual, biennial, triennial and also irregular schedule, first began in 1896 as an annual show designed to help Andrew Carnegie build a collection of “old masters of tomorrow.” The Whitney invitational, started in 1932 by museum founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, assumed a biennial format in 1976.


Focused from the start on American art, it was modeled on the juried salon exhibitions popular in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries — national group shows that built an audience for Impressionists like Manet when their work was officially rejected or publicly ridiculed, as well as when it was critically praised. (Seen in this context, some of the most controversial Whitney biennials that followed a century later seem almost tame.)

The Venice Biennale, which began in 1895, was inspired instead by a world’s fair model in which different countries show off their best artists. Starting in 1961 the São Paulo biennial took the Italians’ lead.

Following decades saw Sydney, Havana and Istanbul join the fray, but biennial fever really hit in the 1990s, with events cropping up in Santa Fe, N.M.; Johannesburg, South Africa; Gwangju, South Korea; and Liverpool, England. Today, the website lists 130 biennials, triennials and similar events, from the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art to the Zero One festival of technology-inspired art in San Jose.

Some of these shows are organized by museums, others by government agencies seeking to drive cultural tourism. Almost all focus on contemporary art.

“There have been a handful of spectacularly successful biennials that everyone wants to replicate,” said Cameron. “These biennials like Istanbul can come out of the least expected places in the world and suddenly reshape everyone’s image of that place and galvanize international attention for the local art scene.”

But with this proliferation came biennial fatigue. NYU museum studies head Bruce Altshuler, who edited the historical sourcebook “Salon to Biennial,” said he began seeing a sort of backlash take hold five or six years ago even among biennial organizers.


“Because there was such growth in the ‘90s, there was this moment of real stocktaking.” He gave as one example the 2008 São Paulo biennial in which the curators left the second floor of the Oscar Niemeyer exhibition pavilion empty to make a political or polemical statement.

In that case, the curators were reacting in part to severe funding cutbacks (a budget reduced by about 70%). Financing remains one of the biggest biennial challenges. If biennials are by their nature mega-exhibitions, they also tend to be huge financial drains.

Take Prospect New Orleans. The first edition of the show, Prospect 1, took place in 2008 with work by 80 artists installed across the city, from Victor Harris’ fantastically decorated Mardi Gras Indian “suits” at the New Orleans Museum of Art to a massive plywood ark by Mark Bradford in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The show was positioned as a post-Katrina initiative to boost tourism. Reviews were strong, with Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker calling it his “favorite biennial since the 1980s, when biennials ceased to be innocently serious roundups of recent art and became heavily engineered spectacle.”

Attendance was strong with 42,000 visitors. And so was cultural tourism. “We have figures that show the direct economic impact was $25 million,” said Cameron, referring to expenditures like food and hotels.

But as the economy tanked, Cameron’s team struggled to raise the nearly $5 million needed to cover production costs. The shortfall, about $800,000 when the show opened, threw it off schedule, so the next full biennial did not take place until fall 2011. Prospect 2 was about one-third the cost and size of the original.


Now Prospect 3 is slated for fall 2014, with LACMA contemporary art head Franklin Sirmans serving as curator. He expects to show 50 to 60 artists and hopes to create “an international biennial in terms of its discussion and reception and also our list of artists, but one that is very much aware of its surroundings.” Film will be one focus.

This leaves Prospect 3 in the position of many other biennials: It has a well-regarded curator (who has tapped two LACMA colleagues, Christine Y. Kim and Rita Gonzalez as advisors) and a city people like to visit. But will Sirmans, who says LACMA is not helping to fund the show, inspire the needed financial backing? And will out-of-towners make the trip to New Orleans?

As Sussman said, not specific to any event: “All you need is a few ho-hum years, and people cross it off their schedules.”

Some say this was the problem at Site Santa Fe, which had lesser-known curators in recent years. Others say the city can’t compete with other summertime art-world destinations like Basel and Venice. In June 2010, Site Santa Fe opened within a week of the art fair Art Basel.

Curators bristle at the comparison of art fairs to biennials, but for many art travelers they represent the same thing: a way to catch up on new art and a string of official and private parties.

“They’re apples and oranges to me, so I find it surprising they are grouped together,” said Anne Ellegood, one of five curators of this year’s Hammer biennial. “But I do hear people saying things like they liked the Basel art fair better than the Venice Biennale.”


As for the Hammer biennial, Ellegood said it will take place every two years as the name promises. Which means even though its first edition just opened, the museum has already begun developing the next show.

The Hammer has not announced its 2014 curators, but Lauri Firstenberg of LAX Art has confirmed that her group will not be involved. She doesn’t want to commit to the constraints of the biennial format or schedule.

Still, it’s hard to shake the notion of a biennial altogether. “We’re going to do commissioned projects throughout the city,” she said. “We’re calling it the Occasional.”