The Most Important Biennials…Other Than the Whitney

Such art events are a welcome boost to many artists' careers

Steve Lambert’s Capitalism Works for Me gained steam, and eventually national recognition, after it appeared in the deCordova Biennial. SPACES Gallery via Flickr

2017 already has brought us a new president and, now, another Whitney Biennial—both tend to enjoy rather short “honeymoons” with their critics. In the fleshing out of an administration or an exhibition of contemporary American art, the same criticisms usually are made: The best people are left out; the same people get all the attention.

The model for biennials undoubtedly is the Whitney Biennial, which began in 1932 actually as an annual show that featured painting one year, sculpture the next, later becoming a biennial but always having a national focus in terms of the artists represented.

The Whitney’s biennial, just as the exhibition series of contemporary American art that New York’s Museum of Modern Art put on between 1942 and 1963, probably deserve all the criticism they ever received, yet they don’t.

The earlier exhibits at these institutions reflected a large measure of curatorial control and a “statement” about art. Lloyd Goodrich, who was curator at the Whitney from 1935 to 1968, and Alfred Barr, who held top curatorial positions at the Modern from 1929 to 1967, had clear ideas about what was the major art of their time, and their exhibitions of it were monuments to their vision. The more recent Whitney Biennials have been organized and governed in a rather opposite manner, reflecting less the curator’s concepts and more the current stature of artists in the marketplace. The earlier time’s exhibitions tended to shock museum visitors who often wondered why this stuff (abstract art, abstract expressionism, Pop and minimalism, for instance) is even thought of as art, while the more recent displays don’t surprise anyone, because we’ve been seeing this stuff and these names touted all year long. Both types can be faulted and praised, and both clearly reflect their times.

Regional museums similarly look to provide “a snapshot of what’s happening now,” exhibiting “artists who are doing interesting work,” said Dina Deitsch, former curator at the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which created its first biennial in 2010. “Interesting work” means Manhattan interesting. Unlike the Whitney Biennial, however, most of the artists in the deCordova exhibition are apt to be characterized as “emerging” in terms of selling their work. Few of them earn all their income from their art alone. A lot of the artists teach.” Because of this, the museum tries to make the biennial a show people strive to be in as a career marker.

Alexi Antoniadis, who creates sculptural installations with fellow artist Nico Stone, noted that the deCordova’s 2010 biennial “helped us certainly in the Boston area, maybe more than just Boston. A lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘I know your work from the biennial.’” Shortly before that biennial opened, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts purchased a work by the two artists from a show at their Boston gallery, Samson Projects, and the combination of that success and their inclusion in the deCordova “helped us line up a couple of shows. It also has given us more confidence in our portfolio.”

Their experience was not out of the ordinary. Steve Lambert was the ability to take the video installation he created for the 2012 deCordova biennial, Capitalism Works For Me! True/False, to other art spaces around the country. “I knew there was a place ready to exhibit it in Boston, and I could get the project started and touring on a national scale,” the artist said. “I know for sure the piece was written about in newspapers, got covered on local television, and got me into a group show in a Boston gallery all because of the biennial.”

Also trying to operate in the frontiers of contemporary art are the Wiregrass Museum of Art in Dothan, Alabama and the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala, Florida. “We try to show regional [Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi], artists working in a contemporary way”—with contemporary defined as the use of new media and other “experimentation”—which is “not what our audience is most familiar with,” said Wiregrass curator Dana-Marie Lemmer. She noted that the Wiregrass is the only art museum in a 100-mile radius. The museum makes purchases of works in its biennial for the permanent collection, which helps to give cutting-edge artwork more exposure for visitors. The biennial of the Appleton Museum, which is part of the College of Central Florida, exclusively displays works of installation art. “Installation art is not commercial and gets slighted in many small regional art museums,” said the Appleton’s chief curator Ruth Grim. “A nice painting will always win out” if the general public were given its druthers. She noted that the Appleton is the only art museum for a quite a distance in central Florida, and her aim is to “expose the public to art they don’t normally see. My view has been that the community would get used to it, and it has become open to it.” The museum could not “make a steady diet” of installation art, but an every other year biennial presentation of this type of art has been received well.

Participating in a small museum’s biennial tends not to make an artist’s career and may only turn out to be a line on a C.V., but it creates the chance for commissions, sales, gallery representation, publicity and additional exhibitions. The curator of Miami’s Freedom Tower came to the 2010 Appleton biennial and invited one of its artists, Serhat Tanyolacar, to display his piece from that show in the Freedom Tower. That led, Tanyolacar said to “a couple of mentions in Florida media and newspapers about my work.” On the other hand, Wes Kline, a participant in the 2012 Appleton biennial, had less to show for his efforts. “I did interface with the local public, a public that isn’t familiar with contemporary art,” he said. “I happened to overhear a security guard say about my piece, ‘You know, they should take that down and put up a painting.’”

There is no one way in which regional museum biennials are organized. Most, like the one at the deCordova, brings in a different guest curator or curatorial team for each biennial, while a few—for example, the Honolulu Museum of Art’s “Artists of Hawai’i” and the Syracuse, New York-based Everson Museum of Art’s “The Other New York”—rely on the institution’s director or curatorial staff to make selections. Both the Appleton and Wiregrass museums use outside curators to create their biennials, but those curators make selections from artists who have applied to be in these exhibitions, submitting examples of their work and an entry fee. The deCordova’s guest curator works with the museum’s advisory board of curators to identify a list of New England artists who are creating that interesting art, and the curator will arrange studio visits.

The Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis brings in outside curators to select just three emerging or mid-career resident artists who have sent in applications and images of their work, and those who are picked each are permitted to fill one-third of the museum with their work. Each artist also receives an award of $20,000, supplied by the locally-based Gateway Foundation. The aim of this exhibition series is to celebrate and commemorate artists in St. Louis, and to keep them in St. Louis according to former assistant curator Kelly Shindler. Celebrating and commemorating certainly haven taken place; keeping them in town has been a bit more difficult. Of the 15 artists shown in the biennials between 2004, when they began, and 2012, “a lot have moved away.” But not all. Not long after Juan William Chavez was included in the 2008 CAM biennial, as it is called, he was selected to be part of an international group exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, and in 2012 he was a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. “The CAM biennial has had a huge impact on my career and life,” Chavez, who continues to live in St. Louis, said.

Yet a different hybrid is the Bellevue Art Museum in Washington State, which requests that artists in the Pacific Northwest (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, as well as British Columbia, Canada) to submit a proposal for a new work that they would create for its BAM Biennial. These proposals are evaluated by a panel of (largely outside) jurors eight or nine months in advance of the exhibition, and the jurors travel to the selected artists’ studios during that interim to see how (or if) the work is progressing. There is a $40 application fee for each artist, and each also is responsible for all costs involved in transporting the object to the museum, although the museum provides small grants to cover the costs of returning the works back to the artists’ studios. “The idea to establish a biennial was to celebrate the uniqueness of the Pacific Northwest region, to explore the regional character of the artwork,” said the museum’s former director of curatorial affairs, Stephen Catalani.

The focus at the Bellevue on highlighting the work of regional artists also is in contrast to the biennials that aim to promote contemporary styles and media. A similar approach is taken by the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, Long Island, which instituted its first biennial in 2010 in order to both inform the community about the local artistic community and to engage the local Long Island artists with the museum.

Yet a different style of biennial is found at the Coos Art Museum in Coos Bay, Oregon, which has run a nonjuried Biennial since its founding in the mid-1990s (focusing on artists in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington). In that exhibition, any artist from the region may install several works at the museum (the entire museum is emptied to make room). Visitors to the Coos Art Museum biennial vote for a People’s Choice winner, and that artist is given a one-person exhibition at the museum the following year.

Differences in how these biennials are conceived and run, however, do not alter the hopes and expectations of included artists who look for something positive to come out of their participation. Dirk Staschke, who won the $5,000 award of excellence from the 2010 BAM Biennial (the winner also is given a solo exhibition at the museum), was picked up by a Seattle art gallery where his work has been shown and sold. “Most of the success came from the solo show at the Bellevue, which was a result of winning the biennial award,” Staschke said. “People from the gallery went to the solo show in and later offered me a show.”

Another artist who benefited from the BAM Biennial, in 2012, was Jan Hopkins whose work was selected by museum visitors for the $5,000 People’s Choice award. That recognition helped her “to create a presence locally and gave me exposure to a whole new community of artists and people who appreciate art in the local area.”

The biennial of the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art clearly aims to help its participating artists – some of whom may not be full-time residents but have some connection to Maine, such as being summer visitors or have taught there – through its catalogue which not only displays artwork but includes the artists’ contact information, for collectors, curators, critics, dealers and others who might want to meet them or see more of their work.

For Sean Foley, a mixed-media and installation artist, his inclusion in the 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial was “a big, big deal for me,” as he was a recipient of the museum’s purchase award (the institution bought a portion of his installation at the biennial) and also the juror’s cash award of $4,000. “There is so much artwork out there that it’s difficult to stand out,” he said, adding that being singled out for inclusion and then awards at the Portland biennial “helps people find me.” Perhaps as big or bigger than the awards was the fact that “the museum provides a kind of validation that you don’t get in just a gallery show,” leading biennial visitors to view his work more seriously. Additionally, the jurors that the museum brought in to evaluate his work – representatives of other cultural institutions and art galleries in New England – may become aware of a new talent. “Connections are made,” Foley said. One of those 2009 jurors, for instance, was Denise Markonish, curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, who so admired Foley’s work that she organized a show of his work there for all of 2010 and 2011.

Being selected for the Orange County Museum of Art’s 2010 California biennial made an even larger impact on the career of Los Angeles artist Wu Tsang. The two owners of the New York art gallery Clifton Benevento knew of the artist’s work and specifically attended the biennial to see his contribution, a film titled Damelo Todo. The artist was invited him to mount a show at the gallery. That exhibition took place in the summer of 2011 and was seen by the curators of the Whitney Biennial, including Jay Sanders, who visited the artist’s studio and picked him to be part of the 2012 Biennial.

Not every artist selected for a biennial will find immediate or even any type of success, and it is not always a straight path connecting one event with another. Still, these museum shows represent a chance to garner wider attention, and some artists are in a better position to take advantage of the opportunity than others. For instance, after her inclusion in the 2008 triennial (“New Art in Austin”) exhibit at the Austin Museum of Art, which showcases central Texas artists living within 50 miles of the state capitol and who have not had a solo exhibit in a major mainstream venue in the area, San Antonio photographer Sarah Sudhoff was given a one-person show of her still images and videos at the nonprofit art space Art League Houston in 2009 and won a $5,000 award from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio in 2010. “I think that those things happened because they saw my work at Austin,” she said.

On the other hand, Sculptor Scott Proctor, who also was selected to be in the 2008 “New Art in Austin” exhibition, noted that “I have not been sought after to show my work at museums or galleries” following the triennial, and there also “weren’t any sales.” However, he claimed that the show “exposed me and my work to a broad audience of regional viewers, giving me some accountability as a somewhat established local artist.”

Some regional biennial exhibitions have greater reach than others. Art dealers and museum curators from all over the country fly into Los Angeles for the California Biennial at the Hammer Museum at the University of California at Los Angeles, which staged its first state-wide biennial in 2012 (before that, they held five biennial exhibits of Los Angeles artists), as well as for the museum’s one-person “project” exhibits, and among the beneficiaries of that was installation and mixed-media artist Elliott Hundley. He received an MFA from UCLA in 2005, and then was invited to create a new work for a project exhibit at the Hammer in 2006; the following year, he was featured in the museum’s biennial. “Coming right out of graduate school, this was my very first solo show,” he said, “and the other extraordinary thing about it for me was that they gave me a lot of latitude and freedom to do whatever I wanted. I made a 17-foot tall sculpture, wrapping around the corner of a room.” With first the project exhibit and the biennial, “my work was brought to a much wider audience. So many more people were familiar with my work, and I still get told by people, ‘I first saw your work at the Hammer.’” Among the people who looked and liked what they saw were two major galleries of contemporary art – Andrea Rosen in New York City and Regen Projects in Los Angeles – and they both began representing the artist in 2007.

There are an estimated 300 art biennials taking place around the world, and perhaps a third of them are in the United States. The Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale are among the top events, drawing many of the most notable collectors, critics, curators and dealers in the world, but a number of the regional biennials also draw their share of attention from people interested in spotting the next trends and stars. If one curator isn’t as taken with an artist’s work, perhaps another one might be.