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The biennial fights for attention — and relevance

There's Site Santa Fe, Made in L.A., Prospect New Orleans ... competition among biennials is fierce. That's why many are taking a new approach.

July 21, 2012|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • he Dresser and The Lighting (live performance).
he Dresser and The Lighting (live performance). (Paula Court )

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.)

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