Weinberg is in a uniquely good position to judge: he’s currently director of New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art, host of the premier biennial survey of American art. He also has Minnesota roots, having spent several years working at the Walker Art Center alongside Elizabeth Armstrong—now curator of contemporary art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Weinberg’s host for a February 9 lecture on the history of the Whitney Biennial.
In the international art world, biennials are a big thing. In fact, as Weinberg noted, they’re hundreds of big things. Since the 1895 Venice Bienniale, every-two-year exhibitions have been mainstays of the contemporary art scene, boosting the visibility of the artists and the hosts and giving everyone lots to talk about. The big biennials—the Venice, the Whitney, the São Paulo—are the art-world equivalents of the Oscars, the Grammys, and the Golden Globes. Who got picked? Who got snubbed?
Biennials may or may not have prizes and awards (the Whitney does not, except for the very sufficient prize of being one of the fifty-odd artists selected), and their precise rationale and style vary from show to show as curators and tastes change—that’s part of the fun. The common denominator is that each biennial represents a range of notable works by influential and respected artists currently working. Since much emphasis in contemporary art is on what’s new and what’s next, the artists selected for a biennial are generally thought to represent the crest of a coming wave.
(Why every two years instead of every one year? Simple tradition is one reason, but it’s also true that—as Weinberg noted in his lecture—assembling a major art exhibit is a huge task, for which two years, let alone one, represents breakneck speed.)
The Whitney Biennial, like the Venice, was founded to help create a market for contemporary art. From the Whitney Biennial’s founding in 1932 until 1960, each show’s catalog included the addresses of the artists—for the convenience of prospective buyers.
At this goal, biennials were indisputably successful: contemporary art is a multi-billion-dollar global market that’s proven surprisingly robust to economic downturns. Now, Weinberg pointed out in his answer to my question, many biennials have almost an art-fair quality to them—bazaars of the bizarre. There are much better ways to support contemporary art in Minnesota and beyond, opined Weinberg, than launching yet another biennial.
In fact, Minnesota does have—or has had—at least a couple of different show series styling themselves biennials. One biennial series was formerly hosted by the Minnesota Museum of American Art, but that’s currently on hiatus while the homeless MMAA looks for a new permanent space. Then there are the Soap Factory’s Minnesota Biennials; except for Karl Unnasch’s wittily and beautifully repurposed tractor (above) and the demonstration that Alec Soth’s collaborator Lester B. Morrison is in fact a real person, 2010’s Soap Factory Biennial was forgettable.
My sense is that the Minnesota art world is just too small an ecosystem for a locally-focused biennial to be much more than arbitrary. The Walker Art Center would have the resources and the clout to mount a national or international biennial that people would pay attention to, but without some kind of substantive innovation on the existing biennial model, that would just be like—well, like another awards show.
But here’s an idea: what about a Minnesota Decennial? Ten years is enough time to force curators to make some genuinely tough decisions among Minnesota artists, and it would provide an excellent opportunity to take stock of a decade’s developments and showcase work that really demands—and would, in many cases, have received—national and international attention. Wouldn’t you love to lay your hands on the (nonexistent) catalog for, say, the 1990 Minnesota Decennial? (I’ll bet Andy Sturdevant could write it retrospectively if someone gave him a six-month fellowship.)
We have a full eight years until 2020 to get this organized, Minnesota—and the MMAA hopes to be in a new space by 2015. Let’s put together a show that they’ll be talking about until 2030.
Correction: When originally published, this post conflated the Soap Factory’s Minnesota Biennials and Volunteer Biennials. The confusing language has been corrected.