​Great Biennials, the Who, What, Where of Three of the World’s Best

In the art world, the Biennial is a way to mark the progress of the times in a sense. These large scale exhibitions around the world typically reference the socio-political and cultural ethos of the time and evolve accordingly. There are many well-known Biennials in cities around the globe, each of which have their own particular theme and guiding principles. Some were the result of national art initiatives, others born of the generosity of wealthy benefactors, and yet others as a way to move past dark political times. Here are three of the best-known and respected Biennials in the world today and the who, what, where that you need to know whether you plan to visit one or simply want to be able to discuss them in your next conversation with an artist or curator.

La Biennale di Venezia:

Who: The 2017 Venice Biennale welcomes French curator Christine Macel as artistic director. Macel has acted as curator at the Biennale in the past, leading the French and Belgian Pavilions in previous years. Macel is an art historian and curator who has acted as Chief Curator at the French National Museum of Modern Art (Centre Pompidou) since 2000. The Biennale is arranged in pavilions representing nations from around the world which are curated by a team. Past curators have included Hans Ulrich Obrist, Igor Zabel, and Massimiliano Gioni.

What: This year marks the 57th edition of La Biennale di Venezia. The oldest of its kind, the Biennale was founded in 1895 and takes place during odd-numbered years. This year’s exhibition stresses the importance of art during difficult times. Christine Macel said of the upcoming Biennale, “in a world full of conflicts and jolts, in which humanism is being seriously jeopardized, art is the most precious part of the human being.” The Biennale lasts for six months, during which time artists will host “open table” discussions with audiences over lunch. This years’ Biennale is promised to be one “designed with the artists, by the artists, and for the artists,” Macel says.

Where: As the name suggests, La Biennale di Venezia takes place in the city of Venice, Italy. The central exhibition hall sits in the Giardini, a park and garden designed by Napoleon Bonaparte. Within the garden are 30 pavilions each housing art from countries around the world. The main exhibition hall is traditionally curated by the Biennale director.

Whitney Biennial

Who: Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks will co-curate the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Lew is currently the Nancy and Fred Poses Associate Curator at the Whitney Museum where he has had a pivotal role in exhibiting art from emerging artists including Rachel Rose and Jared Madre. Lew has also worked with MoMA and New Theater as well as other big names in the world of art and performance. Mia Locks is an independent curator in New York City. Her past positions include MoCA, MoMA PS1, and she was a member of the curatorial team for Greater New York in 2015. With these curators, the Whitney Biennial renews the long standing spirit of focusing on emerging artists in their spring exhibition.

What: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor and patron of the arts, inaugurated the Whitney Biennial in 1932. Since its inception, the biennial has focused on spotlighting new and emerging artists. The Whitney is known as a trendsetter in the world of contemporary art as well as something of a kingmaker in the art world. Past participants include Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollock, and Jeff Koons all of whom credited the Whitney Biennial as a critical piece in the launch of their careers.

Where: The Whitney Biennial takes place at The Whitney Museum of Amerian Art in New York City. The museum is one of the most respected in the country and known around the world for its permanent collection of over 21,000 works of art.

Documenta Biennale

Who: Adam Szymczyk, Polish curator and art historian, has been named director of the 2017 Documenta. His is the first curatorship to work across two sites for the exhibition, Athens, Greece and Kassel, Germany. Szymczyk has said that the 2017 Documenta will focus on the political atmosphere in the world today examining themes such as Putin’s annexation of Crimea, austerity in Greece, and conflict in Syria.

What: Documenta takes place every five years, traditionally in Kassel, Germany. The exhibition was originally founded in post-Nazi Germany as a way to allow Germany to catch up culturally with the rest of the world following the dark years of Hitler’s reign. Documenta is known as “The Museum of 100 Days” referring to its strict running time. It is exhibition only, not a selling event, and often coincides with other major art events such as Venice Biennale.

Where: For the first time since its inception, the 2017 Documenta will take place in two separate venues. First in Athens, Greece before moving to its traditional home in Kassel, Germany.

For a running list of all the biennial in the world, check this link for almost every single one in existence.

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