City, Arts and Public Spaces: Dominic Willsdon

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is participating in the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, which aims to bring the humanities into closer connection with disciplines that study the built environment to help address the complex problems facing today’s urban areas. To jump-start conversation for an upcoming working session, participants have been asked to “reflect upon a keyword that provokes, confuses, inspires, and/or annoys you in current thinking about urban and/or urban arts engagement.” This posting is by Dominic Willsdon, Curator of Education and Public Programs at SFMOMA.
Keyword: Biennial
Recently, I have become involved in devising contemporary art biennials, at a time when the debate about these events has slowed.  Like so many of the dozens of biennials around the world, the two I am now working on – the Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre and the Liverpool Biennial – date from the 1990s.  Istanbul (1987) and Havana (1984) are among the older contemporary biennials (excluding Venice and São Paulo, which belong to a different time).  Before it is anything else, a biennial is an ongoing series of temporary exhibitions supported by a city.  (‘Support’ might turn out to be the keyword inside my keyword, unless it is ‘ongoing’.)  Much of the biennial debate has been about how a city informs, limits, accommodates etc. such a series of exhibitions, and how the exhibitions supplement and illuminate the city as a location of culture.  The debate has slowed, but it could be taking a new turn.
From time to time, over this same period, art museums have deployed the city as a category of visual culture.  In my everyday, ongoing museum life, the first exhibition I ever worked with was Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis (Tate Modern, 2001); and the most recent was Six Lines of Flight: Shifting Geographies in Contemporary Art (SFMOMA, 2012-13).  Both shows addressed cities, as places of art making and cultural exchange, in the absence of biennials.  (As it happens, I am now working on a museum exhibition that is partly about a city that lost a biennial.  The Johannesburg Biennial – which was discontinued after its 2nd edition in 1997 – haunts contemporary art in that city.)  But while the city can be a theme for a museum, for a biennial it is the organizing idea.  A museum is not a biennial (museum biennials, like the Whitney, are a wholly different species).  A biennial is not a museum.  The work of the biennial might even begin where that of the museum ends.  Biennials often find their value in the absence of museums, or other abiding cultural institutions – from the absence of cultural infrastructure.     
Current debate on the biennial centers on the question of how it dwells in a city, on its identity and value, for a city, beyond the recurring exhibitions.   The Mercosul Biennial is evolving, perhaps in name too, into the Porto Alegre Biennial.  More than most biennials, throughout its history, it has addressed a primarily local public.  Its distinctiveness lies in the breadth and depth of its commitment to education in Rio Grande do Sul.  If Mercosul inherits a certain multi-year continuity (of expectations, of services, of employment…), some other biennials are now projecting ahead a multi-year continuity.  SITE Santa Fe recently announced a six-year program under the title SITElines.  The Liverpool Biennial is planning to become a year-round, every year platform in the city.  Biennials are adopting something of the temporality of museums.   A realignment of museum and biennial functions is emerging.