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The Whitney Biennial is great, but why can't Philly have a major art show?

By Roberta Fallon
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Mar. 9, 2010

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Gun blazing: Ari Marcopoulos' still from Detroit (left) and Nina Berman's Ty With Gun are part of the 2010 Whitney Biennial. With enough enthusiasm, Philly could host its own major show.

Now in its 75th year, the Whitney Biennial is still the big kahuna—the show every American artist wants to be in and every art lover wants to see. This year, the career-boosting show includes no Philadelphia artists. Instead, the curators of this national show sought talent in Chicago, Oregon, Los Angeles and, of course, New York. They rounded up 55 artists and, for the first time, more than half were women. Reflecting our times of war and global recession, the show is a somber parade, sometimes tedious, sometimes achingly beautiful, with a surprising number of photographers and video artists channeling anthropology á la Margaret Mead. It’s a good show—you should see it.

But why should you have to travel all the way to New York to see such a high-cailber show? Here’s an idea. Let’s have a Philadelphia Biennial—a large curated show of regional contemporary art hosted by all of our major art museums, curated by museum heads and with a catalog. Though staging a biennial in Philadelphia would be expensive, Whitney’s 75-year track record proves that it can be a lasting investment.

Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), recently spoke at a panel titled “Can the Arts Revive Our Cities and the Nation’s Economy?” Landesman and the other panelists—practitioners from Austin and New Orleans, an academic from Penn and the head of the National Council for the Traditional Arts—all delivered a resounding “Yes, we can.”

The NEA is offering 15 grants of $250,000 to cities (including Philadelphia) to fund bold arts initiatives. Proposing a Philadelphia Biennial is just the kind of move that could win the city that money. But it’s going to take more.

The Whitney Biennial 2010 is sponsored by Deutsche Bank, Tommy Hilfiger, Sothebys, a couple foundations and the Friends Committee of the Whitney Museum. Philadelphia corporations like Comcast, PNC Bank and others could step forward. Local donors and art museum trustees could create a Friends of the Philadelphia Biennial fund.

The exhibit could be at the Institute of Contemporary Art one year; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts the next; Philadelphia Museum of Art after that. It could be split between the museums and our premier big-box space, the Icebox at Crane Arts Center. There are no rules to break and creative thinking can pull this off.

Biennials, like museum shows in general, are democratic—they are shows for the people. A Philadelphia Biennial would bring the public to contemporary art and educate them about it. In the local art community, people bemoan the lack of educated art consumers in Philadelphia. Buying art is essential to retaining artists here and keeping the arts economy going and growing. Create the Philadelphia Biennial and you will be taking the first step in educating this new group of collectors.

What is needed to make this happen is leadership. Mayor Nutter and art czar Gary Steuer need to get on board and exert political clout. Financial leadership from foundations, the city, universities, corporations and private donors is a necessity.

Who is the audience for the Philadelphia Biennial? It’s the Flower Show attendees—people interested in the city, the arts, beauty and discourse about things that bring joy and meaning to life, that and the thousands of artists, gallerists, collectors, museum professionals and arts lovers in the region.

The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s research shows that people in this region spend twice as much on culture as they do on sporting events—and these same people report more satisfaction from those art events than from sporting events. Give the people what satisfies them—a grand, blockbuster contemporary art show to talk about for months with their friends.

If Whitney can do it, so can we. We have the beginnings of a model for this in Philagrafika 2010, the citywide print festival. It’s risky and it’s going to cost money, but the payback could be huge. ■

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Comments 1 - 5 of 5
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1. Anonymous said... on Mar 10, 2010 at 09:00AM

“Philly needs something like this. Our art scene is lacking established & relevant contemporary art. Besides Comcast and PNC, don't forget other corporations like Subaru, TD Bank, and Citizens Bank. They may not be based in Philly, but they have a huge presence here. And there are plenty of drug companies too. Philly can do this..and it should.”

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2. roberta said... on Mar 10, 2010 at 03:54PM

“Institutional support is crucial -- on all levels. Without the corporate sponsors it's weaker; but without the support of the museums and City Hall this won't happen. A DIY biennial like the Greater Philadelphia show that happened in 2002 at the Galleries at Moore is great but can't be sustained for more than one go-round because it is ad hoc and un-supported by major institutions. We need something more long-lived and something embraced by the powers that be.”

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3. The Doode said... on Apr 3, 2010 at 06:22AM

“Isn't Philagrafika in effect the Philadelphia Biennal? What is really vital about Philagrafika is that it presents the type of work (print) and raises issues in a way that is internationally distinctive. If the quality of future Philagrafikas stay consistent it will turn into an even bigger international event and will be unique to Philadelphia. A more generic "Philadelphia Biennal" would forever be considered a third tier “me too” version of what happens in NYC and will never generate the kind of international attention of Philagrafika.”

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4. Timothy Evans said... on Apr 9, 2010 at 10:30AM

“The Doode makes the point, we do, now, have a biennale (triennial) in the form of Philagrafika. Jose Roca, Philagrafika's artistic director, furthers the argument with his recent blog entry illustrating beautifully why Philadelphia's artistic community should support Philagrafika's initiative.


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5. roberta said... on Apr 16, 2010 at 09:01AM

“Hi Doode and Timothy, while I agree that Philagrafika is wonderful it's not what I'm talking about. Philagrafika, with its medium-specific approach and its internationalism, is a particular kind of event. While I agree that print media is big in the art world it is not all of what is out there, and it's not necessarily what's the most exciting (although Carl Pope and Young Che Heavy Industries are awesome). A Philadelphia Biennial would not be an international call show but a curated regional show -- like the Quebec Triennial -- something put together to showcase the local/regional. We are in a post-medium culture now. Artists are artists and use any tools they want to get their point across (painters make sculpture; sculptors make video, etc etc). If Philagrafika could morph into a less medium-specific affair and if it could focus on the regional, and if it could move forward with perhaps some outside curators, then it could be our Philadelphia Biennial.”


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