Art History 101: The Fine Art of Biennales and Their Importance in the Global Art World

Your one-stop shop for everything in the art world! In this week’s instalment of Art History 101, we are diving into Biennales and demystifying one more facet of the Art World. We are looking at exactly how they work, where they came from and what they mean.

A who and a what now? Biennales. In this instalment of Art History 101 we’re diving into the deep end of art biennales and their role in the art ecosystem. What may seem like a flowery word acting as another barrier of entry into the art world is actually one of the greatest opportunities to experience artistic talent on a global scale.
Cover image: “The Key in the Hand,” an installation by Chiharu Shiota in the Japanese pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.The artist solicited thousands of keys from the public to create this work

So, what are biennales?
Different from the short-running selling frenzies of art fairs, biennales are large non-selling exhibitions of international art—although there are certainly instances that challenge this particular sale feature—that run every two years and provide a platform for showcasing and discussing contemporary art practices outside of the traditional museum system. The ringleader of the show is the innovative curator who sets the theme, tone and vision of the event and strives to bring out of the box practices and artworks to new audiences. Focused on cutting-edge contemporary art practices and commentary, biennales can run anywhere from a few weeks to a few months offering opportunities for the global art community to converge and experience the happening.

In the hectic schedule of the art world calendar, biennales run year-round with the Venice Biennale kicking off in April and running through to November and tend to set the tone of the up-and-coming art trends and artists to watch. Put a pin in that, however, more on the Venice Biennale in the coming weeks!

When did these things start?
Biennales, as we know them now, were born in Venice with a resolution by the city council in 1893 to celebrate national artistic talent. It also happened to coincide with the silver anniversary of King Umberto and Margherita of Savoy. Artistic masters, critics, curators, patrons and the veritable who’s who of society attended and as the youths say, it was lit. From there, other major capitals around the world took the baton and established their own instalments of their biennale making their mark on the art world calendar. Although purchasing works was a feature of the Venice Biennale, this officially ceased after the student protests in 1968 demanding an overturning of bourgeois consumer culture. After threats to burn pavilions, the Venice sales offices closed, and biennales have developed into non-selling exhibitions…at least while the exhibition is running.

rīvus, 2022 on display at the Cutaway at Barangaroo as part of the 2022 Biennale of Sydney

In the 1990s hundreds of biennales cropped up around the globe. Running parallel with the post-modern art movement, which questioned the accepted norms and traditions of the capital ‘A’ Artworld, biennales cemented their role as major events for discourse, challenge, and exploration of contemporary art. There are now over 300 biennales around the world and act as a vehicle to deliver a message unique to the hosting city and larger nation to an international audience.

São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP)

A few examples of biennales include:

  • São Paulo: was founded in 1951 and is the second oldest art biennial in the world after the Venice Biennale. Originally aiming to bring Western contemporary art to Brazil, the biennale now serves to bring Brazilian art closer to an international audience. More here!
  • Riga International Biennal of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA): A recent addition to the biennale circuit, the Latvian exhibition was founded in 2016 as a new global platform for international and Baltic artists. Seeking to support the regional community, the exhibition also aims to increase artistic engagement between the Baltic region and the rest of the world. More here!
  • Toronto Biennal of Art: Launched in 2019, the Canadian exhibition prioritizes inclusion, equity, and accessibility in contemporary art and emphasizes Indigenous artists in the age of Truth and Reconciliation between the Canadian government and Indigenous Peoples. More here!
  • Beijing International Art Biennale: Founded in 2002, BIAB focuses on the evolution of painting and sculpture to convey a message of global development through artistic expression. More here!
  • Riwaq Biennale: Hosted at the Centre for Architectural Conservation, Ramallah, in partnership with Birzeit University, UNESCO (Ramallah Office), Art School Palestine, the biennale was founded in 2005 and focuses on protecting and promoting cultural heritage in Palestine. More here!
  • Biennale of Sydney: Established in 1973 the biennale seeks to elevate the voices of artists and tell the stories of global communities. Like the Toronto Biennal, they also champion Indigenous voices. More here!

Patrizia Libralato, the Toronto Biennial’s executive director, gives remarks during the exhibition’s preview on March 23. Behind her is Nadia Belerique’s HOLDINGS (2020–ongoing).

Now that we know what they are, where they started, how they developed and some examples, why are they important

Past showcasing national and international talent and promoting a nations cultural capital, biennales also tend to signal market collecting taste and behaviors. With exposure on a global scale, the backing of important curators and coverage by critics and writers alike, artists and artworks featured in biennales benefit from this experience and signal to collectors (both private and institutional) that these works have been ‘accepted’ by the artworld ecosystem. There is a common phrase in the art world: “See in Venice, buy at Basel.” Oftentimes, we see these exceptional artist’s work on exhibition at the Venice Biennale and in June when Art Basel makes its mark on our collective calendars, these same artists are the starlets of the fair. Some examples of this “Venice Effect” include George Condo, Chiharu Shiota, and Sarah Lucas who’s already established markets saw a marked resurgence in popularity and demand after their inclusion.

More on this ‘Venice Effect’ to come…
In the digital age—perhaps even post digital with the rise of the Metaverse and moving swiftly into the age of augmented reality—NFT’s also have their role in biennales. In fact, Cameroon’s inaugural pavilion at Venice will host an NFT show featuring more than twenty artists from a variety of countries including China, Germany and the United States. This portion of the pavilion is organized by Global Crypto Art DAO, a collective that seeks to raise funds in support of artists entering the world of crypto.

Angéle Etoundi Essamba A-FIL-LIATION 2, (2021). Courtesy of Cameroon pavilion.

The accessibility and consumption of art have never been higher in the information age. But nothing can quite compare to the real deal, in person, smack you in the face event of an art exhibition. The frenzy of crowds, hushed conversations between curators, dealers and collectors, and artworks in dialogue with one another is all captured in the biennale environment. The collective appetite of contemporary art is distilled in the compressed biennale environment and is an important cog in the perpetually turning machine of the art world.

Katlin Rogers
Katlin Rogers