Biennial 2.0

Now that Honolulu has two alternating, yet similar, museum exhibitions, is the art scene really going to be better?


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Photo courtesy of the Honolulu Academy of Arts

This January, the Honolulu Academy of Arts announced a major change in its exhibition program. The Academy reformatted its 60-year-old summer show, “Artists of Hawaii,” from an annual to a biennial. Suddenly, the historically popular exhibition, which simultaneously discovered, affirmed and sold local talent, was gone. In its place, a show offering fewer artists a chance to be seen, half as often. It also puts the Academy’s “Artists of Hawaii” show in more direct conversation with The Contemporary Museum’s biennial showcase, known simply as “Biennial,” which is currently on exhibition.

Last year, nearly 400 artists across the Islands submitted more than 900 pieces to the Academy’s “Artists of Hawaii” in an open call. These submissions were juried by guest curator Russell Ferguson, who selected about 50 artists showing slightly more than 75 works. And nothing was for sale. Percentage-wise, it was already harder to get into the last “Artists of Hawaii” than the Ivy League. Since a biennial in the temporary exhibition space at the Academy can reasonably present about a dozen artists in depth, roughly a quarter of the previous number of artists will be selected to show their work for 2009, making “Artists of Hawaii” even more exclusive.

Eli Baxter’s sculpture uses bicycle parts.

Photo courtesy of the Contemporary Museum's Biennial

Many are concerned about how often, and how well, local artists will be exhibited in light of the Academy’s elimination of hang time from Hawaii’s art calendar. “While the new format is an interesting opportunity, it’s going to have repercussions they may not foresee,” says an “Artists of Hawaii” and “Biennial” veteran, artist Deborah Nehmad. There are many artists who feel that, economically and aesthetically, this change will negatively affect them and the art market across the state, with fewer pieces shown and purchased.

Of course, those who are chosen for the Academy’s new biennial format will enjoy an instant increase in attention toward their work. And the public will get the most challenging presentation of local art ever from its flagship museum, since biennials focus on deeper investigations of an artist’s work, compared with annuals, which typically present a large number of unrelated pieces. Gaye Chan, chair of art and art History at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and also an alumna of these shows, says the Academy’s choice allows for risk-taking. “What they’ve done is raise the bar of what the audience can expect from artists of Hawaii.”

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Honolulu Magazine April 2017
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