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.”

Many are concerned about how often, and how well, local artists will be exhibited.

Yet the response from many in the art community has been vehemently negative, not only about the change, but the way it was handled. Says Nehmad, “My initial reaction was, ‘Great!,’ but the more I talked with my friends and colleagues, the more I realized that my perspective was somewhat unique.” The overwhelming majority contacted for this piece regarding the Academy’s change chose either to speak off the record or declined to be interviewed at all.


A drawing (Above) and mixed media (left) by Cade Roster.

Many felt the change presented a mixed message from the Academy administration, namely, “We want to create a dialog for artists but not with them.” After three generations of the large public shows, artists had come to think of “Artists of Hawaii” as their own. Any major change to it, they felt, should have been made in consultation with them. In response, Michael Rooks, curator of European and American art and the person responsible for the previous and the next “Artists of Hawaii,” plans to better inform artists about their opportunities, including the new biennial. “Change is evolution, and when we stop evolving we stop being relevant,” Rooks says. “We take our responsibility very seriously and ask ourselves how we might improve all our programs to make them more meaningful and on par with any major museum around the world.”

One needn’t look far to make a comparison. Savvy connoisseurs immediately juxtaposed the Academy’s blueprint for its biennial to The Contemporary Museum’s well-established one. Started in 1993, the 15-year-old “Biennial” at TCM is currently hosting its eighth incarnation, and it is now the museum’s biggest and most important show. In fact, “Biennial” was created deliberately as a contrast to the older, bigger “Artists of Hawaii” of the early 1990s. “I wanted an exhibition that offered a different kind of opportunity by making it a small number of artists, to give each a gallery that would be a space where they could do something more than show one or two works,” says Jay Jensen, TCM curator and creator of the “Biennial.”

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