Biennial 2.0

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

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.”


“Change is evolution, and when we stop evolving we stop being relevant.”—the Academy’s Michael Rooks

The Contemporary Museum Biennial of Hawaii Artists

The show opened March 29 and runs until Aug. 17, 2008, and features seven invited artists from Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii. Eli Baxter, Vincent Goudreau, Meidor Hu, Javier Martinez, Cade Roster, Yida Wang and Wayne Zebzda used recycled inner tubes, paintings, photographs, video, found objects and mixed-media sculptures to express fresh ideas from contemporary visual culture. Inger Tully, TCM’s new curator of exhibitions, says the museum “wanted to provoke dialog and discussion about materials, processes and topics. I’ve thought a lot about the visitor’s experience and it was important to me for the visitor to have an experience that would make them think.” The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Dr., 526-1322


Artists of Hawaii 2009

Will be curated by Laura Hoptman of the New Museum, New York. May 7 to July 5, 2009. Submission deadlines, other information and outreach programs will be announced in August at Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania St., 532-8700.

“Biennial” has always featured a limited number of artists and been an invitation-only affair. Artists are tracked discreetly for years before they are surprised with an opportunity to create work for a space at the museum. This year, only seven hand-picked artists are showing their work.

The scale of TCM’s biennial is even more rarified and intimate than the Academy’s intended one. The effect, therefore, of TCM’s exhibition on artists, the art market, and the audience is laser-like in its focus and power. Jensen established that the art shown at TCM’s biennial would always be developed in a dialog with the artists and the curators. Their conversations stretch from before the actual installation until after the exhibition via the distinguished catalog with essays by eminent authors that Jensen intends “as a document” of the process and a makes a “contribution to Hawaii” and its art community.

Wayne Zebzda’s “Laws of Attraction.”

Now that we have two shows working with the idea that discerning biennials of local contemporary art can be a curatorial—and business—success, a string of questions remains: Does Hawaii still need a large-scale annual show for artists? If so, who will run it and where? What is going to happen to all the artists and artwork that doesn’t have a place to be shown?

Andrew Rose is an artist who lives in Honolulu. He is an instructor of art at Linekona and had work selected for “Artists of Hawaii  2007.”