Denver’s First Perplexing Biennial

The Denver Biennial of the Americas has some awesome growing pains.

Denver artists and art dealers are getting nervous. So are conference planners, hotel bookers and purveyors of the creative economy in Mile High City.

The Biennial of the Americas, scheduled June 24-August 12, 2010 is a scant 9 months away. It has been characterized by rumors of its pre-term demise, a hide-and-seek between the city and potential exhibitors about locations, and a question about whether local projects are to be invited and funded as part of the overall vision. And what the program is to be explicitly– art or design or both plus  — remains perplexing.

One rumor suggests that biennial director Bruce Mau of Bruce Mau Design in Toronto, the key player in shaping the vision for this event, is no longer involved. That doesnt seem to be the case, though Mau refused to comment on this story.  Mau is the well-known graphic designer and co-editor/author. with architect Rem Koolhaas, of the seminal 6-pound architecture and design manifesto S,M,L,XL. He is also the founder and author of The Massive Change Project. Massive Changes tagline: “Its not about the world of design, its about the design of the world.”

The confusion now stems in part because Denvers biennial was originally touted as an anyspacewhatever survey of contemporary art from the tip of Tierra del Fuego to the Hudson Bay. And the term biennial itself is misleading. It means a festival event happening every two years, but has come to be associated with surveys of contemporary art thanks to the Venetians.

But Denvers Mayor John W. Hickenlooper told Mau he didnt want just another biennial (there are over 200 worldwide). So, under Maus guidance, Denver has done more than shift gears and change lanes on its original idea. It has switched vehicles.

Now the Biennial of the Americas will feature art and culture as one of three components (the other two are an “innovation pavilion” and roundtable discussion), spread over seven weeks to which seven themes have been assigned: Education, habitat, economy, energy, health, environment and technology. Consider this then a cross between a lecture series and a trade fair celebrating design and innovation. The phrases that are used to define the goals for this event are: “to raise awareness,” “to promote innovation,” and “to inspire action.”

Mau has stated that this large-scale initiative will include a focus on innovative “proof” and “possibility” projects aimed at promoting a more cohesive Western Hemisphere and addressing challenges of the region.  Like the coup in Honduras? The love-hate relationship the U.S. has with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez? The dark history of rendition and disappearance that hangs over Latin America? Drug cartels and drug wars?

The answer is yes.

For Mau, creativity and design are tools to help design a new world, with focus on the positive. He believes that everything, whether  Ethos Water, the Climate Action Project, DJ Spookys “Terra Nova” or Sustainable South Bronx, has a creative root. His “innovation pavilion” will be housed in Denvers 30,000-square-foot McNichols Building, erected in 1909 as an Andrew Carnegie-funded library. Events will likely fill the adjoining Civic Center Park.

Meanwhile, Denver Biennial President Jim Polsfut says that the audience for  this multinational ideas extravaganza will be mostly local: “In my opinion, the audience is largely Colorado residents in 2010,” Polsfut said. “In 2012 and 2014 we will likely increase our out of town visitors. “Our job is not to get people there, but to highlight what is happening.”
Yet among those most keenly wondering just what is happening are those local artists and dealers who have previously seen the city commit to purportedly international events, only to leave the keystones of Denvers scene out in the cold. Maus presentation from a July 21 roundtable is public material now. Its available here. But a nearer-term memory for many of these would-be participants is last years “Dialog:City” event, held to coincide with the Democratic National Convention.

A handful of artists and dealers I spoke with felt that “Dialog:City” left them intentionally out of the loop. They were not invited to participate, nor could they get an audience with the art event curator Seth Goldenberg, who  brought work by internationally known artists including Ann Hamilton, Krzysztof Wodicsko and Minsuk Cho to Denver. Local artists meanwhile created their own project, “Boom,” and drove around town with a portable art gallery in the back of truck. Boom artists say they were actually thrown out of a DNC event at City Park by Goldenberg, who now works for Bruce Mau Design, incidentally.

“We asked people to be entrepreneurial and invited the public to come in early and be a part of the process,” Erin Trapp, director of the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs (DoCA), said. “But theres a risk involved in that they can then see the chaos.”

Meanwhile, both the budget and staffing of Biennial of the Americas raise questions.  The Boettcher Foundation provided a $2 million dollar grant for the Biennial. Although it was suggested in March 2009 that the budget for this event would be in the $5-$10 million range, fleshed out by private donations,  Polsfut explained that the event will have to be produced for this $2 million. Any fundraising being done is for seed capital for the 2012 event, he said. (By comparison, another new biennial, Prospect.1 in New Orleans last year cost $4.5 million.)

“Its possible to spend $5 to $10 million and we could have raised it, but decided that the perception was better to not raise money in keeping with the economic crisis,” Polsfut said. Erin Trapp explained that while shes fielding many calls from locals with ideas, the city didnt want  biennial fundraising to compete with other groups and institutions. It looks like the dozens of participating cultural institutions from a possible 35 participating countries might be on their own for money for individual projects, therefore. Trapp was clear in stating: “no general funds are being put towards this effort.”  Important to note given the fiscal challenges the city is facing.

Polsfut said the budget would be divided as follows: $250,000 for “the website, public relations, media, marketing, printing, ticketing, and the like.” The remaining funds will be split among the three main components–the art&culture programming, the “innovation pavilion,” and roundtable. “Each component will support a certain amount of overhead expense for staff, dignitary travel, shipping, production, insurance, venue rental, AV, and the like,” Polsfut said.

By my reckoning, this leaves, after staffing costs are subtracted, at most about $500k total for art & cultural programming. If you this divide evenly among 35 projects, 1 per participating country (per the Venice “national pavilions” model)  that leaves each $14,000 to produce international quality art and cultural exhibits. One Denver artist, Lauri Lynnx Murphy, has launched her own campaign to raise money to produce a project timed with the biennial. The artist is proposing to create sculptures from an imagined future, “Strange Fruit,” with plants that sprout eyes or snouts and hang from trees.  She needs $10,000 by Dec. 14 to realize the project.
But if the focus is not art, but talk about social issues, the fight against poverty and the role of women, then perhaps what Denver is looking at is an expensive fledgling thinktank with arts wedged into the mix, as the city attempts to build a festival-type event in a community of Latin American nations?

The latter would appear to be the focus of mayoral comment to date. A statement from Hickenloopers office following a July 21 roundtable with Mau and several Latin American ambassadors read: “The Denver Biennial is an important and ambitious project that will not only define Denver as a center for hemispheric understanding, innovation, and action, but will provide opportunities to forge new connections and exchanges across communities within Denver and beyond.”

Meanwhile, Denvers neighbor to the South is the designated UNESCO “creative city” of Santa Fe. And the timing of Denvers Biennial of the Americas actually coincides with SITE Santa Fes international contemporary art biennial, but no one appears to be addressing how the two cities  might collaborate for audiences. The 2010 SITE biennial is dedicated to video art. Sarah Lewis and Daniel Belasco, who assisted Robert Storr when he curated the SITE biennial previously, will curate the event, which will feature special spaces for video projection designed by architect David Adjaye – the architect of Denvers Museum of Contemporary Art, and the architect of the coming National Museum of African-American History on the Washington Mall.

Polsfut has hired a non-practicing attorney and the man who brought major league baseball to Denver, Steve Kadich, to be the logistics coordinator of the Art & Culture programming. Asked about Kadich, the artists and dealers I spoke with had no idea either who he was or that he had a significant role to play. Amping up the perplexity, Polsfut said that the local art and culture component was being coordinated by DOCA. Kadich  in turn referred me back to Polsfut and DOCA, declining to answer questions. Polfsut said, “We are more of a facilitator determining which institutions might be used and matched up with content from the 35 countries. We then step aside and let the institution make their own decisions.” (Read: raise their own money?)

What also remains unclear is how will this event meet audience projections if Polsfut has affirmed that just locals are the target?  In July, Biennial planners touted that the event would attract 200,000, which seems highly unlikely. Thats 5% of the states population. The highly popular and critically acclaimed Prospect.1 in New Orleans, curated by Dan Cameron, only attracted 70,000.

Forbes Magazine, in naming Denver a “world culture capital” in August, referenced such historic Denver attractions as  the Molly Brown House, the Georgetown Loop railroad and the Healy House Museum in Leadville.

The view from inside the local artists and art dealer community is that there are paid professionals coordinating all other aspects of the biennial, but local culture is relegated to an overworked staff of 11 that already have their hands full working with the citys 300 different cultural organizations on a day-to-day basis. Given that Bruce Mau wants to empower communities to act on the challenges they face, perhaps its time for the local Denver art community to act. Take matters into its own hands and be entrepreneurial, innovative and fearless.

Trapp said that all of the contract, location and logistical details will be finalized by the end of September and said that DOCA will be working with the Denver Art Dealers Association and the Western State Arts Federation to pull this all together.

In other words: build it and they will come? Organizers who know how to run sports teams will leave the promotion to the Denver  Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, with an ad budget dedicated to major spending in USA Today; as well as to the airport, the Chamber of Commerce and Colorado Tourism. Meanwhile, does this really play to an international arts and design audience, or does it show Denver doing business as usual attempting to draw visits based on its Western heritage?

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