In his keynote address to the Melbourne Art Fair, internationally renowned American curator and art critic Robert Storr looked at the burgeoning number of biennales and art fairs and their impact. Where once there were only two biennales – Venice and Sao Paulo – there are now well over one hundred. Where once there were only a handful of art fairs, now there are dozens. And where once there were international styles, now there are global markets. Although not as controversial as his address at the MCA in July 2008, which ended with a fiery exchange with art critic and curator Okwui Enwezor, Robert Storr, famed art curator, critic, academic and painter did not fail to please. Storr asked the big questions on the value of the biennale; how it engages the audience and the participation of art dealers, curators, collectors and institutions. Storr, with his quiet manner told it as it is while he assessed the new playing field for art.
Storr supported the biennale as a useful form, one not to be thrown away, but one which requires constant revision and careful supervision. The model that is a locally curated art event, exhibiting an array on international artists with funding supplied by government and philanthropic corporations is in complete contrast to the invitational commercial event of an art fair. Yet with the proliferation of both art fairs and biennales today, it is not unreasonable for people to become befuddled and confuse the two separate entities. For those that are on the ‘inside’ of the art world, the blurring could reside in the fact that art fairs, such as the one in Melbourne recently, function as a non-profit event with invitational participation. The art fair model creates a more prescriptive style of show such as the themed Melbourne Art Fair, where commercial galleries only gain entry if they meet the criteria set by the Art Fair board. As a commercial model the collectors are motivated to attend the fair to discover the next emerging artist and to track the art market. Many galleries that attend the fair exhibit shows that have been previously sold, which then become an exercise in public relations for them. Art fairs, Storr suggested, are defined as a gathering of art selectors who believe in and advance the cause of the artists they choose. Lorenzo Rudolf, the Fair Director of ShContemporary (Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair) in an interview with Artfacts, upheld this view by making the clear distinction that art fairs should foremost support the primary art market with the criterion of market ability and what will sell. Randi Linnegar, Co-Director of the King Street Galleries, supported this opinion with the following comment: ‘An art fair is a commercial event whereby commercial galleries gather in one exhibition area that allows each gallery exhibition space to showcase their artists. The purpose is to bring potential purchasers (now and for the future) of art into a single venue where they can view a very large selection of available works in various mediums by numerous artists; and have price details readily available.’
Storr stated a clear definition of the difference between the role of the two events and their relationship to the audience. Both models – biennales and art fairs – are good occasions to consider what crowds are, how they function and their engagement with the exhibits. The function of art fairs and the dealers, he stated, was to persuade the audience to posses the object of art, whereas the function of a curator of a biennale is to understand how the object or art will possess the viewer. In reviewing the role of biennales today Storr proposed: ‘much of the criticism of biennales stem from the fact that they are partly confused with art fairs’, possibly as a result of the apparent penetration of increased commercial interest. It was with this statement that he controversially suggested, ‘dealers should ease up a little’ on their influence with the curators and allow them the space and time to make their own decisions on the representative artists. A cutting remark directly pointed at the tight knit art community that powers these events with the required finance and resources. It is this dilemma of the relationship between those committed to the activity of art and those that have this power, that have to be constantly worked out. The commonality is that they both share an interest and commitment to art. Although it could be argued that the more information a curator has regarding an artist the more institutionally “reliable” they tend to be considered. Artists running independent initiatives outside the official artistic channels tend to get overlooked or not seen at all.
Storr made the comment that he thought there was a problem with too many curators doing too many biennales, and not enough curators doing one or two. In 2008 Christov-Bakargiev’s, curator for the 2008 Sydney Biennale, response to a question posed by a journalist was that in her view, biennales are more for the artists and curators than they are for the audiences. This may have been true in the past, with biennales being more “insider” affairs, mostly visited by serious critics, artists, curators and a few dealers, but since the 1990s they have developed a wider and more popular audience. One can only hope that they continue to prosper, to hold and expand their audience, become tools of education yet still engage the individual viewer as they have done in the recent Sydney Biennale.
In Storr’s opinion, the proliferation of biennales does not seem to be the problem but he identified an increased concern regarding the diversity of work exhibited, stating, ‘you don’t have to make representation a statistical phenomena’ with art from every corner of the globe. This was an interesting point from the curator of the 2007 Venice Biennale who greatly expanded the official selection with over 100 international artists represented. With the growing number of artists who show at international biennales and the influence of larger galleries, there is the notion that contemporary art could become a homogenised commodity. This said, the alter argument is that the biennale becomes more exhausting but also richer for this proliferation.
Storr’s view on this global prospect of biennales is that ‘globalisation’ is a phenomenon of markets, not a phenomenon of art. Unlike Coca Cola, which adapts itself to a markets’ preference, Storr references Gerardo Mosquera’s observation of Coca Cola’s formula adapting to the local market. This is why California and Mexico have very sweet Coca Cola whereas in Chicago it tastes like Australian Pepsi. Art should be different in different places and different in contrast to different things. He added, ‘art should be the occasion to think about what is not the same, not dependable, not predictable, but something that you can engage (with) and develop an interest (in)’.
Storr asked, ‘Can sense be made of art and can ideas really be exchanged amidst this proliferation or have we entered into a period when scanning has replaced seeing, keeping track has replaced paying attention, and information has replaced meaning?’ He framed this idea of proliferation within a period of worldwide excess and that now is a good time to take stock and reassess the possibilities available to all facets of the art world. He asserted that art needs ‘the crowd’ as they mirror the artists’ work; for without the crowd to look upon and engage, would the art be art and not just the artists’ work. Therefore the crowd, as it passes through this smorgasbord of art fairs and biennales, is important. To do the crowd justice and provide an experience that is engaging, challenging and provoking, benefits the artist within the curatorial display. Taking the crowd and creating a circumstance where they have to engage with the art, where they are immediately and personally implicated, removes them from the crowd and creates an individual and personal experience. Storr cites Baudelaire and speaks of ‘finding the loneliness in the multitude’ and the challenge for the Curator to create, for the individual, a room with a work of art more so than in a room with a crowd.
The inevitable negative critique of the biennale event is now almost expected for armor clad Biennale curatorial teams. In fact the journalist Andrew Frost in speaking with David Elliott leading up to the Sydney Biennale this year, asked him if he was bracing himself for a bad review. David responded with the comment that he was looking forward to it because, in his opinion, it was sure sign of curatorial success. The biennale as an exhibition model, continues to roll on expanding and morphing into the monster that it is quickly becoming, closely monitored by its ever-present critics snapping at its heels vigilant in their assessment of its position of value in the art world.
Robert Storr is Dean of the Yale School of Art. He was Artistic Director of the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, and Curator and Senior Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, from 1990 to 2002.
Presented by the Monash Museum of Art and the Melbourne Art Foundation at Fitzroy Town Hall, Aug 2010