For this research we primarily examined the websites of the Biennial Foundation (www.biennialfoundation.org/home/biennial-map/) and International Biennial Association (www.biennialassociation.org/periodic-art-events/), with only a few new biennials added to our list. From these sources we compiled a list of 316 biennial-type events in the contemporary arts, though perhaps many more exist for other fields that we did not include for this survey. We are aware that though there may have been some we missed and even a few that have been created since this research was conducted in April and May 2018, the list is as accurate as possible within our limited time and resources.
Of the total 316 biennial we researched, we found that most are taking place in Europe (136), whilst Asia (82) has the second highest number, followed by North America (66), South America (19), Africa (17), Australia (10), and even one new biennial planned to take place in the Antarctic.
Fig. 1 Distribution of Biennials on continents. Note: A few countries belong to two continents.
The world’s first biennial of art took place in Venice and it seems to have been the catalyst for the growth in biennials not just in Europe, but also around the world. In per capita terms, Europe also has the highest density of biennials, with Latvia launching its first biennial in June 2018. This continued popularity illustrates the enduring appeal of the format. The high number of biennials in Europe may be linked to not only the popularity of the format, but also due to the access in funding and other resources required to stage these often large-scale and expensive exhibitions on a regular basis.
Proliferation of Biennales Worldwide
(see graphs; Foundation of Biennials Worldwide, by continent)
As we can observe from the graph above, the proliferation of biennials accelerated from the mid 1980s, in particular from the mid 1990s onwards. The faster pace in biennial growth worldwide may be attributed to the popularity of the format, which has also seen a rise in the number of museums, art fairs, and festivals during the same period.
As we can observe from the graphs, the proliferation of biennials in Asia accelerated from the mid-1990s, in particular from the mid-2000s onwards. In the mid-1990s, there were around 20 biennials operating in Asia and today that number is approaching nearly 100. South Korea, Japan, and China all have more than several biennials that are operating, perhaps signalling a link between economic strength, growing soft power and an expansion of arts infrastructure. As many Asian countries experience an economic and developmental boom, biennials may be linked to this growing confidence on the world stage. In Europe, we can observe that the increase in biennials starts to accelerate from the 1990s onwards, and the growth seems to have slowed slightly from the mid 2000s onwards.
In contrast, the African continent hosts the fewest number of biennials, with relatively few until around 2000 after which we can observe a higher growth rate. This may be related to a lack of funding and art infrastructure due to economic and policy factors, although one can expect more biennials to emerge in Africa in the coming years if current trends continue.
In North America, we can observe that biennials begin to flourish after the 1990s, with a steady growth that now totals nearly 70 biennial-type exhibitions. The “juried exhibition,” which is particularly popular in North America, and held on a biennial basis, has contributed to a cumulative increase over time.
Beginning with the establishment of the São Paulo Biennale in the early 1950s, there has been steady growth in the number of new biennials in South America and throughout the subsequent decades, with a marked acceleration from the mid-2000s onwards. In per capita terms, South America still has relatively few biennial-type exhibitions, though one may expect the growth to continue in the coming years.
If we observe the historical increase of biennials in each continent, we can see that biennalisation started more or less at the same time. The number of new biennials started to grow faster in Asia in the late 1990s, whilst in Europe it started in the early 1990s.
This “biennial boom” as it has come to be known started in Europe at the end of the 1980s; however, the boom in Asia and other continents started mainly in the 1990’s. Therefore the 1990s seem to be pivotal decade for most continents worldwide, and to a lesser degree in South America (which founded as many biennials in the 1980s as in the 1990s).
From a historical perspective, one tends to observe the end of the Cold War (1991)— starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—as a crucial moment in contemporary art history. We can assume that only after the Cold War dissipated, and with it its canonical history writing of a binary code (“The East” vs. “The West”), art histories (in plural) emerged on a world stage. This was mirrored by the rise in postcolonial studies, which picked up momentum in the 1990s with Stuart Hall, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and many others preceded by Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and Michel Foucault. This may not be a coincidence: only after the focus on geopolitical hegemony divided between “the West” and “the East” ended and with it the dictating of the shape of the world and the narrative of world history between one dichotomy (of “The East”/”The West”) could other regions’ identities, their histories, and contexts be inaugurated perhaps. These new narratives emerging into the discourse establish themes of plurality, complexity, and a new formation of globalism (in detachment to an economic globalization). The proliferation of biennials may therefore be seen to support this wider trend towards the decentralization and fragmentation of historical grand narratives.
The Biennial boom
By comparing the gradients of each continent’s graph, one can observe the steep and unbowed increase of biennials in Asia in the last two decades. During recent decades Asia, South America, and Africa show the highest increase in biennials (percentage-wise) during this period. Europe still hosts the highest number of biennials worldwide, with an astonishing 57 newly founded biennials in Europe between 2000 and 2009. However, if we look at the increase in percentage terms, one can observes that Europe’s (total of 136 biennials) drive for the creation of new biennials stagnates somewhat, whereas there is a steep increase in Asia (total of 83 biennials), and South America (total of 19 biennials), and Africa (total of 17 biennials), and a constant number of newly founded biennials in North America (total of 66 biennials). From 2010 onwards, Europe and Asia have established the same numbers of newly founded biennials (32 in total). If we compare newly founded biennials between 2000–09 and 2010–present (considering there are two more years in this decade) in each continent, we can put the effects into perspective:
Europe (total of 136 Biennials)
2000–09: 57 Biennales
2010–18: 32 Biennales
Asia (total of 83 Biennials)
2000–09: 33 Biennales
2010–18: 32 Biennales
Africa (total of 17 Biennials)
2000–09: 6 Biennales
2010–18: 7 Biennales
North America (total of 66 Biennials)
2000–09: 19 Biennales
2010–18: 21 Biennales
South America (total of 19 Biennials)
2000–09: 3 Biennales
2010–18: 9 Biennales
Australia (total of 10 Biennials)
2000–09: 5 Biennales
2010–18: 2 Biennales
Furthermore our team researched the various art-related disciplines prevalent at biennials occurring today. It is clear from our research that visual art field practices are trans- and cross-disciplinary in nature. The survey investigated the main disciplines in each of the biennials we researched, e.g. the Venice Biennale and Venice Architecture Biennale are considered separately and are measured by us as a visual art and architecture biennial.
The parameters we used were: visual art, architecture, design, photography, film, performance, discursive, sculpture, and others (others including: art in public space, digital media and research driven events).
Our research into the primary artistic medium and disciplines exhibited at biennials showed that over 75 percent of biennials we surveyed are dedicated to exhibiting visual art. The research shows us that the biennial model is strongly rooted in visual arts first and foremost, and the condition has not changed dramatically over the last two decades.
The share of biennials working within visual arts varies only slightly between continents. Biennials that mention other disciplines in their concepts have also increased slightly since 2000. North America has an overwhelming share of visual art biennials, followed by Asia and South America. Africa and Australia’s share of biennials of visual art are slightly over 50 percent, followed closely by Europe. Unfortunately our data does not provide a sufficient examination into different art practices or their embeddedness within local and historical contexts. Speaking from a rather distanced “global” perspective, one has to consider that there were different developments in artistic and curatorial practice in play in different regions at different times
As Patrick D. Flores remarked in a yet unpublished film project by Dorothee Richter and Ronald Kolb in 2017, “everyone is entitled to their modernity”. In that sense, speaking of “visual arts” could mean very different things, for example, in Europe and in Africa. Furthermore, Asia is still well known for teaching and promoting a crafts-oriented art education, whilst Europe—one could conjecture—has a more conceptualized view on art education and its subsequent production. However we believe these types of representation are mere stereotypes of a certain time and context, and cannot be logically applied to all continents over time. Even throughout different countries in Europe, there are discernable differences in the concept of modernity, postmodernity, and contemporaneity. The idea of disciplines, of what belongs to “art“ or is just design, architecture, theatre, and so on, is very much related to the particular history of a region and its resulting “culture” milieu.
Center, Periphery, and the Urge to Go Global
Our research investigated the location of biennials in their host countries, within
a geopolitical and economical setting. We discovered 104 biennials that are hosted in their nations capital or in one of its main cities (e.g. Istanbul is not a capital city, but it holds an important economic, cultural, and social position in Turkey), with 113 biennials in so-called “second-tier” cities (cities that are not as big as the capitals, but are on the rise and hold a prominent position within the country), and 98 biennials in remote and peripheral regions. One biennial in our survey also took place solely in an online form and was discontinued after its launch. The distribution between these parameters has remained quite similar since the first Venice Biennale in 1895. One may observe a shift to remote areas, if one looks at the period after 2000 and a marked rise in the number of biennials founded in peripheral locations. If we compare the location of biennials by continents in percentage terms, one observes that Europe, Asia, and Australia have a relatively even share of locations, whilst North American biennials can be predominantly found in second- tier and peripheral cities. This trend is even more pronounced in South America though it should be noted that the parameters we used for this first step of our research are bold in nature. There are certainly big differences in terms of center and periphery locations in different regions around the world. If we consider Shenzhen, for example, a second-tier city with its approximately 12.5 million inhabitants, the city can be seen—in its Chinese context—as still an up-and-coming, compared to Beijing’s population of 24 million and its status as a capital.
What is surprising however is Africa, where no single biennial takes place in remote areas. This finding may have multiple reasons, including an uncertain political backdrop and economic volatility, but also perhaps the incompatibility of a lot of contemporary art practices within a nascent art market. To have the impetus to found a new biennial, let alone organize and sustain one, clearly requires a certain level of resources and support from a broad group and actors within civil society.
Our research summarised that Great Britain (16) has the highest number of biennial-type exhibitions in Europe, followed by Germany (15), France (8), Italy (7), Poland (6), Norway (6), Romania (5), and the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Greece all hosting 4 each. In Asia, China (13) currently hosts the highest number of biennials, closely followed by the much smaller countries of South Korea (12) and Japan (12). Four of the twelve Chinese biennials are in centers, whilst six are in second-tier cities, and only three take place in peripheral locations. South Korea hosts the highest number of the biennials in rural areas (6), five biennials in second-tier cities, and only one in the capital. In Japan, this trend is even more pronounced, with no biennials taking place in Tokyo (founded in 1951 but since defunct), five in second-tier cities, and seven in remote and rural areas. In Japan, most newly founded biennials focus on art in public space or land art. These organisations are perhaps founded to help keep remote areas connected to a contemporary discourse and to attract urban audiences.
USA is the country with the most biennials worldwide (43). We found that 20 of them occur in the periphery, 16 in second-tier cities, and six in state capitals or major centers.
Founding Bodies of Biennales
Our research also investigated which actors and agents founded biennials in various countries. We designated founding bodies to include: artists and curators; private foundations; museums; governments; tourism councils; and academics. Our research found that most biennials have more than one founding body, with sometimes up to four different parties involved in the creation of new projects.
From our research into founding bodies, we observed that 188 biennials can be traced back to one single founding party, with 51 biennials founded solely by private foundations or associations, which can include disparate organisations from private businesses to a group of artists setting up a legal enterprise for better funding opportunities. Our research showed that 46 biennials were founded by a group of artists and/or curators; 33 biennials were founded directly by the government (and tourism department); and only 3 biennials were founded by academics. For 16 biennials in our survey, we could not find any information on their founding status.
Clearly, establishing and maintaining a biennial is an immense endeavour, not least due to the financial resources required. In all regions of the world, help by governmental institutions is nearly unavoidable. However, the percentage of artists and curators involved in the founding of biennials is surprisingly high on every continent.
There seems to be visible differences between continental regions in the founding of biennials. If we concentrate on biennials only founded by one party, we find that in Europe the proportion is nearly the same for governments and private foundations, followed by artist-initiated biennials. The situation in Asia clearly shows more involvement of the government and even one biennial founded directly by a tourism ministry.
Cities, local governments, including state-owned corporations and philanthropists are partly funding the rise in biennial-making across China, and this reveals a lot about Chinese cultural policy and the Communist Party’s attitude towards biennials in general.
Biennials in Asia, including West and South Asia, highlight oft overlooked regions that want to showcase their art to a globally itinerant art world audience, supported by a slew of new public and private museums, galleries, and collectors, including new mega-institutions such as M+ in Hong Kong and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. As the contemporary art world reaches a mainstream audience, the biennial ecosystem acts as another layer of experimentation and market making, allowing institutions and collectors a peek into things to come.
North America stands out with nearly zero involvement of any governmental institution as a single founding party of a biennial. This shouldn’t be surprising with the USA being the strongest country in North America, hosting 43 biennials where governmental funding for the arts is negligible. The funding models in the US place private donors at their center with incentives provided in the form of tax rebates and deductions. Largely due to the phenomenon of the “juried exhibition”, museums are the biggest founders of biennials in the US, followed by private foundations and artists. Artists and curators have largely established recent South Asian biennials, with Kochi, Lahore, and Karachi all initiated by artists, similar to several African biennials that have emerged in recent decades.
Shwetal A. Patel is a founding team member of Kochi-Muziris Biennale (India) and PhD scholar at the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton.
Ronald Kolb works as a designer (www.biotop3000.de), lecturer, and film-maker in Stuttgart and Zurich. He studied Visual Communications (MA) at Merz Akademie, University of Applied Arts, Design and Media, Stuttgart, Germany and runs a design and research studio with an emphasis on publications and web design i.e. for Kunststiftung Baden-Württemberg, ifa (Institut for Foreign Affairs, Germany), Donaueschinger Musiktage, Badischer Kunstverein, ZKM. He was an Associate Professor at Merz Akademie, University of Applied Arts, Design and Media from 2009–2015 and is now Scientific Researcher at the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, ZHdK. He is Co-Publisher of the web journal On-Curating.org and honorary vice chairman of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart since 2014.
He is PHD scholar of PHD in Practice in Curating, a cooperation of ZHDK and University of Reading, supported by swissuniversities.