If at first you don't succeed, tri, tri again. The first Biennial of the Americas was a very ambitious, very confused celebration that brought international stars to Denver in July 2010. So confused, in fact, that when the time came for a second biennial, the event was pushed back to 2013. And now, executive director Abaseh Mirvali is gone, replaced by Erin Trapp, former director of the mayor's office of arts and culture (now half of Arts + Venues).
Smart move. Trapp, who took the lead on much of the planning for the first Biennial, became deputy chief of staff in the mayor's office as John Hickenlooper was moving on to the State Capitol and Bill Vidal was moving up at City Hall. She's now vice president of Advancement and External Relations at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She's a savvy administrator, she knows the arts -- and she also knows politics. All three will be critical to getting the Biennial back on track.
Already a board member of the Biennial, Trapp is taking an unpaid leave to become the interim CEO and executive director of the Biennial; the staff box on Platform 5280, the organization's website, has been changed to reflect that. But the language on the rest of the site shows some of the difficulties people have had in defining this event:
PLATFORM 5280 is a Denver-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that organizes, develops, and presents the Biennial of the Americas, a biennial that explores global issues and inspires critical thinking through provocative discussion forums and contemporary art exhibitions. The word "platform" implies an elevated space where individuals can convene to discuss relevant topics openly and creatively, while "5280," Denver's elevation in feet, and a widely embraced feature - highlights the city's values, vision, and expertise.
At a sometimes rancorous presentation on the Biennial hosted by Mirvali this fall at the Museum of Contemporary Arts Denver, Maruca Salazar, director of the Museo de last Americas, offered a much more coherent answer to the question of "Why have the Biennial in Denver?"
She pointed to Gustavo Arellano, author of Ask a Mexican and also the book Taco USA, in which he details how he traveled the United States to find out how Mexican food had evolved in this country. And in Denver, he wrote, he found the most delicious dish he had ever tasted, the "best food in the United States" -- the Mexican hamburger, a creation unique to Colorado. A creation that showed how art and culture can be transformed.
"I always have difficult times when people can't figure out Denver's identity," Salazar said. "Now I tell them we have the best in the USA."
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So as Trapp and the board work to get their arms around what this year's incarnation of the Biennial should be (and can be, given that funds are unlikely to reach the $5 million budget touted last year), they should keep in mind the lowly Mexican hamburger, and how culture does not have to be all highbrow. In fact, we promise to bring Gustavo Arellano to town for the event, which kicks off on July 16 with four days of events, with other components continuing through October 1.
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