Arts and Culture

Ten Ways to Fix Denver's Biennial of the Americas

Denver’s third Biennial of the Americas wrapped up its run last weekend as most of the official exhibits closed. Over the past few months, artists, innovators and experts had been charged with exploring the theme of “Now.” But the overall experience left many locals underwhelmed, as have the two previous Biennials, which took place in 2010 and 2013. How to fix that situation? Here are ten suggestions.

1. Tweak the name. The current name, Biennial of the Americas, makes no reference to Denver, and “of the Americas” sounds like a course description, so maybe it should be dropped. How about the Denver New World Biennial, or just the Denver Biennial?

2. Split off the conference aspects. In common English, the word “biennial” means a kind of plant, or an art extravaganza, but conferences have their own nomenclature. These should be spun off into separate events, especially since most of them were by invitation only — which hardly helps to build the overall program.

3. Get the local cultural community involved from the start. The organizers should line up shows, events and other activities at local museums, art centers and performing-arts venues as part of their initial planning rather than as the halfhearted afterthoughts they were this time. (Many of the galleries and some of the art centers could participate for free just by changing their scheduled offerings to synch with the Biennial.)

4. Build on what worked in previous Biennials. The previous iteration, in 2013, included two components that could have been fine-tuned and made into successful permanent fixtures: the architectural component, in which interesting follies were built, and the billboard component, for which artists designed billboards.

5. Forget about having a theme. This year, the theme of the Biennial was “Now,” which is pretty elastic and extremely generic. In fact, it’s basically the same as not having a theme at all. The Biennial should always be about what’s happening now.

6. Locals first. Put Colorado’s art and culture front and center, and distribute it throughout the event rather than including it only as a kind of tokenism.

7. Use star power. Although locals should receive top billing, it would be nice to get some real international star power — artists with worldwide reputations — involved. The only ones who were involved this time — Matthew Barney (at Ellie Caulkins), Robert Longo (at the MCA) and Gunther Gerzso (at the Museo de las Americas) — didn’t even come to town, though in fairness to Gerzso, he’s dead and thus had a legitimate excuse for not making it.

8. Be more broad-based and appealing. A choreographed high-school ROTC corps performance at Denver International Airport (which was one of the Biennial events) has a limited audience, even among fans of contemporary art. The same could be said for all of the special projects this time around. (The Vis-à-Vis exhibit was the worst “important” show I’ve seen in decades.)

9. Make a visible impact. It would have been nice if aspects of the Biennial could be seen around downtown Denver by the casual public — or along Speer Boulevard, as in 2013 — so it’s evident that a special event is happening.

10. Do a better job with publicity. There was virtually no notice of the Biennial outside of Denver, and very little in the city itself. Organizers spent a purported $3.5 million this year putting the thing together. Couldn’t they have put together an effective TV and radio campaign?
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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia