From Venice to Kathmandu, cities across the world are hopping on the urban bandwagon hosting exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture …

It was like a cultural version of Davos, held in the wintry grandeur of central Oslo. For three days, delegates and guests sat in a conference called Oslo Pilot, holding critical discussions about “relational aesthetics” and the role of public art in society.

But really, last November’s event was all about one question: should the Norwegian capital climb aboard the crowded urban bandwagon and host an art biennial?

Lara Favaretto’s installation at the Liverpool Biennial in 2016. An estimated 200-300 cities host these exhibitions.
Lara Favaretto’s installation at the Liverpool Biennial in 2016. An estimated 200-300 cities host these exhibitions. © Mark McNulty


Biennials represent a mobilisation of art and visitors; they’re a feel-good moment for cities to connect to a wider network. “People in remote cities can see international, contemporary art without having to travel to New York or Paris,” says Niemojewski, who will shortly depart for the “fourth edition” (to use the jargon) of the Kochi biennale in southern India. “That sense of cultural traffic is a huge incentive.”

Esche dates the biennial boom to the late 1980s: “When the cold war ended, cities across the world started to compete with each other,” he says. This model lives on in the boosterishboilerplate of contemporary biennials: the Toronto biennial, mooted to start this year, is trumpeting “Toronto’s arrival on the international stage as a global visual arts powerhouse”.

Esche says biennials are often driven by local politicians seeking to “circulate symbolic capital” for intangible future gain; and that they’re a “quicker fix” than an “iconic” new museum, with none of the aggravation.

“City councils tend to love them,” says Christian Oxenius of the Institute of Cultural Capital, and author of a paper, Why Cities Need Biennials. “Biennials have become a kind of ‘brand’ in themselves, and they indicate membership of a wider club.”

Also, biennials are unregulated – anyone can host one. There’s no Olympic Committee or (heaven forbid) Fifa equivalent; and bar a couple of observational bodies such as the four-year-old International Biennial Association, there’s no corporate oversight at all. But perhaps that’s their strength.


“In some contexts they raise a host of complexities,” says James Brett of The Museum of Everything gallery, which focuses on art from beyond the mainstream. He observes that at Dak’Art in Dakar, Senegal, last year, “it did at times look as if a US-EU convoy had landed in Africa”.

Esche has also identified a “locust effect”, whereby biennials come in and eat up a city’s cultural resources. “Then those local big wigs who wanted it in the first place say, ‘We’ve now done contemporary art’ – and it all stops, leaving no money for other cultural projects.”

Another vague criticism is that biennials are losing their cerebral edge, and indulging passive “festivalism” and “spectatorship”. Worst of all, some have been accused of massaging a city’s reputational difficulties.

“The art world has an uncanny ability to go where the money is,” Brett observes wryly. “And that’s true of biennials too. Visiting is sometimes like watching a sophisticated army of curatorial truffle pigs.”