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What's in the Library: Periodicals: Biennials

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What is a Biennial?

The biennial is generally perceived to be an international festival of contemporary art that takes place once every two years, though this definition is frequently extended, as a convenient generic term, to include the triennial, as well as Documenta in Kassel, Germany, which occurs once every five years. Historically, the biennial traces its origins back to 1895, which saw the inauguration of the Venice Biennale based on the model of the world fairs of the 19th century.

Over the two decades straddling the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, biennials and art fairs mushroomed across the globe. While art fairs have a specific commercial interest, which biennials do not necessarily possess, both are institutional structures designed to display art works on an impressively large, transnational scale. They comprise often hundreds, if not thousands, of distinct exhibits ranging from painting and sculpture in traditional modes to avant-garde installations and post-modern films and videos. While biennials and art fairs both have histories dating back many decades, the progressive globalization of the contemporary art world since the 1980s profoundly modified these two means of exhibiting art in the public arena, and, particularly in the case of biennials, radically re-orientated their forms as well as their functions. Whether or not such changes have been accompanied by a measure of democratization or by a meaningful re-alignment in the power structures of cultural politics, as has sometimes been maintained, remains an open question.

Wu, Chin-tao. "Biennials and art fairs." Grove Art Online. 2010. Oxford University Press.

What is a Biennial Catalogue?


A BIENNIAL is a periodical that:

  • is published in association with an international biennial art exhibition, offering images, exhibition reviews, academic essays on these profiled artists
  • includes artists that have been selected by a jury; although this is not academically recognized as a form of "peer review" it offers a rigorous form of aesthetic or professional recognition
  • rarely uses footnotes or endnotes

What is the benefit a biennial catalogue?

  • to celebrate artists or designers that are currently achieving international fame in their practice or careers
  • to provide contemporary, cutting-edge developments in society, culture, or communities from an aesthetic vantage point
  • to celebrate and promote curators and curatorial practice
  • to help establish the careers of emerging artists or designers; for example, since 1932, the Whitney Biennial in New York has consistently served as a launch pad for artists working in challenging contemporary mediums or using strong socio-political conceptual messages.


  • recognized or emergent artists provide the art or design works
  • curators and cultural critics stage the exhibitions
  • art or design critics provide an aesthetic interpretation often through essays or exhibition reviews
  • jury members or an advisory board may be used to select artists for inclusion


  • private, commercial companies OR
  • non-profit organizations OR
  • art foundations




Examples of Biennials in Print