People's Biennial Slated for SMoCA Raises Hackles of Local Artists and Curators

The art community grapevine in this Valley is about three inches long, so it didn't take much time for me to get calls concerning a recent, very heated panel discussion at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SmoCA) about a show that's been proposed called "People's Biennial."

The show, purposely scheduled to travel to places outside of the art mainstream, is being curated by Harrell Fletcher, curator, professor of art at Portland State University, and artist whose work has actually appeared in the vaunted Whitney Biennial, and Jens Hoffman, director and curator of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. "People's Biennial," produced by iCI (Independent Curators International), will involve works by five artists chosen from each area in which the show will tour. So far, the exhibition has been scheduled to appear at SmoCA in Scottsdale (October 15, 2011 - January 15, 2012), Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Portland, Oregon, and Dahl Arts Center, Rapid City, South Dakota. Reportedly, cultural institutions in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Haverford, Pennsylvania are also on the touring roster.

My esteemed arts colleague, Lilia Menconi, announced info about thetwo meetings to be held at SmoCA concerning "People's Biennial," to which the public was invited, noting that these meetings were an open call to local artists, as well as an opportunity for the curators to "hear concerns, ideas, and challenges our community faces."

The first meeting on Tuesday, February 23, apparently didn't go so well, to put it mildly. In fact, audience participants, who included local artists, curators, arts administrators and the generally curious, apparently grew fangs when Fletcher indicated that the curators really weren't interested in showing any local artist who's been a part of the arts scene here. At least that's what he was understood as saying.

In fact, Fletcher later told me after a subsequent meeting on Thursday, February 25, that someone actually said to him that the attacks on him were "vicious."

Never one able to resist a good fight, I appeared at the subsequent Thursday meeting to see what was going on. And, to be honest, either everyone had taken Xanax before they came or were too exhausted to be confrontational, because there was nary a BeelzeBubba in sight. Legitimate concerns about the nature of the work to be displayed and the type of artists to be selected were voiced in a pretty rational way.

At this point, it appears the curators are looking for "remarkable, under-appreciated work by anyone and everyone, especially people who may not be considered a part of the art world," at least according to a SMoCA flyer. I asked whether they were looking for outsider or folk art, and they're not, since both art forms have their own particular gallery/collector/institutional support systems. And no problem with a dead person being selected. Fletcher and Hoffman (who was recently appointed co-curator for the 12th Annual Istanbul Biennial) are thinking way outside the art world box on this one to mount an anti-Whitney/Venice Biennial.

Essentially, the curatorial duo is seeking any great art outside the gallery and museum world -- obscenely organic parameters by any standard. Examples given were a mathematician who makes visually compelling notations, a sign painter who creates fascinating window displays, and eccentric artists, whatever that may mean. This reminds me of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's immortal words about pornography -- you can't define it, but you'll know it when you see it.

So if your precocious 3-year-old has built the skyline of Las Vegas out of Legos or your agoraphobic Aunt Mitzy sculpts life-size figures out of horse hair she collects at abandoned race tracks, nominate them for "People's Biennial" by emailing [email protected] and send along photos of the work you're nominating (keep them down to 72dpi, no bigger than 5 inches on the largest side). You'll get credit for "discovering" them and get a taste of the curatorial process. And they'll get a national venue for their art plus two free exhibition catalogues. Don't be shy -- you can even nominate yourself, since Fletcher told me that they would even consider people who have had shows or exposure in the past (I told you the rules were fluid).

The floodgates are now open...

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Kathleen Vanesian