Go Deeper

Take your art-or-something-like-it to the People’s Biennial Open Call this Thursday

Posted June 28th, 2010

When you think of the Art World (capitalization intended for grandeur), you think of Rapid City, South Dakota, right? What about Winston-Salem, North Carolina? Harrell Fletcher and Jens Hoffmann, co-curators of the People’s Biennial exhibition, do–and they think of Philly, too. This Thursday, July 1st, they’re inviting local artists to bring their work to an open call from 9am – 12pm at Haverford College and 4pm – 7pm at the Friends Center on 15th and Cherry Streets. The pieces will be considered for the People’s Biennial, a “traveling exhibition that will display remarkable contemporary work by artists who haven’t had significant exposure, or who may not even consider themselves part of the ‘art world.'”

The idea behind the People’s Biennial arose out of the curators’ reaction to the exclusivity of biennial exhibitions like the one at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Harrell, a professor of art and social practice at Portland State University (you might know him from this project with Miranda July), says that most of the work at biennials like the Whitney’s–which is supposed to be representative of artwork from across the U.S.–comes from the art world hubs of New York and Los Angeles.

“Percentage-wise they take up the mass of the art world activity–at the very least the focus,” he says.

This isn’t just the curators of established exhibitions picking favorites. Harrell explains that the curatorial process, even when curators seek out work from what he calls “obscurity zones” like Phoenix, Grand Rapids, and Portland, Oregon, tends towards artists who have already made a name for themselves. Logistically, this makes sense–with all the work out there, even the most adventuresome curators have a hard time discovering artists who don’t already have some kind of commercial representation.

The People’s Biennial hopes to remedy this situation. Harrell and Jens, the director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, have visited Portland, Scottsdale, Rapid City, and Winston-Salem in search of artists who may not be established, or may have never formally shown their work. They’re selecting 5 – 10 artists from each city to be featured in an exhibition that will travel between art institutions at those four locations and the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, their stop this week. Besides the open calls, they’re wandering around town and seeing what kind of art they stumble across, whether it’s someone showing their work on the sidewalk or displaying at the local library.

“We’re trying to cast a really wide net to be potentially inclusive of a lot of people who may not even have a studio,” says Harrell.

What kind of work are they looking for? What have they already selected from other cities? Click more to find out.

This protest drawing by Portland artist Michael Patterson-Carver is representative of the kind of work that the curators are looking for. Harrell discovered Michael’s work by chance and has since connected him to shows in New York, Paris, and London.. “The work has a really compelling formal aspect but is also very content-driven, which is something I’m interested in,” he says.

Some of the work that they’re considering from the other four cities includes: an “incredibly prolific” man named Raymond from an art center for people with developmental disabilities in Winston-Salem, who creates amazing drawings and paintings; a man from Portland who is not an artist but a biology teacher, and makes “homemade nature videos” of underwater pond life complete with voiceovers and sends them to libraries so that people can have access to them; and a woman from Rapid City who came to the open call to show her paintings, but whose job in the national guard had been to photographically document activities like soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We were blown away by the photographs,” Harrell says, and they’re now working on getting permission to show them in the Biennial.

There are virtually no limitations to what Harrell and Jens will consider if they’re compelled enough by the work. Even if a piece is too big or heavy to ship, they may exhibit it in its home environment and show documentation in the People’s Biennial.

Originally, they considered removing the Biennial from the established art world as much as possible, by showing the works in non-traditional venues like school gymnasiums or local Elks lodges (and the first exhibition in Portland will be in the library of the closed Washington High School.) But they also decided to hold the exhibit in more formal art institutions because they liked the idea of displaying these works of art in the white box gallery context they wouldn’t normally show in.

“Part of what happens automatically when you do that is that whatever is shown there is sort of elevated and given a certain amount of reverence. We want to challenge the idea of what normally goes in those spaces,” says Harrell. “In that way we’re creating our ideal situation, allowing an art world context to operate in a much more inclusive, open-ended way.”

Harrell Fletcher will be speaking tomorrow, Tuesday, June 29th at 6:30pm at ICA.

The People’s Biennial is organized and circulated by ICI (Independent Curators International), New York. Visit for more information, and for how to submit a work.

–Ellen Freeman

Photos courtesy of the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery.