Frances Bula header image 2

And a word from the Vancouver Biennale

August 19th, 2009 · 17 Comments

I’m reposting this comment that came in on an earlier blog post.

Hello everyone,

My name is Gillian and I am the Communications Liaison for the Vancouver Biennale.
Just thought I would give you some information about us.
We are a non-profit organization with three staff members and no tax payers money is used for our installations.
By September 29th (our launch date) we will have 19 sculptures installed and by May 2010 around 32 will be placed in Vancouver and Richmond. The Vancouver Biennale includes New Media and Performance Art as well as a speaker series with Charles Jencks and Ma Jun. We will also hold a series of curotorial lectures for those of you who are interested in becoming curators, or are just interested!
At the moment we have Michael Zheng’s stop signs installed and Vladas Vildziunas ‘Barbora’ at Thorton Park (opposite Main Station). This week, and at the beginning of next week, we are installing pieces by two Chinese artists, Jianhua Liu’s ‘Pillows’ and Wang Shugang’s ‘Meeting’ at Cardero Park (next to the Westin Bayshore Hotel) and Harbour Green Park (opposite the float planes).
Thank you for all your thoughts and keep an eye open for more of our work!

Gillian and all the staff at the Biennale office :)

Categories: Uncategorized

  • spartikus

    Not personally fond of the Stop Signs, but frack it. Go Gillian, go Biennale!

  • Frothingham

    All the best to the Vancouver Biennale. I Look forward to viewing the various art installations.

  • Westender

    What a pleasure to know that the Biennale installations are underway again. I encourage everyone to download an audio walking tour and make a day of seeing all the pieces once they are installed! Thank you to Frances for providing another avenue for the Vancouver Biennale to “get the word out.”

  • Frothingham

    @Westender …would love to download audio walking tour. where?

  • Here’s a Price Tags tour of the last Biennale –

    And an update – – on some of the new public art in the city.

  • Larry McLaren

    I cant wait to see the piece that reveals the “narrative of political discourse as one which simultaneously promulgates, mythologizes and paradoxically sabotages infantilized notions of political equity.”

    My understanding is that it’s a large sheet of metal overlaid with thinly spread excrement inscribed with political promises made at varying levels of government during election campaigns.

    Should be a winner – as long as you’re upwind.

  • Simon

    Hi Gillian,

    Thanks for educating us. I live close to where Michael Zheng’s piece has been installed. I’m not the biggest fan of the work, but it had inspired a vigorous debate between my son (who is in great favor of it) and I on its merit. He is three.

    Thanks for the great work and keep it up. Best to you and Vancouver Biennale.



  • heather

    Being a resident of False Creek I am wondering if the stop signs are permanent or will they hopefully be removed soon. It is not so much the “artistic” side of this feature that I dislike, but where it is situated within the park. My impression is that it now means STOP PLAYING. As children will no longer be able to use this hill to toboggan on in the winter or learn how to ride a bike down. In a time when we want to encourage physical activity this “Artwork” is STOPPING activity.

  • Westender

    There was an audio walking tour (.mp3 format) available for the 2005-2007 Biennale – I would hope the same sort of thing would be available this time, but likely not until all the pieces are installed. (I’ll forego a visit to the excrement piece – it would appear to fall into the “sourpuss art” category).

  • Shane

    Looking forward to this – I wish we could purchase more of this art for permanent display – even the most controversial of installations like the “Device to root out evil”

  • Westender

    The loss of “Device” is an embarrassment to Vancouver.

  • Darcy McGee

    > The loss of “Device” is an embarrassment
    > to Vancouver.


    Loved that sculpture.

  • Stephanie

    I happened by the stop signs today on a walk from Kits to Granville Island. Unless they’ve just been moved, I can’t figure out why people thing they’re impeding play space. There’s still lots of hill to slide down – actually, there’s a tree just above them that would already have been in the way of sledding and whatnot. There’s still lots of open space to play in. And, kids being kids, they will doubtless incorporate the signs into their play – as things to run around and in between, and in the winter as snowball targets.

    I’m just not buying the argument that this installation is impeding kids’ ability to play in the park. Sorry.

  • Kathryn

    Those stop signs in False Creek are incongruous cropping up out of nowhere for no reason completely inharmonious with their surroundings and destructive to the longer vista. I hope this eyesore goes away soon and that no one made big bucks for it. Ever read “The Emperor’s New Clothes?”

  • Stephanie

    Hey, I’m willing to hear opinions that they’re inharmonious, etc. It’s the “what about the *children*?” argument that makes me think of very tiny violins.

  • Bill Lee

    Following on from previous views of the recent public art being thrust upon Vancouver (and Richmond)
    Linkname: The public-art debate revs up (24 comments)
    Linkname: And speaking of public art .. the fat fork by the Cambie Bridge (5 comments)
    Linkname: STOP to public art, says False Creek resident (40 comments)

    I was inspired by this jealous piece in today’s Toronto Star to look further into Barrie Mowatt’s previous attempt and his other troubles, (something about workers in the papers this year?)
    Subject: | entertainment | Why Kitchener-Waterloo has a biennial, but Toronto does not

    …Culled from more than 100 submissions, KWAG’s biennial is proudly
    local: The handful of artists showing here range from senior escapees
    from the Toronto art world, like Janet Morton, who teaches at the
    University of Waterloo, to recent graduates from the programs at
    Waterloo and the University of Guelph….

    Earlier Daphne Braham briefly covered the story
    But is it art?: Vancouver’s arts community is in an uproar over biennale for public sculpture
    Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun
    Published: Saturday, October 29, 2005

    When it comes to public art, a perfect storm is brewing in Vancouver and it’s just in time for the civic election.
    The catalyst is the Vancouver Sculpture Biennale. Thirty massive sculptures by some internationally renowned artists are being installed in some of the city’s most beautiful spots along walkways and in parks.
    And while the biennale organized by Barrie Mowatt, owner of Buschlen Mowatt art gallery, only runs from now until December 2006, the organizers are hoping to raise enough money to purchase the one that citizens love best.
    It’s got the city’s arts community in an uproar.
    The huge sculptures are anathema to the city’s minimalist arts policy, but not to the park board.
    The city’s arts bureaucrats embrace low-slung, low-impact, local and, in some cases, almost invisible art.
    The park board supports both the biennale and the idea of large sculpture because two previous sculpture exhibitions sponsored by Mowatt’s gallery were wildly popular.
    ….The manager of the city’s public art program, Brian Newson, is concerned that the biennale endangers what he calls a “highly transparent public art process” that involves issuing terms of reference for art commissions, followed by a competition that is judged by an appointed committee of artists and architects.
    It’s a process that Mowatt says is “uni-dimensional, insular and working on a dated concept.”
    Newson says the biennale lacks “any coherent curatorial vision.”
    Mowatt calls the idea of a coherent curatorial vision for an outdoor sculpture exhibition spread all over the city “bullshit,” adding that outdoor public art is different from a single show in an enclosed gallery or museum.
    Barbara Cole, who co-ordinated the art and its placement in the city’s National Works Yard at 700 National Avenue, dismissed the biennale as “plop art” that has no connection to Vancouver and is brought in and offered for sale on public land.
    (Cole’s own project has its critics. The Sun’s architecture writer Trevor Boddy described Richard Prince’s Road Work as “cloyingly safe sentimentality.”)
    Mowatt says the whole point of the biennale is to have “really large, in-your-face, engaging pieces of art.” ..[ more]

    and what became of the art?

    They tried to sell it in the mysterious ways of art auctions (which are never simple cash sales)

    Subject: Vancouver outdoor sculptures on auction block

    Vancouver outdoor sculptures on auction block
    Last Updated: Thursday, March 1, 2007 | 4:48 PM ET CBC Arts

    Sculptures familiar to people who stroll Vancouver’s waterfront go up for auction Thursday night.
    The 22 large outdoor sculptures have been exhibited in public
    locations throughout Vancouver as part of the Vancouver Sculpture
    The biennale, a first for Vancouver, brought the work of international sculptors to the city for 18 months beginning in 2005.
    Many have become favourites in their neighbourhoods, but as part of the biennale plan, they go up for auction Thursday, with internationally renowned Christie’s Auction House jetting into Vancouver to handle the bidding.
    Barrie Mowatt, executive director of the biennale, said he would like to see Vancouver bidders step up to bid on some of the sculptures.
    “I’d like to see the developers and people who’ve been talking about putting a consortium together surprise us and say ‘Ahah! We’ve done it,’ and come up with the money,” he said. [ more ]

    There is a different set of art at the PNE which is of found objects, but will be dismissed because of location and objects used.
    Here’s art of a type, international, and using “found” items
    Subject: Italian-inspired container exhibit brings art back to the PNE

    Sandra Thomas, Vancouver Courier Thursday, August 27, 2009
    In the middle of the PNE fairgrounds, just southwest of the Monster Truck rides and slightly east of the agriculture barns, lies an art installation created from aging railway containers inspired by a similar project launched in Bergamo, Italy in 2005.
    And standing Wednesday in the middle of the plaza that hosts the ContainerArt exhibit, was its creator Peter Male. While Male’s official job title is vice-president of sales for the PNE, his passion for the project makes him better suited for the title of artistic director or curator.
    …The exhibit includes displays by eight local artists using a variety of artistic media, including oil painting, photography, glasswork and neon. Each artist has displayed their work and created their own mini installation within a container. Male said the only stipulation was they couldn’t alter or damage the containers with nails or screws. He wasn’t happy to simply display the eight containers and instead created an abstract instillation that includes 18 containers, music, a plaza and a water feature made from old brass instruments. At night the exhibit features projected images on two white walls and four search lights that scan the sky.

  • Bill Lee

    Lofty goals for Vancouver Biennale
    By Maggie Langrick, Vancouver Sun December 30, 2011
    Photos ( 4 )
    [ PHOTO A-maze-ing Laughter, by Beijing-born artist Yue Minjun, will remain on display at English Bay until as late as August 2012. Its $5-million price tag will also be trimmed.
    Photograph by: Handout, Files ]

    A popular public artwork that was set to be de-installed by Saturday has been granted an extension to remain on its English Bay site until as late as August 2012 in the hopes that a buyer for it can be found.

    A-maze-ing Laughter, by Chinese artist Yue Minjun, has attracted much attention from the city’s residents and visitors during the two years and three months it has been on display as part of the Vancouver Biennale.

    The Vancouver Biennale is a temporary two-year exhibition of sculpture by international artists, now concluding its second iteration. The 2009-2011 biennale saw 38 artworks installed on public land around Metro Vancouver. De-installation of the sculptures began in summer, and was due to be completed by the end of the year, with the exception of a few special extensions.

    Biennale artistic director Barrie Mowatt negotiated the extension for A-maze-ing Laughter with Minjun, whose conditions for sale include the stipulation that the work should remain on public display in Vancouver. Minjun has also agreed to a reduction on the sale price of $5 million, Mowatt confirmed, adding that a final sale figure hasn’t yet been determined.

    Mowatt intends to reach out to the public to raise the money to buy the sculpture, which would then be offered to the city of Vancouver under a long-term loan agreement.

    “Our focus will be on seeing if we can go to the public at large, from the two-dollar donation to the large individual philanthropist, to see if they can get behind making this happen,” he said in a phone interview from Sri Lanka, where he was honeymooning with his partner just before Christmas.

    The fact that the Vancouver Biennale deals with the sale of artworks sets it apart from other biennales around the world.

    What is a biennale?

    Biennale is the Italian word for biannual. Its common definition is a curated arts exhibition that occurs every two years.

    The Venice Biennale is the oldest and most prestigious of these. Founded in 1895, it has become the preeminent international showcase of the world’s most important contemporary art. B.C. painter Steven Shearer represented Canada at the 2011 Venice Biennale.

    Other significant biennales include the ones held in Sao Paulo, Moscow, Beijing, Shanghai and Berlin. In addition, there are dozens of lower-profile biennales in cities around the world, and more are popping up all the time, according to Nigel Prince, executive director at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery.

    “The last 10 years have seen an explosion of biennales of different kinds,” Prince said in an interview at the CAG office.

    There are other significant art events that perform a similar function but don’t use the biennale label, often because they take place on a different schedule. Prince points to Documenta, an important exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany.

    “Venice is a true biennale in that it happens every two years. But what both of them share is that there is a chief curator, or curator/director, who sets the conceptual thematic, the overarching theoretical position, that they feel is appropriate.

    “My understanding of the Vancouver Biennale is that it hasn’t necessarily grown out of the same curatorial process,” Prince said. “It’s grown out of a different process that has a more commercial orientation.”

    Some members of the local visual arts community have been skeptical about the Vancouver Biennale since it was launched as a non-profit offshoot of the now-defunct Buschlen Mowatt gallery. Mowatt was the gallery’s owner and co-founder. He closed it in April of this year.

    Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham in 2005 quoted the city of Vancouver’s public art program manager, Bryan Newson, accusing the Vancouver Biennale of lacking “coherent curatorial vision.” In the same article, artist and curator Barbara Cole characterized the biennale as “plop art” with no connection to Vancouver.

    Mowatt says he feels the tide has turned in support of the biennale since then, pointing to the presence of senior members of the Vancouver Art Gallery team at a recent award ceremony held by the biennale. “It’s a good indicator that they see us as something that’s here, as something that’s worthwhile.”

    Prince says that he has also spoken to people in the international art community who are dismissive of the Vancouver Biennale, on the grounds that it lacks seriousness or intellectual rigour.

    “[It’s] almost like buying stuff off the shelf and plonking it down. ‘Oh I’ll have one of those, and one of those. And let’s put it on this bit of land, and that bit of land.’ And that isn’t how you make a biennale,” he said.

    Curatorial models

    So how do you make a biennale? The answer varies from city to city.

    “Some of them involve all the art institutions in the city,” explained Prince. “The model in Liverpool is that the biennale team commissions a series of works, created solely for the biennale, and they are sited in different places around the city. Or they work in conjunction with the arts institutions of the city, either to commission works that are then presented as an exhibition, or [they will curate] an exhibition in the way that they normally would do, but look to do something that makes a very clear contribution to a broader thematic.”

    The Venice Biennale is structured around a series of national pavilions, each curated by individual commissioners and curators representing those nations. A group exhibition is also put together, which acts as a sort of artistic statement of the curatorial director.

    Mowatt has lofty goals for the Vancouver Biennale. “The biennale will become the most identifiable cultural arts event that defines the city of Vancouver and the region,” he said. “It will be the cultural event that brings nations together to celebrate the diversity of both our city and our nation.”

    Mowatt recently visited the Venice and Istanbul biennales, where he was encouraged by the warm reception and advice he received from their organizers.

    “Those were really important events to help us realize that we’ve done a doggone good job in maintaining a level of credibility and quality of the work, to be accepted by these people. And it encouraged us to realize that what we’re doing in Vancouver is very different from any other biennale because we’re about the open spaces, the public space, and accessibility.”

    He said he intends to bring the Vancouver Biennale more in line with the Venice curatorial model. To that end, he is in the process of putting together a team of international curators, an advisory council and operational board.

    “We’ve already identified our curator for Chinese art,” Mowatt said, adding that while the curatorial team will report to him as creative director, they will be given a lot of latitude to select works for the exhibition.

    Miriam Blume, director of marketing and business development for the Vancouver Biennale, says this development is essential to bolster the event’s credibility and support its growth.

    “It’s those curators that give us access to some of the greatest artists all over the world,” Blume said. “They’re the ones who understand who the hot emerging artists are in their countries. And we want that intelligence so that we can bring the most exciting exhibition possible.”

    A profitable non-profit

    When it comes to funding, Mowatt intends to continue in the entrepreneurial vein in which the Vancouver Biennale was born. Rather than relying on public funding or private fundraising, the biennale is run like a business.

    The works in the Vancouver Biennale are loaned to the organization for about two years. During that period, the biennale has the exclusive right to sell them privately or through auction. The proceeds are split between artist and the biennale, with percentages varying from contract to contract. Unsold works must be shipped back to the artist or lending body.

    Maquettes, or smaller-scale models of the sculptures, are also built especially for sale, to generate revenue and help defray the costs of returning unsold works.

    “It’s a wonderful business model because it takes us out of the realm of grant writing and fundraising and that very traditional non-profit model, and allows us to see our exhibition as an opportunity for profit, and moves us into the international art sales model. And all of the profits that come from the sales go back into the Vancouver Biennale Foundation to fund the next exhibition and all of our tertiary programming.”

    The need to make sales will have some influence on the works selected for exhibition, according to Blume.

    “The curatorial process for the biennale will have more of an eye toward salability,” Blume said. “The biennale always strives to bring in world renowned as well as exciting emerging artists … But in addition to that, we’re going to start looking at the primary and secondary markets for these artists, to ensure that we have a strong enough balance towards salability.”

    Blume is fiercely unapologetic about this emphasis on profitability.

    “I am really tired of non-profits feeling like they have to apologize for thriving,” she said. “Why is it that we live in a culture [in which] non-profits have to be poor? And always grant-writing and always begging private patrons for money. I applaud any non-profit organization that has a sound business model, where they’re not only self-sustaining, but they thrive.”

    However, Mowatt admits that the current instalment of the biennale has not been as profitable as was hoped. One large-scale sculpture has found a buyer, and at press time Blume was working on closing a second sale. Seven maquettes have sold, with another three sales pending, Blume said.

    To help put the biennale on firm financial ground, Mowatt is now looking for a sponsor or partner for the event. “We need to look at our funding model because our growth is really limited by the kind of money that we know we have in the pot,” Mowatt said. “We need to create an infrastructure where we have a core number of dollars sitting in a pot for the biennale to be able to draw from, and build on that through our sales and sponsorships.”

    Vancouver councillor Heather Deal says the biennale has been very popular with the public.

    “The biennale brings an enormous amount of large scale public art to the city at very little cost to the city,” she said in a phone interview.

    “People love it. There are bike tours set up to look at it. The fact that it’s changing all the time keeps it very vital for people. We have several different ways that we get public art in the city … But for the public, they don’t know, and they don’t really care which it comes from. They just like to see art.”

    The next instalment of the Vancouver Biennale is scheduled to run from 2013-2015.
    Maggie Langrick is the Vancouver Sun arts and life editor.