Destination Biennale!

The Folkestone Mermaid by Cornelia Parker - commissioned for the Folkestone Triennial 2011 - photo by  diamond geezer on Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Folkestone Mermaid by Cornelia Parker - commissioned for the Folkestone Triennial 2011 - photo by diamond geezer on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As the cultural sector continues to advocate for its work, its value to society and contribution to the economy, arts writer Dany Louise shares a paper drawn from her academic research into three international contemporary art biennials.

She defends both the role and nature of public funding as a great enabler for the production and presentation of contemporary art in the biennial content, whilst ensuring relevance and meaning for its location. She emphasises the role of arts professionals in working with policy, and where appropriate, challenging it, as an essential factor within this functionality.  

Louise's thesis focuses on the interface between biennials of art and public policy within the broader trend towards neo-liberal economic development. As cultural policy in the UK has become increasingly dominated by instrumentalist thinking with considerable emphasis placed on access, inclusion and community connections, alongside a need to demonstrate a quantifiable contribution to economic development, place making and destination marketing, it would suggest potentially conflicting value systems, both at micro and macro levels. Dany Louise asks: what position and role are biennials of art expected to have locally, regionally, nationally and internationally?

For more detail on her research, please contact Dany Louise on

Destination Biennale! An examination of the interface between biennials of art and public policy within a neo-liberal context.

My research investigated three biennials of art as part of a case-study approach – the Liverpool Biennial, the Folkestone Triennial and the Istanbul Biennial. 

All three have similarities in that they are “cities on the edge” – geographically on the edge of their respective countries, but also on the edge in the sense of being peripheral, and operating within a regeneration context.

In common with most biennial organisations, Liverpool, Folkestone and Istanbul are surrounded by a range of agendas which include the artistic, but are also external, to do with destination marketing and economic development. In Istanbul’s case, there was also a Modernist European agenda; an intention to stake the country’s place on the diplomatic and economic stages by consciously modernising to the Western European model. This was a very strong motivating factor in its establishment in 1987, but the internationalist agenda is also common to many of the newer biennials, particularly those in Asia. In the era of proliferation, biennials have often been used as “soft power” and to suggest an association with European enlightenment values - even when these values are not generally present within the individual state.

The great difference between the Istanbul and the UK biennials is in how they are financed. All three were initially established independently of municipal and state mechanisms. Individual philanthropists played a crucial role. James Moores gave £1m to the Liverpool Biennial which enabled the first edition in 1999. Roger de Haan made £1.5m available to the Folkestone Triennial through the Creative Foundation for 2008. In Istanbul the IKSV – a foundation for the presentation of art – was set up by ten very wealthy industrialists and the Istanbul Biennial still operates under this umbrella. 

Subsequently, the Liverpool Biennial and Folkestone Triennial have levered in considerable public funding which enables their continued operation. However, the Istanbul Biennial is dependent for 97% of its funding on private sector sponsorship, trusts and foundations. 

In the UK, as we all know, public funding comes with strings attached. This conditional nature of their funding, as well as the principles and integrity present in the Liverpool Biennial and Folkestone Triennial organisations, has ensured that the art that is produced and presented has strong links to their locations, through themes, site-specificity and through community involvement, with a variety of methods employed.

Istanbul is quite different. In the last 15 years, the city has become known for being a kind of centre for extreme free-market capitalism, taking full advantage of globalised markets. It has embraced neo-liberal economic development, a system whose defining characteristic is to prioritise the profit motive above all other considerations. It tends to have a homogenising influence (which is why we have a tendency towards “clone high streets”). Art can provide a counter-point to this system, being both plural in nature and a vehicle for individual expression. It can be argued that this is, in part, what gives art its “symbolic power”.

I have read the Istanbul Biennial as being an expression of neo-liberal values, unlike my two UK case studies. It is very much externally focused, aiming its exhibitions at the elite of the international art world, and making little impact on the city of Istanbul or its indigenous arts infrastructure. It often shows its exhibitions in two barely publicised warehouses, charges entry, and has very minimal learning programmes. The work it shows, and the locations it shows in, rarely have any connection at all with its distinctive location, and the artworks have often been seen before. They’re flown in for the biennial edition and then flown out again. Unlike the Liverpool Biennial and Folkestone Triennial, the Istanbul Biennial doesn’t bring many benefits to the residents of Istanbul, or help to develop the arts infrastructure there.

This kind of situation is critiqued as “biennial culture”.  Aspects of this culture were seen as problematical at the “a biennial for the southwest” discussion held at Arnolfini in 2012, leading to a rejection of the idea. To the participants it signified bloated budgets and possibly bloated art, and the potential to siphon off increasingly scarce public money with little promise of a favourable impact for artists and the arts infrastructure of the southwest.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Despite the swirl of agendas around the Liverpool Biennial and Folkestone Triennial, both have managed to remain arts-led, inextricably linked to the particularities of their location and accessible to a wide audience. What factors have enabled this?

My research reveals three crucial points:

  1. A favourable cultural policy and funding environment throughout their existence, the importance of which can’t be underestimated. Despite significant criticisms of public policy, my research has shown that it has been essentially functional within the biennial context.
  2. Independence from municipal and state mechanisms at their inception, allowing both events to establish themselves, their artistic direction and their operational principles before entering the public funding domain.
  3. Appointment of highly knowledgeable and experienced senior arts professionals from the start, who then hired skilled teams to deliver each event. This is often the under-recognised aspect of commentary on art and cultural policy. Skilled and experienced staff with sound judgement are able to work with cultural policy where it is enabling, but have the authority and experience to get around, influence or confront policy where it is flawed.  This is the essential second part of the equation that enables me to make the judgement that “cultural policy has been essentially functional” within the terms of my research. Without the arts professionals, however, I would be less confident about making this statement.

Symbolic Value

Both the Liverpool Biennial and Folkestone Triennial bring great benefits to Liverpool and Folkestone. In art terms, the Liverpool Biennial has produced over 250 new works in its lifetime, often sited in the public realm; brought a contemporary international focus to the art scene there, and in some ways provided a stable platform, profile and regular highlight for artists working in the city, as well as the other visual arts organisations who have worked in collaboration with the Biennial from the beginning. The Liverpool Biennial has always had a very well developed community and learning programme, with a number of different pathways in to access the Biennial exhibitions and organisation. In recent years, the Liverpool Biennial has led or worked on some long-term projects that are specifically about arts-led regeneration, for example, The Canal Project, the Anfield Bakery (officially called Two Up, Two Down), and Everton Park, in addition to the regular biennial event. Each uses artists and art techniques to work towards tangible regenerative outcomes on a long-term basis that sits outside the three months span of the regular biennial event. 

The Folkestone Triennial has also largely commissioned new works never shown before in the world, and has also sited them in the public realm. Their commissioning process also themes works to relate to Folkestone in some form. Both organisations are known for ‘treating artists well’; paying proper fees and expenses, and working collaboratively to develop and realise new artworks. 

But it is their highly influential symbolic value that is their most compelling justification on a long-term basis. Both events are part of powerful new narratives of city and town; narratives that are changing from crime, poverty and inevitable seaside decline, to the very much more positive sense that exciting activity is taking place that is worth being part of. The principle of art as a public good is very much in evidence in these two locations, despite – and in part because of - the instrumentalist conditions attached to cultural funding.

The Istanbul Biennial operates in a very different way. The principle of art as a public good is not embedded into the organisational culture as it is in the UK. Further, the absence of cultural policy and associated funding means that it is also not obliged to provide benefits to the city or its residents, beyond its own existence.

Biennials and Regeneration

Biennials, particularly in the west, are often spoken about as part of regeneration initiatives, and often funded through this agenda. In fact, there is considerable debate about the economic impact of arts initiatives generally, as well as questioning of whether this is the most useful way to report on them -  given economic impact reports almost always marginalise artistic content and other impacts, such as social and symbolic capital. 

Do biennials contribute to regeneration? It depends on what definition of regeneration is being used, and whether it includes social as well as physical regeneration, economic development as well as skills development etc There is no doubt that both the Folkestone Triennial and Liverpool Biennial bring in significant external cash, and certainly some proportion of it will be spent locally. For many years Liverpool Biennial had an informal “buy locally” policy, employing local arts professionals, fabricators, workshop leaders, designers, printers etc Vast numbers of people visit the Liverpool Biennial – 529,000 in 2008, 475,000 in 2010 - the majority of whom will spend varying amounts of money in the city. There will be some “trickle down” benefits as a result.

But despite having had a biennial for fifteen years, a Tate for sixteen years and a well established arts infrastructure; indeed, despite being awarded European Capital of Culture 2008, with the accompanying rhetoric of super-charged regeneration, the economic figures for Liverpool are still grim – see Liverpool City Council’s economic briefings for the last few years (Liverpool Economic Briefing). According to “The Index of Multiple Deprivation, A Liverpool Analysis”, issued by Liverpool City Council in 2011: “Liverpool remains ranked as the most deprived local authority area in England on the ID 2010, with its position unchanged from the 2004 and 2007 Indices” – a fairly startling indictment of just how little impact on the city thirty or so years of regeneration policies and over £3bn cash has had.

For me, this evidences the futility of justifying arts projects primarily in economic terms. Despite steadily scaled up waves of culture-led regeneration projects, from the establishment of Tate Liverpool to the enormous European Capital of Culture project in 2008, the issues at stake are too intractable for ‘culture’ in even its broadest definitions to solve. 

The Folkestone Triennial operates within a slightly different context. It’s one important but relatively small part of a more wide-ranging holistic “creativity-led” strategy. The Creative Foundation acknowledged that that it would have considerable symbolic influence rather than quantifiable economic impact.  This was a highly realistic position to take and is considerably different from the expectations of economic and regenerative impact that surrounds the Liverpool Biennial.


So what to do when our public policy and funding system, and ultimately, the Treasury, requires quantifiable information?  The accumulation of statistics from several arts organisations will make for a stronger narrative and more compelling case, not just for artistic value but for economic and regeneration values. Consequently, there is a strong case that arts organisations should always produce collective rather than individual figures in order to create not only more persuasive arguments, but also more useful ones.

Overall, in my research I argue that the creation of biennials or other large-scale visual arts events with aims that are primarily about civic and economic boosterism are unlikely to be entirely successful. But allowing for and enabling an ‘arts first’ approach and a variation of the ‘arms length’ policy is likely to greatly increase the probability of success on a holistic, local, experiential, consistent and ultimately, a more valuable basis. 

For more detail on her research, please contact Dany Louise on