Almost every conversation I've had about art in Chicago focuses on how the city isn't New York (or LA or Berlin). It's a cultural center, but it’s much smaller than any of the meccas we commonly name. As such, mottos like “Do good work and work like hell to get it out to New York” aren't unusual.
That way of thinking makes for a good underdog story, but it doesn't work for everyone. In a recent op-ed for Artnet, artist Tony Fitzpatrick argues for a Biennial to boost Chicago's international rankings. Many Chicagoans want to be a destination rather than a feeder city to larger centers, and a biennial has the potential to bring attention to a city that's already chock-full of artists and institutions.
I think that’s a great idea, and I particularly like that Fitzpatrick doesn't want another boring, tasteless art fair. In the wake of Art Chicago's demise, why not try something different?
The obvious model, Fitzpatrick claims, is Prospect New Orleans, Dan Cameron’s massive post-Katrina biennial. The reasoning goes that since Prospect was a civic and critical success, Chicago's version might be, too:
Now, there are damn few things about which I would tell the city of Chicago to emulate the city of New Orleans in cultural practice, but a few years ago, the cultural revitalization of New Orleans — post-Katrina — began in earnest. And you know what? With a few bold strokes, it worked.
[B]y taking measure of the city and its art, in its totality, even the most callous of critics would be seduced by the charming knot of contradictions that New Orleans is. Indeed, the reviews were ecstatic; the New York Times, the New Yorker and all the art rags fairly glowed with positive notices.
Unfortunately, positive reviews don't always translate into economic success, much less immediate art-stardom for a city's artists. As Randy Kennedy at The New York Times reported in 2010, even Prospect had its fair share of fundraising and administrative problems, which threatened its success. One year later, Prospect.2, which ran from October 2011 through January of this year, suffered from scant reviews and diminishing interest.
Of course, a Chicago Biennial doesn't have to look like Prospect. Instead of having an outside organization like Prospect (with offices located in New York) coordinate a Biennial, one of Chicago's major institutions like The Art Institute of Chicago or The Museum of Contemporary Art could host a Biennial.
I agree with Jason Foumberg, New City Art Editor, that it “must be a concerted effort among the city’s major art organizations” and “[i]t needs corporate partners, like United Airlines, to fly in visiting artists.” All of these resources could give rise to a well-run and -funded exhibition that involves a large part of the city—as long as one of the city's curatorial departments steps in.
If Chicago wants to get noticed, hosting a Biennial would be a choice idea. The city needs to do something different, and a Biennial is well within their reach. I’m looking forward to seeing this happen.