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Aktualisiert: 10. Aug. 2021

Andrew Carnegie has founded The Carnegie International, a contemporary art exhibition, in 1896.
Andrew Carnegie has founded The Carnegie International, a contemporary art exhibition, in 1896.

Biennials, triennials, quadrennials, and even quinquennials — what is it all about? They are all international showcases for contemporary art. The most popular ones take place every two years and are called “Biennials” (American spelling) or “Biennales” (European spelling). Meanwhile, there are over 100 biennials all over the world.

As they are often named after their host city, biennials have become important for the cultural reputation and international tourism for many of them. Biennials often commission artists to create works and installations that remain in the city later on.

Most biennials show the art in national pavilions that exhibit work from their country’s artists. Additionally, they organise an exhibition that is curated by the biennial directors with a social or political theme.

What are the most important ones — and who has founded them?

1. Venice Biennale (Venice, Italy)

The Venice Biennale is the oldest and most prestigious biennial. It is often considered the archetype of all biennales because it was founded in 1895 as the first international art exhibition. It was meant to celebrate the silver anniversary of Italian King Umberto I (1844–1900) and Princess Margherita of Savoy (1851–1926).

Umberto I, Kind of Italy (1844–1900).
Umberto I, Kind of Italy (1844–1900).

The Venice Biennale is held this year. Its art exhibition shows 120 artists from 52 countries, and it runs until November 27th, 2017.

2. documenta (Kassel, Germany)

The documenta takes place every five years in the city of Kassel, Germany. It was founded by artist, teacher, and curator Arnold Bode (1900–1977) in 1955 and was meant to be a documentation of modern art, something that was not accessible to the German public during the National Socialism era.

Arnold Bode (1900–1977).
Arnold Bode (1900–1977).

In the meantime, the documenta has become the biggest of the international art world’s exhibitions — typically with more than 200 artists and a great number of exhibition sites (for more details, please see my previous post).

The 14th edition takes place in two cities this year:

documenta in Athens will be open until July 16th, 2017. documenta in Kassel will take place from 10 June 19th until September 17th, 2017.

3. The Whitney Biennial (NYC, United States):

New York’s Whitney Biennial was founded in 1932 and is hosted at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It showcases the artworks from both emerging and established American-based artists and often extends to sculpture exhibitions in Central Park.

The idea of the biennial exhibition goes back to the Whitney Studio Club, built by American art patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942) in 1918. Whitney also founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 1931, one year before the Whitney Biennial was launched.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942).
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942).

This year’s Whitney Biennial is open until June 11, 2017.

4. The Carnegie International (Pittsburgh, United States)

The Carnegie International is the oldest North American exhibition of contemporary art. It was organised by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) and opened its doors for the first time on November 5, 1896, in Pittsburgh, just one year after the first Venice Biennale.

Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919).
Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919).

Carnegie established the International to educate and inspire the public as well as to promote international cooperation and understanding.

The show has displayed virtually every major modern artist and is held every three to five years.

The next Carnegie International is scheduled for 2018.

5. Bienal de São Paulo (Sao Paulo, Brazil)

The Bienal de São Paulo has been held every other year since 1951 when it was founded by the Brazilian businessman Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho Matarazzo, known as Ciccillo Matarazzo (1898–1977). It is the biggest and oldest biennial in the Americas, and it features Brazilian, Latin American and international contemporary art in its curated thematic exhibitions. Matarazzo had founded the Modern Art Museum of São Paulo already in 1948.

Ciccillo Matarazzo (1898–1977).
Ciccillo Matarazzo (1898–1977).

The next edition of the Sao Paulo Bienal is scheduled for September 2018.

Where to go?

In case you live nearby or have a chance while travelling, go and explore one of the biennials suggested above. If not, you can try online options like artsy’s film “Inside the Venice Biennale” here.


Learn something about art every week:

Art Historian Ruth Polleit Riechert, PhD, would like to make the opaque art market more transparent for you by publishing her newsletter “Art A-Z”. Don’t miss any of the 26 issues and sign up here. See also her previous posts about “Street Art” (in German), “Printmaking” (in English), “documenta” (in English), “Modern Art” (English), and “Expressionism” (English).

Book your art advisory consult:

If you would like to get help in buying and selling art wisely, please contact Ruth here.



 // Dr. Ruth Polleit Riechert // Email: // Phone: +49 (0)6174-955694


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