Notes on the Biennial

Biennale! The word conjures visions of Venice, and perhaps Istanbul, Havana, and Sydney. Big international contemporary art shows all, but Biennale di Venezia, begun in 1895, is the grande dame, the international benchmark. The Texas Biennial is a newcomer, and a local.

Begun in 2005, the TB is a project of the Austin-based arts nonprofit Big Medium, and is restricted to Texas artists, who are chosen from an open call. This year the Biennial’s fourth edition, held April 19-May 14, stretched out to include small shows in San Antonio’s Blue Star Contemporary Art Center and at BOX 13 ArtSpace in Houston. Added to the open-call roster were invited artists, chosen by this year’s curator, New York-based art historian and art lawyer Virginia Rutledge. It was bigger, brassier, and it didn’t work.

The official shows in outlying cities were small remnants of an exhibition; many pieces scattered about Austin were hard to find. Though the curator’s choices were rational, dominated by shiny, non-political work, the affiliated “friends of the Biennial” exhibits promoted by galleries here and anon added confusion and fat, rendering the month’s efforts into a hodge-podge of bric-brac.

Suggestions for a new Texas Biennial format include notable comments by Rainey Knudson (, May 27, 2011) to “Rotate the city where it’s held every two years. Stick to one city at a time.” Among “ideal venues,” she mentions the Fort Worth Modern and here in SA, the McNay.

While we tend to think that the Texas Biennial moving, even briefly, to SA is about as likely as our town getting SXSW, a comparison of the two events seemed in order, especially as our intrepid contributing writer Penelope Boyer was on hand in Italy. Her comments below might apply to other art galas in SA (hello, Luminaria), as well.

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