Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A Philadelphia Biennial

Carl Pope, from The Mind of Cleveland, 2007-8.
Letterpress poster, 24 x 18 inches.

Dear friends:

Philagrafika 2010 is coming to an end this Sunday, April 11. Please, if you haven’t seen it all, take the opportunity to visit the core and ancillary shows. Our calendar lists the hours of operation and the program so you can plan your visit ahead of time.

We are extremely satisfied with the response to the festival. We had a high attendance by out-of-towners especially during the Southern Graphics Council and NCECA conferences, which, combined, brought almost 7000 visitors to the city. But the local public has also supported us massively in every single event and program we have had in the past two and a half months. By now, Philagrafika is a household name, like the Fringe. We need to build on this success with the aim to establish Philagrafika as a staple in the cultural life of the city.

Critical response has also been extremely positive. Art in America ran a 7-page article in its April issue that covers the entire span of the show. NPR’s All Things Considered aired a 6-minute segment about Philagrafika, which brought even more awareness to our project in the national arena. In addition, The New York Times devoted a half-page review, and all of the local newspapers have written thoughtful, in-depth articles about Philagrafika as a whole, or about specific shows or artists.

I am writing this post in relation to Roberta Fallon's article calling for the establishment of a Philadelphia Biennial. I must say that I agree with Roberta in most of what she says. But I also think that Philagrafika 2010 is exactly what she is calling for.

Philagrafika is an international Biennial-type event (in our case, Triennial), that brings together local, national and international artists. As other events of this type, it showcases the local scene (artists, curators and institutions) to the large public that visits the event, and prompts collaboration with the international artists that come and work here. It is a proven fact that in those cities which have a recurring international art event the local artistic community thrives, because of the exposure to new and challenging art, and by the relationships and working partnerships that usually make part of the implementation of large shows.

Roberta calls for an event that is multi-sited, curated by museum heads, includes an outside curator, and produces a catalog. That is exactly the model that we developed, where a group of local curators, each one associated with a major institution, collaborated with me towards a common goal. The publication is on its way.

There are only two differences I can see between Philagrafika and the Philadelphia Biennial that Roberta is proposing:

One, she is thinking of an event that focus on regional contemporary art. Whereas Philagrafika’s core show features local artists in its mix (which includes 18 countries and more than 25 cities), it is not to be forgotten that the larger component of the event are the Independent Projects, which bring together more than 80 institutions in which local artists (more than 700!) figure prominently. A second incarnation of Philagrafika could broaden the participation of local artists in the core show. As the case with most artistic scenes, Philadelphia artists want to show and be seen in an international context, not just amongst their local peers.

Two, Philagrafika 2010 is framed by medium specificity, which is a characteristic other biennials do not have. As I stated in the talk I gave as part of the panel “Prints, or Contemporary Art”? at the SGC conference, having print as a reference is to be understood as a parameter that can be rethought creatively. It suffices to visit the PMA and see Tabaimo’s and Oscar Muñoz’s video installations to realize that a medium need not be restrictive at all. The Whitney Biennial is an event that has its own limitations to overcome: namely, the imperative of defining who can be considered American, which calls for permanent negotiation given the Whitney's mandate and the nomadic nature of artists in this age of globalization. Any of the works in Philagrafika 2010, I would contend (at least in The Graphic Unconscious and Out of Print components) would feel at ease at any other biennial in the world, including the Whitney (provided they can classify as American, that is).

Ken Johnson summed it up succinctly in the New York Times: "Is printmaking dead, or is it reborn? Is it a meaningful category at all anymore for contemporary artists who revel in mechanically produced imagery of all kinds and fearlessly use and misuse whatever tools are at hand? If you think these questions matter -and there are good reasons to think they do- you need to plan a trip to Philadelphia."

In short, I would encourage the local community to side by Philagrafika towards its new incarnation, which should happen in three years, and together build on the success of the festival, which is a shared success of the entire artistic community of Philadelphia. It is to be noted that every penny we raised was given to the core participating venues to fund their part of the exhibition. This is a truly collaborative effort that has benefited the entire community. Let’s move forward with Philagrafika 2013. Together we can make this happen.

José Roca.
Artistic Director, Philagrafika