How Global Art Festivals Drive Art and Public Connections

The question that the public often asks about art is: Why do artworks that seem so simple and random sell for so much? Does it have any special value? In the past, the art world actually did not care about how the public understood and evaluated artworks. Because the art market has formed a closed loop: artists, critics, painters and collectors. In recent years, however, the public’s evaluation has become increasingly important. If a work is collected by a public-oriented gallery/museum and recognized by the public, the artist’s value will multiply. A gap has also opened in the previously closed art circle, and art festivals serving the public’s art needs have been popping up around the world.

An Island Reborn by the Festival

Seto Inland Sea International Arts Festival

The Setouchi International Arts Festival in Japan has been held every three years since 2010. The main venue for the festival is on several small islands near Takamatsu City in Kagawa Prefecture, Japan. These islands are scattered across the turquoise blue Seto Inland Sea, and the festival invites renowned artists from around the world to create works based on the local environment of the islands, attracting visitors and art lovers from all over the world.

Vision of Seto Inland Sea, Japan

However, a few decades ago, the Seto Inland Sea island group was not a paradise. These small islands of the Arts Festival sacrificed their ecological environment to develop industry. These islands were once the heart of the birth of Japan’s industrial miracle, and fishermen who had lived by fishing for thousands of years went into the copper smelting industry as a result of the industrial development of the Meiji Restoration. As the industry grew, the surrounding environment began to deteriorate. For example, Naoshima Island became bald and forested because of the sulfite gas released from the refining process, and Toshima and Inujima were contaminated with industrial waste and sulfite gas. As the environment deteriorated, the island’s industries declined, and young people left the island in droves. In this way, the island’s economy continued to decline and aging became more and more serious, and it was about to become an abandoned island. At that time, the Fukutake Foundation of Japan bought the southern part of Naoshima Island and invited famous artists such as Tadao Ando to design art museums and hotels on the island, such as the Benesse House Museum, the Jidaka Museum of Art, and the Ando Museum, etc. Since then, the Setouchi International Art Festival project, which restores the original beauty of the Setouchi Islands and revitalizes the local economy, has been in operation. The Setouchi International Art Festival is now in operation.

The island’s art museum

The island’s art museum

The island’s art museum

Soichiro Fukutake has dissected the reason for the island’s high level of aging is that young people feel that their hometown is not vibrant, not attractive, and not worth staying, so they are leaving in droves. However, Soichiro Fukutake feels that people on the islands live very happy lives, unlike people in big cities who have long daily commutes, work overtime, and have a low sense of well-being.

From this, two main lines of the Setouchi International Arts Festival gradually became clear, the first of which is to use the power of modern art to reinvent the charm of the island. Although the festival is held once every three years, the exhibition period is long, spanning spring, summer and autumn, with different artworks open in different seasons, giving visitors a new experience each time. The island’s artwork is also all-encompassing, the product of a collaborative effort by artists from more than 180 countries.

The second is to tap into the island’s local flavor and revitalize local culture. After the success of the island museum, architects such as Tadao Ando came up with the Empty House Project. The project hopes to rely on the original old houses on the island and renovate them to show the local style and stories. In addition to renovating old houses, local islanders are also actively involved in the creation of the festival, transforming their houses into restaurants and promoting the unique local food culture.

Seto International Art Festival Iconic Sculpture, Yayoi Kusama’s Pumpkin

In this way, the Setouchi International Arts Festival, with its unique charm, has seen an increasing number of visitors, from 970,000 in the first edition to 1.04 million in the recently held third edition. According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the third Setouchi International Arts Festival has boosted the economy of the island and the nearby Kagawa Prefecture, with visitors staying longer and spending more, and the overall economic pulling effect was 13.9 billion yen, an increase of 5% percentage points compared to the 2013 edition.

After years of development, Naoshima, the largest island in the island group, is now known as a mecca for art. The island is scattered with works by well-known artists, and the local islanders have become an important backing force for the festival. Young people who love art have come to the island, and the whole island has become thriving and vibrant.

Some happy, some sad

The failed Sapporo Arts Festival in Japan

Seeing the cultural and economic impact of the Setouchi International Arts Festival, various parts of Japan have followed suit, however, following the trend does not guarantee success, and the Sapporo Arts Festival in Japan, for example, has fallen far short of the expected impact.

Sapporo International Arts Festival Poster

After the first Sapporo Arts Festival in 2014, a lot of reflections and criticisms sprang up on the Japanese internet: the Sapporo Arts Festival was not lively enough and did not have the atmosphere of an arts festival. Sapporo citizens did not have a sense of involvement in the organization of the festival. The promotion of the festival in Sapporo was not consistent and lost its strength halfway through. The first Sapporo International Arts Festival in 2014 was planned by artist Ryuichi Sakamoto, who proposed the theme “From now on, let’s consider how to make the city and nature coexist. ” was the theme of the festival. However, this theme was entirely the artist’s own idea, and the local people neither participated nor resonated with it. This left the festival suspended in the air and lost its appeal. This is in stark contrast to the Setouchi International Art Festival mentioned above, which places special emphasis on the participation and recognition of local residents and has formed a special volunteer squad, led by local residents, with volunteers from various localities working together to help make the festival run smoothly.

Sapporo International Arts Festival Live View

The first failed Sapporo Arts Festival in 2014 did not stop there; in 2017 it relaunched, inviting musician Ryoei Otomo as the chief planner and reflecting on the current situation where arts festivals are blossoming everywhere by proposing a new theme: “What is an arts festival really about?” Unfortunately, this second Sapporo International Arts Festival still did not have the desired effect. Although the number of venues for the second Sapporo International Arts Festival increased from the original 18 venues to 45 venues, the number of visitors dropped from 480,000 in the first edition to 370,000. Many visitors expressed disappointment about the festival. The artworks were too crude, not moving and shocking, but instead began to wonder if they really deserved to be called artworks. Some visitors pointed out that the festival seemed to have borrowed a lot from successful examples such as the Setouchi International Art Festival in order to make up for the shortcomings of the previous one, and copied their models without any new ideas, and there was a suspicion of plagiarism.

Some of the exhibits at the Sapporo International Arts Festival

Some of the exhibits at the Sapporo International Arts Festival

After two consecutive failures, the Sapporo city government was chastised by local residents for squandering tax money willy-nilly without achieving the desired results, and there were strong calls to hold the mayor and the festival planning department accountable. The example of the Sapporo International Arts Festival proves that the festival is not a 100 percent success plan.

Systematic European Art Exhibitions

Venice Biennale and Documenta Kassel

The Venice Biennale has endured for a hundred years and is one of the oldest surviving exhibitions in the world. From the first edition in 1895, it has experienced changes such as the World War and witnessed the development and changes of contemporary art. The Venice Biennale can be said to be the source of the current biennials blossoming all over the world and is also known as the Olympics of the contemporary art world. The international reputation of the Venice Biennale has grown, and the number of visitors from all over the world has increased from 224,000 at the beginning to about 500,000 today. The Venice Biennale consists mainly of the exhibitions in the national pavilions and more than forty parallel exhibitions. On the small island of Venice, almost all the space that can be used for exhibitions is decorated with artworks. The Venice Biennale and China also have a deep connection. Thirteen Chinese artists were invited by Oliva, the chief curator of the Venice Biennale in 1933, and ten years later, Chinese contemporary art occupied an exclusive Chinese pavilion at the Venice Biennale. And by 2017, the number of Chinese exhibiting artists reached a peak of over 300.

The greatest charm of the Venice Biennale is that it is possible to see the development of modern art from all over the world in one venue, becoming a platform for artists, collectors and art lovers from all over the world to exchange ideas. Behind this successful platform, there is also a mature system of operation. The Venice Biennale Organizing Committee is responsible for the overall operation and execution of the Venice Biennale. The Organizing Committee’s funding comes mainly from government grants, the collection of exhibitors’ fees and sponsorship income. However, for the participating artists, the fees paid to the organizing committee are not much, and most of them are paid to the local service providers in Venice. For example, in some categories, exhibitors are restricted from bringing in their own exhibit workers and have to hire local workers at high prices. There is also the cost of hiring exhibition staff and the escalating cost of hotels, food and transportation due to the art exhibitions. It can be said that Venice, a small city on the water, is dependent on the service industry, and the Biennale is the benchmark of Venice.

In addition to the Venice Biennale, another major European art exhibition, Documenta Kassel, has also developed over the years as a result of its development. Documenta is held every five years in the German city of Kassel, and each exhibition lasts for one hundred days, also known as the 100-day museum. The first Kassel Documenta was established in 1955 by artist, teacher and curator Arnauld Bode as part of the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Horticultural Show), which was intended to summarize the early modern present from the 19th to the early 20th century and attracted a total of 130,000 visitors. Its original purpose was to bring German art up to date with the world’s contemporary art, while also critiquing the dark side of Nazi culture.

Two installations by Vlassis Caniaris (1928-2011), “Hopscotch” and “Coexistence”, are on display at Documenta in Kassel

Documenta always adheres to its academic orientation, with a five-year cycle that gives artists at least 1-2 years to create their works. At the same time, unlike other art fairs, Documenta does not accept applications from artists or recommendations from galleries and other art commercial organizations, and its artworks are selected and invited worldwide by a dedicated curatorial team. The entire planning and preparation process is rigorous and meticulous, giving the curators enough time to think and polish, ensuring that the curators’ academic ideas are not infected, and that the entire Documenta has a serious tone, rather than simply bringing artists and enthusiasts together to revel. It has become an important coordinate of international contemporary art, the focus of attention in Western culture, and a mirror image of the times in Western society.

Iconic Exhibit at Documenta 2017 in Kassel: The Parthenon of Books by Marta Minujín

Like the Venice Biennale, Documenta Kassel has changed the story of a city. Kassel was originally an industrial and military city that was bombed into ruins during World War II. The only large city in the northern part of the German state of Hesse is uniquely positioned to develop a base for art exhibitions. With approximately 106 square kilometers and a population of nearly 200,000, the city has enough space for art exhibitions, as well as a local restaurant, accommodation and transportation system to accommodate visitors from all over the world. On the other hand, Kassel has a strong cultural tradition, with the city’s landmark statue of Hercules built during the Renaissance. Thanks to Documenta Kassel, the city has become a city of culture and art.

The most recent 14th Documenta took a step beyond Germany’s borders and opened a section in Athens as well. Chief curator Adam Szymczyk proposed a budget of 37,000,000 euros, and the actual money spent exceeded this figure, making Documenta one of the most expensive visual art exhibitions in the world.

Both the Venice Biennale and Documenta Kassel have developed a complete exhibition system and support system due to their long development time and profound accumulation, and have become world-renowned examples of art exhibitions driving cities.

The Dilemma of South America – Sao Paulo Biennial, Brazil

Founded in 1951, the Bienal de São Paulo is the second oldest biennial in Brazil after the Venice Biennale. The São Paulo Biennial was initiated by Francisco Ciccillo Matarazzo Sobrinho, an industrialist of Italian descent, who was also the president of the Biennial until his death in 1975. Since 1957, the fourth edition has been held in the pavilion of the Biennale, designed by the architect Niemeyer. Like the Venice Biennale, the São Paulo Biennale also chose to combine a national pavilion with an international exhibition. However, unlike Venice, São Paulo Biennale does not have separate national pavilions, but rather has all the national pavilions distributed in one large space. In this way, there is no competition between different countries for favorable pavilions, and to a certain extent, a fairer and more pure environment for artistic discussion is created. The specificity of the São Paulo Biennial stems from its geographical location – Latin America, away from the traditional European centers – and is one of the few art exhibitions in developing countries that has a great global impact and prestige.

The history of the São Paulo Biennial, however, is more difficult. For one thing, the biennial has not received much support from the local government, and for obvious reasons. Brazil, once one of the BRIC countries along with China, India and Russia, is now economically stagnant and heavily in debt. The Brazilian government cannot afford the high operating costs of cultural institutions, and even the cultural program for the Olympic Games has been cancelled due to funding problems. Therefore, the São Paulo Biennial is in a very bad situation. Compared with the strong government financial support behind Documenta in Kassel, Germany and the Venice Biennale, the São Paulo Biennial enjoys less than 10% of the financial aid. The huge scale and expenses have to rely on private and corporate sponsorship.

Poster for the 2016 Sao Paulo Biennial, Brazil, on the theme of existential uncertainty

In addition to the financial troubles, the São Paulo Biennial came to face a volatile political situation. This conflict reached its peak in 2016, immediately after the closing of the problematic 2016 Olympic Games, which was followed by the Brazilian Biennale. During the Olympics, the Brazilian public was extremely vocal in its opposition to the government’s spending of large amounts of tax money to host the Games, disregarding the living standards of the local population. At the time, politician Michel Temer automatically took office without being elected and with the support of the military. He removed Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president in office at the time, and tens of thousands of people took to the streets during the Brazilian Biennale to protest and demand Temer’s ouster. President Temer had also proposed at the 2016 G20 summit to abolish the Ministry of Culture to balance the fiscal deficit. The dramatically volatile political situation and the government’s reduced cultural investment have overshadowed the Brazilian Biennale.

Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, chief curator of the 33rd edition of the São Paulo Biennial

And this year Brazil will welcome the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo, from September 7 to December 9. Chief curator Gabriel Perez-Barreiro wants to use the Bienal as an opportunity to rethink the way the Bienal is organized, and he has invited seven artists to create seven different exhibitions based on this year’s theme: “Affective Affinities He invited seven artists to create seven different exhibitions based on this year’s theme: “Affective Affinities” (Affective Affinities). Let’s wait and see what kind of surprises the Brazilian Biennale will bring to us in this seamy survival.