Dr. Rafal Niemojewski
Dr. Rafal Niemojewski is a cultural producer and scholar of contemporary art and its institutions. He holds a degree in history of art and curatorial studies from the Sorbonne and earned his doctoral degree from the Royal College of Art in London for his thesis on the proliferation of the contemporary biennial.
1. What was your motivation to join the Biennial Foundation? What was your position/task/vision at the beginning, and what has it become over time?
I see a continuous need for the discourse around biennials to be driven independently and without bias. Until the first World Biennial Forum, organized by Biennial Foundation in 2012, most of the conferences and knowledge-generating activities in the field were organized by particular biennials and often promoted their particular interests. The prospect of running an independent observatory and providing thought leadership to the industry was my main motivation. I have been involved with Biennial Foundation from its beginning, working on its research activities. I was honored to become the Executive Director in 2016.
2. How would you describe the model of the BF that you have worked towards and created? Also compared to other biennial research centers and organizations, or university departments and archives you have visited?
At the beginning of my tenure as Director, I worked with our Executive and Advisory Boards to reinvigorate the mission and organize the activities along the three main streams—Knowledge, Art, and Network. In this respect, our activities bring together various elements of a think tank, a commissioning agency, and a professional association.
3. What goals/wishes are connected with the BF over the medium- to long-term? What should be achieved in your opinion? What were your personal goals at the beginning, and what have they become?
In its early years, the Biennial Foundation focused on developing new connections and exchanges amongst biennials and biennial practitioners worldwide. This included the World Biennial Forum series and the professional association for biennial organizers (established in 2014). Over the years, our website has become a reference in the subject and a living archive for all thing related to biennials. We regularly commission and publish critical texts, reviews, and reportages called “biennialgrams.” The latest digital additions include an annotated bibliography and a dedicated platform for scholars who research biennials. Offline, we offer consulting services, a commissioning program, and completion grants for artists. Our long-term goal is to progressively expand our horizons to include biennials of design and architecture.
4. Biennials have proliferated as the art world has scaled in size and global reach in recent decades; however, very little information exists about the exact number, geographical reach, and funding and governance structures of these arts organizations. Can we compare biennials at all?
The exercise of counting biennials presumes that we can clearly identify what is (and what is not) a “biennial.” Establishing norms or imposing definitions is the last thing we want to do. The Directory of Biennials on our website is intended as a guideline, not an exhaustive list. Browsing it, one can quickly notice that we are dealing here with a very complex dataset, where irregularities and idiosyncrasies are very common. Likewise, any comparisons need to take into account a great number of local factors, which are often completely incompatible on the global scale. Each biennial only takes its full meaning when inscribed in the local context.
5. Biennials provide a point of convergence for the art world, expose large audiences to art (and other disciplines and mediums), and catalyze interest in cities and regions with global aspirations, would you agree? How does the BF's research activities and leadership satisfy this promise? Do biennials necessarily have a positive social and economic impact?
Our in-house research (including transversal reports and feasibility studies) clearly demonstrates that biennials can have a positive social and economic impact on their host communities. Paradoxically, the ones with the strongest impact are the organizations that organically grew out of the community, not the ones established following market research or policy actions. That is not to say that careful planning is not relevant, but it is important to not to over-engineer biennials.
6. Can you talk about the funding processes and sources of the BF and its activities?
We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization incorporated in the state of New York. Most of our funding comes from private donors and foundations. We also regularly receive in-kind support from private companies and corporations, like Google.
7. What sort of curatorial, institutional, or technological innovations can help ensure the vibrancy and relevance of art biennials going forward?
Biennials are very flexible structures and should be open to innovation by virtue. Their aspirational character and focus on the present moment also drives innovation. Biennials tend to explore the contingencies of contemporary art to imagine alternative futures rather than being driven by heritage (tangible or intangible) as it is the case for the majority of museums. I tend to believe that artists are the most prolific innovators. Ultimately, enabling them to play the central role is probably the best to ensure vibrancy and relevance.