Yesterday afternoon I attended a panel discussion on the Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s Biennial, where audience and panelists tossed around questions of what defines a Biennial. Is it a showcase for emerging talent? Should the selections reflect the post-modern scene and a variety of media? One panelist, whose career is well-established, felt that this Biennial, and the Portland Museum of Art Biennial, should reflect the career spectrum of Maine artists, and had entered because he felt a certain responsibility in that direction. The other two artists on the panel, though they work in traditional mediums, are new to the “fine art” scene. All around, the dialogue was refreshingly direct and free of art-speak.
CMCA Curator Britta Konau pointed out that Maine’s Biennials are unusually democratic, because they are juried rather than curated (and also carry no entrance fee), so that anyone with a Maine connection is eligible to enter. In addition to the recognition that inclusion provides, there is a Jurors’ Award which, since CMCA is not a collecting institution, takes the form of a small solo show the following year. And then the question was put, should there also be a “People’s Choice” awarded by popular vote of the viewers? A part of the mission of arts organizations these days involves engaging the public, and one imagines that the People’s Choice would be very different from the Jurors’ Award. Even so, viewers would likely make a more sophisticated choice than Komar and Melamid’s version of the most-wanted American painting: a dishwasher-size realist landscape with blue skies.
So, why not let the public have its say? Contemporary art derives part of its meaning from the viewer, and what better way to engage people in new forms of art and do a little consciousness-raising at the same time?