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Bigger! Better! Beyond-er!

Behind the scenes at WNY’s ever-expanding biennial

First there’s the name: Beyond/In Western New York.Scott McCarney, Multiple Orgasm, 2009 (at WNY Book Arts).

Usually shortened to simply Beyond/In, the moniker generally elicits a head-scratching blank-eyed stare from those unfamiliar with its etymology. It’s actually an extension of In Western New York, the previous Albright-Knox Art Gallery regional biennial, which itself was an extension of an earlier juried exhibition titled Western New York. When museum director Louis Grachos joined the gallery he expanded the scope of the exhibition beyond its traditional borders to include Central New York, Southern Ontario, Northeastern Ohio, and Northwestern Pennsylvania. Thus was coined Beyond/In Western New York.

Beyond/In is alternately referred to as an “international” or “regional” contemporary art exhibition (hint, nearby Ontario is actually in another nation), and though it is generally identified as a biennial, it took three years to pull the latest one together. September marks the launch of the third edition, which signifies yet another expansion of the concept. This time, ten prominent non-regional artists (some with local connections) have been invited to join ninety-four area artists. “The goal isn’t to replicate an international biennial model,” says Grachos. “We have the Whitney and Carnegie; I don’t think it’s important for us to aspire to that sort of exhibition. But I think it’s important that each Beyond/In offers something a little different, and that there’s an ongoing commitment to morphing the show.” Happily, the latest morph didn’t necessitate adding another word to the title.

Beyond/In is still organized by the Albright-Knox, but it has grown to occupy twelve museums and galleries, and a number of additional sites around the region. It’s all the result of a unique collaboration involving fourteen curators from the participating venues. “We had some really strong planning sessions in terms of how to grow this show,” explains Grachos. “[Project director] John Massier and [project consultant] Bruce Ferguson traveled to other biennials. The curatorial group worked very hard to create a context for the show’s fundamental core of the art of the region.” Indeed, the idea to expand Beyond/In originated with one of the curators, Joanna Angie, who originally suggested extending the borders to Ontario—and then, she wondered, why not invite national artists? “My thought was, by expanding the breadth of the exhibition, our artists will have to compete on an international level,” says Angie. “With Canada, we already had an international component. With this latest expansion, we are just broadening the conversation.” Yet it’s the local art that Grachos says offered the greatest surprises. “The curatorial team was extremely impressed with the quality of work they saw—artists we didn’t know about. That’s why this exhibition is important; it allows the curators to look at the community in a very strategic manner, and document what they see. The curators are committed to it.”

Phil Hastings Steadfast, Video (at Buffalo Arts Studio).

Massier outlines the sometimes mysterious process of selecting artists, starting with a three-month open call in 2009, which netted 700 submissions that the curators collectively reviewed: “That is, we literally sat together in a room and looked at them.” The curators scored the art, made notes, and discussed. Then the real work began. Curatorial teams made 136 studio visits, twice the amount of 2007. “It’s actually on the verge of being impractical,” Massier recalls, “but that number reflects the genuine interest of the curators in the work they were seeing.” The group reconvened to discuss which artists they wanted to show at their individual venues and other sites. “It was rarely the case that different curators were interested in the same artists, which is frankly a little unbelievable, but it reflects a very healthy diversity of perspective … The audience is not going to be bored.”

Perhaps recognizing the need to balance this diversity with some overarching order, the organizers asked artists for the first time to respond to a unifying theme: “Alternating Currents.” Like most themes, this one is highly elastic, harkening back to the region’s legendary history with electric power, and hinting at the many dualities and contrasts in contemporary art. The challenge for the curators is to stretch this resilient theme over wildly divergent art, like a shower cap over big hair. Still, some exceptional art was eliminated because it didn’t pass thematic muster. Even without a theme, Beyond/In shouldn’t be viewed as a “best-of” show. “In a project of this scale,” says Massier, “no matter how inclusive you are—and I would argue we were very inclusive—there are always meritorious artists not in the final mix.”

Area artists’ reaction to non-regional art being part of the once exclusively provincial show may depend on whether they see themselves as basking in the added limelight, or overshadowed by it. Massier points to New Orleans, where the curator of their newly launched biennial expressed hope that future efforts include more regional artists. “By contrast, we are building out from a century-long history of regional survey shows at the Albright-Knox. Our starting point is where another major biennial is perhaps striving to go.” 

Attendance grows annually for the event,Lisa Neighbour, EMF Hat, 2010 (at Carnegie Art Center). from 20,000 visitors the first year to 60,000 in 2007. The ultimate goal is to become a magnet for cultural tourism, and shine a national—even international—spotlight on the Buffalo/Niagara region. To this end, the organizers are publicizing this year’s events with added fervor. A larger, more impressive catalogue will be an eye-popping publicity tool. “We’ve also extended our promotional reach into schools by organizing tours through our new Education Committee,” says Massier. “The educational community is also overseeing a one-day ‘pervasive gaming event’ (a live action web-based game) that’s being organized by UB grad student Cayden Mak.” Massier says that there has been enthusiastic feedback from regional media outlets and progress courting outside media. Grachos mentions “mini press events” outside Buffalo: “We recently did a face-to-face with a handful of New York City writers.” Angie adds optimistically, “I’m hoping this Beyond/In will create an international buzz. It’s a uniquely Buffalo approach to biennials; there is nothing else like this.”

Beyond/In kicks off September 23 with (if all goes according to plan) an attention-grabbing tightrope walk across the top of Buffalo’s Liberty Building between the twin Liberty statues. Artist Didier Pasquette studied with Philippe Petit, famous for his walk between the former World Trade Center twin towers in 1974. He describes his high-wire walks as “a process of creating pictures in space between the line of his wire and the backdrop of the setting.” The downtown Buffalo walk will be a flashy start to heighten awareness of the three-month event.

Regarding this year’s Beyond/In, Massier says, “Without sounding too trite about it, it’s true enough that there will be ‘something for everyone.’ The wild diversity of media—painting, sculpture, photography, performance, video—speaks to the gargantuan effort involved in trying to adequately represent—to borrow a late 1970s art-phrase I’m fond of—‘what the contemporary creative mind is up to.’ I think that the audience members who attend most of the exhibitions will find themselves frequently walloped by the work on display.”

Compressing Beyond/In:
Just the facts:

What it’s all about:
A major regional art biennial showcasing the work of artists from Western and Central New York, Southern Ontario, Northeastern Ohio, and Northwestern Pennsylvania. This year several nationally known non-regional artists have been invited to participate.

Who’s behind it:
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery organized the biennial in collaboration with the following participating art venues:
• Big Orbit Gallery
• Buffalo Arts Studio
• Burchfield Penney Art Center
• Carnegie Art Center
• Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University
• CEPA Gallery
• El Museo Francisco Oller y Diego Rivera
• Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center
• Squeaky Wheel
• UB Anderson Gallery
• UB Art Gallery

When and where it happens:
Galleries and other sites open beginning the weekend of September 24–26 and continue through December. (Start and end times vary slightly by venue.) Various performances and other related events are ongoing throughout, taking place in the venues listed above and several off-site locations. (See the official website for details.)

How many participants are involved:
• Ninety-four regional artists
• Ten non-regional artists

What the experts think:
“I have worked with many cities and arts communities across the globe, from Santa Fe to Istanbul, and it is unusual for a region to have this much talent and the collaborative spirit to bring it all together as a major exhibition that has such tremendous potential.”—Bruce W. Ferguson, international biennial expert and consultant to the project.

Where to learn more:
For more information and a complete list of artists, dates, and venues, visit www.beyondinwny.org.

Bruce Adams is an artist, retired educator, and writer.

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