These Are the Most Important Biennials and Triennials in Europe and North America

November 3, 2018

Art biennials and triennials are considered some of the most exciting events in the cultural calendar. Not only do these manifestations reflect on currents and trends within the art world, but they are also mirrors of the economic, social and political circumstances of each hosting nation in regards to a global context. The biennials and triennials (events recurring every two and three years respectively) are often critically charged, yet the prevailing tendency is some sort of commodification embedded in market-based practices.

However we turn, all art events of this kind are offering if not a superb curatorial concept, featuring a number of exceptional artworks. The following list provides a brief description of the most important biennials and triennials in Europe and North America.

Featured image: The Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2015. Image via Jena-Pierre Dalbera

Whitney Biennial

Every other year, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City organizes The Whitney Biennial, an exhibition of mostly younger and lesser-known artists. This manifestation was established back in 1932 as an annual show, and forty-one years later it was transformed into a biennial.

The Whitney Biennial is still perceived as one of the most important events on the global scale since it often promotes the latest tendencies in contemporary art. A number of famous artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock or Jeff Koons, came to prominence after showing their works at the exhibition.

Featured image: Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph by Ben Gancsos ©2016


Glasgow International

Glasgow International (GI) is a contemporary art biennial which, as the name suggests, takes place in Glasgow, Scotland. The event was established in 2005 as an open platform for both the local and international artists.

In the meantime, GI became a renowned festival of contemporary art and the starting point was, and still is, to promote Glasgow as a specific center for the production and display of contemporary visual art. The program is often dense and consists of exhibitions, events, talks, performances and is hosted by various institutional and non-institutional venues around the city.

Featured image: Installation view of Cellular Worlds at GoMA, Glasgow International Festival 2018 Photo: Alan Dimmick

Berlin Biennale

Another famous European biennale is taking place in the German capital. The Berlin Biennale always causes quite a stir among the professionals and the wider audience since it is produced at various locations in a city which has always been a global cultural crossroad. It was co-founded in 1996 by famous curator Klaus Biesenbach and a group of collectors as well as patrons of art. The method is that the chosen curator or curator provides a thematic frame and the selection of the artists.

The Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art is the second most important contemporary arts event in the country after Documenta in Kassel, and is being funded by the German government through the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (Federal Culture Foundation).

Featured image: 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. Image by (DIS) collective via creative commons

Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale is the most famous and the world oldest event of this kind. It was founded in 1895 and was imagined as a World Fair focused on contemporary art. The event was to celebrate the wedding anniversary of the Italian monarch and national exhibitions which happened after the unification of Italy in 1861.

The Art Exhibition has a long history of notable solo shows (such as ones of Klimt, Renoir, Courbet), it was interrupted because of the WWI, run by the Fascists in the 1930s, and finally, after WWII, it was revived. Since then, it mostly offered retrospectives until the 1970s when for the first time a theme was adopted by the Biennale which became a standard practice for all the upcoming editions of this iconic event.

The upcoming edition of Biennale is expected with anticipation in 2019.

Featured image: Siri Aurdal - ONDA VOLANTE, Nordic Pavillion Venice Biennale 2017. Image creative commons


Manifesta or the European Nomadic Biennial was founded in 1994 and since then changes its location every two years – from Rotterdam, Ljubljana and San Sebastian to Palermo in 2018. The agenda behind this manifestation is based on a critical articulation of dominant political and social structures. Therefore, Manifesta insists on diversity, innovative curatorial practices, exhibition models and education.

Manifesta deals with different contexts and tends to introduce new aspects and forms of artistic expression. The curiosity is that the 10th edition of Manifesta, which was held in Saint Petersburg in Russia, was severely critiqued by the government for nurturing gay propaganda. The next edition of Manifesta is scheduled to happen in Marseille in 2020.

Featured image: Studio Tom Emerson - Pavillon of Reflections. Manifesta 11. Image creative commons

Liverpool Biennial

A biennial exhibition happening in Liverpool is definitely the largest contemporary art festival in the United Kingdom. This particular manifestation was founded in 1999 and since has featured a great number of international artists and commissioned permanent and temporary public artworks, as well as long-term community-based projects.

The program of The Liverpool Biennial consists of exhibitions, projects, and other events all of them presented in diverse and unconventional locations, from unused public spaces to city museums and galleries. The whole event would not be possible without the help of Liverpool's cultural organizations which produce the context for the production, promotion, and visibility of contemporary art and culture.

Featured image: Hector Zamoras - Synclastic - Anticlastic, Liverpool Biennial. Image creative commons

Carnegie International

Yet another important and the oldest North American contemporary art exhibition is The Carnegie International. It was established by the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1896 in Pittsburgh. This bold figure decided to invest in the International in order not only to promote international cooperation but to educate and inspire the public. Carnegie was governed by the idea that such an exhibition of contemporary art can enrich Carnegie Museum of Art and in general enhance the cultural offer of Pittsburgh.

Throughout the decades, a number of artists exhibited in the Carnegie International, from Camille Pissarro, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, and René Magritte, to the more contemporary ones such as Sigmar Polke and William Kentridge.

Featured image: Carnegie Museum of Art. Image creative commons

Istanbul Biennial

The International Istanbul Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition established in 1987. It is funded and organized by the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), and is focused on creating a focal point for artists in that part of the world by embracing diverse cultures and the audience.

The event attracts a great number of people by creating a specific cultural network between local and international art circles, artists, curators and art critics. Every other year, the curator, selected by an international advisory board, brings fresh conceptual frame and invites a variety of fitting artists and projects.

Featured image: Istanbul Biennale, image via exhibitioncritique

Biennale de Lyon

Last, but not least important is the Biennale de Lyon taking place in a historical French city. It was founded by Thierry Raspail and Thierry Prat in 1991, inaugurated by the City of Lyon and the Ministry of Culture, and it takes place every second year alternating with the Biennale de la danse de Lyon created in 1984.

Like at some of the other mentioned biennials, the artistic director selects the curator who delivers a conceptual framework. Therefore, each edition of the Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art brings a new, stable and engaged theme expressed through the main exhibition and following programs.

Featured image: Pedro Reyes -Palas Por Pistolas, Biennale de Lyon. Image creative commons