2. International Rural Biennale

Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire, site of the former Royal Agricultural Shows, and a potential venue for the Rural Biannales
Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire, site of the former Royal Agricultural Shows, and a potential venue for the Rural Biannales

An international contemporary rural biennale and exhibition programme (2013 – 2019) exploring new urban/rural cultural partnerships, rural cultural tourism and innovative artistic projects promoting rural environmental, social and economic sustainability.  The programme would engage rural and urban communities in development of a more environmentally sustainable form of culture.  The Rural Biennales would be coordinated in different regions and with various partners, including the National Parks, AONBs, CLA, NFU, CPRE, and the RDAs, and profiling a wide range of rural arts, design and architecture, and building on food and farming traditions, and local landscape and countryside character.

International Rural Biennale: curating sustainable urban and rural communities

International contemporary art biennales and visual arts festivals are now employed by cities and supported by political leaders as a means of attracting cultural funding for urban regeneration, and pump-priming urban renewal and property investment projects by lending a positive image to host cities suffering the effects of post-industrial economic decline.

Of these biennales the Venice Biennale and the Kassel Documenta are the best known, carry most prestige, and serve as the focus for most of the art world’s current curatorial and aesthetic preoccupations.  Given their urban origins such events focus on the international art world, in part also assisting urban economic regeneration, and urban cultural inclusion

A counter to the dominant urban cultural discourse?

Following the success of the Liverpool European City of Culture events in 2008, and the associated Liverpool International Contemporary Art Biennale, DCMS Secretary of State Ben Bradshaw recently announced the creation of a new UK City of Culture programme, which will ‘..aim to put culture at the heart of cities’ agendas, policies and planning..’ (DCMS, 2010), again reinforcing the perception that Government support for strategic culture-led regeneration remains largely focused on urban agendas.  Understandably this has provoked concern within rural communities.  By way of protesting against the seemingly anti-rural and discriminatory bias of the UK City of Culture programme a consortium of rural organisations (NFU, UK Farm Stay and the National Trust) submitted an outline proposal for a UK Countryside of Cultureprogramme.   Predictably this was rejected.

Rural Biennales:  creative engines for a new narrative about social and environmental sustainability

PeerGroup, The Netherlands: temporary theatre/arts centre constructed from straw bales
PeerGroup, The Netherlands: temporary theatre/arts centre constructed from straw bales

In recent years there has been a considerable expansion in the number of biennales sponsored by cities around the world;  venues include Istanbul, Sydney, Hong Kong, China, Dubai, and South Korea.  But critics are increasingly concerned that such prestige-orientated international events are no longer sustainable, economically or environmentally.  This opens the way for a new type of event focused on generating the narrative for a more sustainable and socially responsive form of art and culture.  A Rural Biennale for instance could take the form of a high profile, international contemporary arts event promoting arts-based strategies for environmental and economic sustainability.   A ‘Sustainable Cultures Rural Biennale’ could become the first international art biennale devoted exclusively to engaging both urban and rural communities in exploration of an environmentally sustainable theory  of culture.  It seems that the ‘old’ urban, consumer-orientated arts and cultural-led regeneration models are still hard to overcome.

‘We are instigating a [rural consortium] bid for The UK City of Culture 2013 as we know the countryside has just as much to offer culturally as any city in the UK’.   Andy Woodward, CEO FarmStay UK, July 2009.

‘Winning the City of Culture would reflect the wealth of cultural opportunities that are already available in our rural towns and villages, as well as bring much-needed investment to build on existing success’. NFU Director of Policy Martin Haworth

Objectives for a future Rural Biennale

For the sake of brevity we have borrowed the criteria developed for the UK City of Cultureinitiative by DCMS (Equality in Impact Assessment, July 2009), and slightly reconfigured the Cultural and Artistic, Social and Economic priorities to demonstrate how these might translate as possible objectives for a Rural Biennale international contemporary art  programme. However, unlike the year-long UK Cities of Culture projects, most international contemporary art biennales are about 12 – 15 weeks in duration.

Time frame and budget for a proposed Rural Biennale

International contemporary art biennale events require a minimum of two to three years to develop from scratch.   To maximize their economic regeneration potential, and related cultural tourism, artistic and public benefits, they are generally coordinated over 10 – 20 year cycles.   Given the experimental nature of the proposed Rural Biennale it is recommended that an initial trajectory of three rural biennales could be considered, presented every two years, running from 2013, 2015, to 2017.  The event could be rotated so as to benefit different rural regions/counties, and feature partnerships with regional AONBs, National Parks and the National Trust.   As a budgetary guideline, the 2008 Liverpool Biennale cost just over £3 million, and the 2007 Folkestone Triennale (part of the SeaChange cultural programme) cost around £2.1 million.

Folkestone Seaside Towns Art Triennial
Folkestone Seaside Towns Art Triennial

Possible priorities and aims for developing a sustainable Rural Biennale

In addition to referencing the key arguments listed in Section 4. above, ‘Why a rural cultural strategy?’, some Biennale programmes could open up interesting new practical, theoretical and creative fieldss for artists and rural communities.  Examples include:

1    to enable rural communities and farmers to have access to new cultural resources, and deploy arts projects to promote rural regeneration and farm diversification initiatives;

2    to encourage urban artists, curators, designers, and architects to develop a range of exciting new arts projects and commissions for challenging rural and agricultural contexts;

3    to develop innovative Creative Rural Economy and rural cultural tourism projects, and engender a sustainable legacy of rural community festivals and arts and cultural events;

4    to explore and consolidate new urban/rural cultural diversity business partnerships, and promote new arts projects tackling issues of rural racism, isolation and social exclusion;

5    to identify new aesthetic, ethical and intellectual issues and challenges in rural contexts, which could inform policy discourse on the future of agriculture.

6. and, as an experimental platform upon which to explore and test out new (urban/rural) art practices and curatorial strategies aimed at surfacing a future cultural discourse for environmental sustainability.