On the decision to cancel the Northampton Biennale

On Tuesday, September 28, the Northampton Arts Council voted to cancel this year’s Visual Art and Poetry Biennale. The Biennale was ...



On Tuesday, September 28, the Northampton Arts Council voted to cancel this year’s Visual Art and Poetry Biennale. The Biennale was created 15 years ago by several former members of the Arts Council to allow artists from all counties in western Massachusetts to submit their work without an entry fee.

Entrance fees for exhibitions can be prohibitive for many; the founding of the Biennale was a first attempt to make the arts accessible and fair. The Council’s decision to cancel this year’s Biennale aligns with this initial founding intention: to make the arts accessible and equitable for all in our community.

At our most recent public meeting, several local Indigenous artists raised concerns about one of the works selected for the Biennale. This intervention highlighted the ways in which the entire production process of the Biennale was not aligned with our mission as an artistic body. An Indigenous artist called for the Biennale to be canceled and redone on a more equitable basis. As a result, one of our board members proposed to cancel the Biennale. The Council voted 4 yes, 2 no and 1 abstention.

The Council did not cancel the Biennale to censor the work of art in question, but rather to right the wrongs done in the production process of this exhibition and to avoid further damage.

To provide further context, Council voted to cancel this event because the process by which the Biennale was produced did not match our statement of fairness. We recognize that canceling the show is a flawed solution and know that it will be disappointing for some in our community. However, the need for the intervention of Indigenous artists last week is a symptom of racism within the Arts Council, within the arts community of Northampton and within our city. Letting the show unfold as it was designed would have done further harm to BIPOC artists and others who have already been excluded and marginalized from Northampton’s artistic community.

Discussions and critiques around the Biennale planning process are not new. The Biennale subcommittee has lost two members this year: one left due to professional commitments and the other resigned from the subcommittee, citing hostility from the main Biennale organizer. The Council should have decided to cancel the Biennale when the culture of the subcommittee was called into question and it became evident that there might not be the human power needed to produce an event of this kind. scale responsibly. For these decisions, we sincerely apologize.

We know there is no way to make everyone happy right now. As such, our mission is to do no more harm. To do this, we need to take a break, listen to the people most affected in our community and call them into our processes moving forward. Our choice to cancel is not a matter of censorship or of being politically correct. It is about taking care of our community and holding ourselves accountable for the harm this process has caused to the Indigenous artists who have come forward.

When it comes to canceling exhibits with racist content, the Northampton Arts Council is in good company: The Whitney Museum of American Art and the Walker Arts Center recently canceled exhibits that community members cited as causing wrong, not just because of the content. of the works on display, but also because of the process by which the exhibitions were created. Canceling the show this year gives Council the time we need to reflect and engage the community in conversations about improving our process. We hope you will join us in these conversations and the changes that will follow.

We apologize to the artists of BIPOC and other historically excluded artists; we will do better in the future. We apologize to the artists whose works were selected for this year’s Biennale for canceling on short notice. Several of you have written in favor of the cancellation decision, and we thank you for your solidarity and understanding.

For those who are angry, confused or disappointed, we hope you can find it in your heart and mind to understand why the Council canceled the show. We invite you to sit down with your discomfort, to think alongside us and to try to respect this decision.

Artists, we appreciate the work you do for our community and hope that you will submit to future calls for work with the understanding and confidence that we want to produce the best artistic programming possible. You are the reason we do what we do.

Brian Foote is the director of arts and culture at the Northampton Arts Council. Danielle Amodeo chairs the Northampton Arts Council.



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