The world is full of biennials, triennials, quadrennials and even quinquennials. In fact, one could live his or her life inflight roaming the world and still struggle to visit the ever expanding array of international contemporary art festivals appearing on the global calendar. This year alone the circuit will see 26 biennials, triennials and major shows staged in places as far flung as Kochi-Muziris (India), Canakkale (Turkey), São Paulo (Brazil), Gwangju (South Korea), Moscow (Russia), Bermuda, Berlin (Germany), Marrakesh (Morocco), and Sydney (Australia).

And among all of these events, competing for profile and critical attention, the 20th Biennale of Sydney is considered among the most widely anticipated recurrent exhibitions.

Now that it is one of the most established events of its kind, the Biennale of Sydney is a grand, sprawling, ambitious affair, set in and around the harbour and city it is presented at the idyllic tail end of summer and just as spring emerges in the north. It’s the second oldest biennial staged in the southern hemisphere, and over a period spanning more than four decades Sydney's event has risen to become a distinctive and influential presence across the region and beyond. However it was not always this way. 

The inaugural 1973 show, staged to coincide with the launch of the Jørn Utzon-designed Sydney Opera House, consisted of only 37, primarily Australian artists, and was not well attended or received by either the public or the arts community. The second Biennale, strangely scheduled 3 years later and opened by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, one year and one day after the sacking of the Whitlam Labor government (and ironically supported by funds made available by the Gough Whitlam established Australia Council), attracted newspaper headlines more for protests than for the art.    

It was the third Biennale that managed to galvanize and unite the various and disparate groups needed to successfully mount this event. In his applicant’s proposal for director of the 1979 Biennale, Nick Waterlow aimed to create “a Creative People’s Biennale”, involving artists, gallery people, industry, state, government and community groups, students and sponsors. His resonant goal was “a highly unique Sydney Biennale”, to be recognised nationally and internationally.   

Themed European Dialogue, Waterlow’s proposal challenged the dominance and centrality of the New York contemporary art world, and shifted attention to new trends in Europe and Australia. His plan worked. The 1979 Biennale attracted international attention, critical acclaim and drew large local audiences.

Waterlow, however, did more than launch the 1979 Biennale onto an international stage. He doubled the number of exhibiting women artists, especially increasing the number of Australian women (although this overall representation amounted to only 10, 5 of whom were Australian, of the total 62 artists exhibited, nevertheless it was a significant improvement on the single Australian female artist and four international women selected for the 1976 Biennale). And notably at the same time Waterlow also introduced the first major survey exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art from Arnhem Land. He broadened and politicised the language used to describe the importance of these Indigenous contemporary artists, their art and cultures. And he pointedly included no American artists. 

Waterlow went on to direct two more Biennales of Sydney (1988 and 1998), chair the international Biennale artist selection committee (2000), and become one of Australia’s best-known and most admired curators. It was his wearing his other professional hat, however, that helped to cement the involvement of art students and educators in the development of Biennale associated public and education programs.

Waterlow was director of the Ivan Dougherty Gallery at COFA (now UNSW Art & Design) for almost 20 years and taught directly into undergraduate and postgraduate art history and theory courses. He had a special interest in facilitating programs that enabled UNSW Art & Design students direct-access to ‘behind the scenes Biennale activity’ as interns and workers. Together with fellow UNSW art educators, including Dr Felicity Fenner, Prof Ian Howard and Kim Snepvangers, the exchange between a leading educational institution, a major biannual cultural event, and the public grew.   

This year, under the leadership of artistic director Dr Stephanie Rosenthal and the title The Future is Already Here – It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed, the Biennale of Sydney will feature work by 83 artists from 35 countries. Included in this list is leading French philosopher and choreographer, Boris Charmatz; Dutch artist, Germaine Kruip, well-known for her exploration of physical movement and geometric forms; internationally renowned guitarist, violinist and composer from New York, Hahn Rowe; the award-winning Sydney-based artist collective, Brown Council, made up of Frances Barrett, Kate Blackmore, Kelly Doley and Diana Smith, all of whom are graduates from UNSW Art & Design; and prolific emerging Australian talent, Keg de Souza, also a UNSW Art & Design alumni, who explores the politics of habitable spaces using mediums like inflatable architecture.    

Visitor numbers to Biennale events and venues have grown every year since 1973.  This year, event organizers anticipate a record breaking 650,000+ turnout. To deal with the visitor influx and interest, the Biennale has come to rely on students, well informed and trained volunteers and support staff.  

As part of the Professional Experience Project offered in all degree courses at UNSW Art & Design, 13 students have signed up for a course that will see them immersed in the biennale experience so that they can share their knowledge with an interested public. For the 20th Biennale of Sydney Guiding Course, students will learn about individual artists featured in the event, the value of audience engagement, and the process of speaking about disparate artistic practices. These 13 students will become official tour guides of the Biennale and they include Alia Di Paolo, Anne Kwasner, Belinda Harrison, Brittany D'Chong, Cara Lopez, Emma Fowler, Gemma Deacon, Georgia Wilson, Helen Bermingham, Jackie Terrett, Jenny Aragnostopoulos, Jodie Huang, and Katya Batho.

A parallel course, World Biennales: Field Trip, taught by Felicity Fenner, will expose another group of students (from the Master of Curating Cultural Leadership) to exhibiting Biennale artists through a series of intensive 8-hour day site visits. The goal, according to Fenner, is to convey a sense of the “magnitude of the event for artists and the community to those people who in most cases will become professional curators and festival organisers”.

A further course, dedicated to understanding and interpreting the social dimension of exhibition spaces, is taught Zanny Begg at UNSW Art & Design. Curatorial Studio: Curating Social Space does not simply assess the perceptional differences that art within art venues conveys to audiences; the course requires students to imagine and then organize events that capitalize upon specific artists’ works and themes.

In this case, 23 masters students will work with London based artistic-duo, Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, at Artspace, one of the 16 venues part of the Biennale of Sydney. Mirza and Butler’s paradoxically titled work, The Museum of Non Participation, initially created to expose Western media stigmatization of Pakistan, has become an international movable feast of workshops, residencies, intervention, films and publications. UNSW Art & Design students will first partake in a workshop with Mirza and Butler and will then mount a series of open and free to the public activities as part of the Biennale’s broad program.  

Finally, the 2016 Nick Waterlow OAM Memorial Lecture, in honour of the late and greatly loved curator and teacher, will be delivered by British writer and curator, Adrian Heathfield.  His talk, Spirited Affinities, is an examination of the divisions between the secular and the spiritual.

The Biennale of Sydney runs 18 March to 5 June, 2016.