The Top International Art Biennales (Biennials)

Whether you spell it the European way 'biennale' or the American way 'biennial', the meaning is the same: a mega art exhibition which takes place every two years.

The Biennial became an increasingly important international art exhibition, especially during the 1990s and sprouted in numerous cities. The Biennial also helped shift the focus of art from the major art centers to other locations, while aiding the local tourism industry.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, numerous conferences and academic texts explored the importance and relevance of the Biennial as a concept. One such text is The Biennial Reader anthology.

1
The Venice Biennale

Photo by Marco Secchi/Getty Images
Chinese artist Li Wei performs in front of Saint's Mark at the 55th Venice Biennale on May 28, 2013 in Venice, Italy. Photo by Marco Secchi/Getty Images

The Venice Biennale is the granddaddy of them all. Established in 1895, when world's fairs were the trend, the art from various nations were showcased in the Giardini (the Garden), which is host to several national pavilions, each with its own unique history of architectural development.

The huge exhibition has expanded in size throughout the city of Venice, with new pavilions and exhibition sites being added each time. The Venice Biennale takes place from June to November during odd-numbered calendar years.

2
Sao Paulo Biennial

Anish Kapoor Sculpture at Art Basel, Getty Images
Visitors look at the Anish Kapoor sculpture on June 14, 2011 in Basel, Switzerland. Kapoor was one of the 1983 UK artists in Sao Paulo. Photo by Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

The São Paulo Biennial in Brazil began in 1951 and takes place during even-numbered years. It is the biggest and oldest biennial in the Americas and it features Brazilian, Latin American and international contemporary art in its curated thematic exhibitions.

3
documenta

Joseph Beuys, Getty Images
A visitor walks past a video installation by Joseph Beuys in 'Beuys - We Are the Revolution' on October 1, 2008 in Berlin, Germany. Beuys famously planted oak trees for documenta. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

documenta in Kassel, Germany is not a biennial, since it is held every 5 years. However, it ranks in prestige and importance with the world's top biennials and triennials.

During its opening preview, arts professionals including artists, curators, museum directors, critics, art dealers, etc. from around the world attend. Established in 1955, documenta is one of the major must-see art exhibitions.

4
Biennale of Sydney

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Artist Naminapu Maymuru stands beside her Larrakitj, painted poles, at the 17th Biennale of Sydney at The Museum of Contemporary Art on May 11, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. The Biennale of Sydney is Australia's largest and most important contemporary art event. Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

The Biennale of Sydney in Australia was established in 1973, making it the 3rd oldest biennial in the world. From June to September in even-numbered years, the mega exhibition takes place throughout the city of Sydney.

5
Havana Biennial

Anri Sala.
Anri Sala's Ghostgames 2002. Sala exhibited at the Havana Biennial. Getty Images

The Havana Biennial in Cuba began in 1984 and is known for showcasing non-western art mainly from Latin American and Caribbean artists.

6
Istanbul Biennial

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The live performance 'Malakt' by Hermann Nitsch is seen as part of Contemporary Istanbul on November 7, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Selin Alemdar/Getty Images). Getty Images

The Istanbul Biennial in Turkey began in 1987 and takes place in the fall of odd-numbered years. It is one of the most prestigious art exhibitions for international contemporary art.

Like many of the other biennials, the art curator is chosen by committee. The curator then develops the concept, theme and list of artists for the exhibition.

Another main feature of biennials is that they are not isolated museum exhibitions, but rather involve the entire city in its makeup, so parts of the biennial exhibition take place in galleries, abandoned factories, public parks, waterfronts, etc. There will also be seminars, workshops, tours, film screenings, etc.

7
Lyon Biennial

Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
Jeremy Deller's artwork 'Valerie's Snack Bar (2009), February 21, 2012 in London. Deller was in the 2015 Lyon Biennial.. Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

The Lyon Biennial in Lyon, France was founded in 1984 and is held from September to December in odd-numbered years. It is highly regarded for its carefully crafted thematic exhibitions.

8
Dak'Art

The Dak'Art Biennial of Contemporary African Art in Dakar, Senegal began in 1992 and is held in May during even-numbered years. It features contemporary African art.

9
Sharjah Biennial

The Sharjah Biennial takes place in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Established in 1993 as a local art exhibition, by 2003 the focus changed to make it an international contemporary art biennial.

10
Berlin Biennial

Berlin Wall Mural, Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Russian artist Dmitry Vrubel repaints his historic mural showing former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (L) kissing former communist East German leader Erich Honecker at a surviving portion of the Berlin Wall on June 22, 2009 in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Berlin Biennial is located in Berlin, Germany which is one of the biggest and most popular international artist communities in the world. Modeled after the Aperto exhibition in the Venice Biennale, the Berlin Biennial was established in 1998 to promote cutting-edge contemporary art and to reflect the city's importance as a vital art center.

11
Shanghai Biennale

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Shanghai Museum, over the years. Image courtesy Shanghai Museum.

The Shanghai Biennale in China started in 1996 as an exhibition of local artists using traditional Chinese ink-painting techniques. In the year 2000, the seminal exhibition curated by Hou Hanru featured conceptual art, installation art, new media, video and digital art to create an international biennial.

12
Yokohama Triennial

The Yokohama Triennial in Japan, near Tokyo, is a triennial and not a biennial, so it takes place every three years instead of two. It was established in 2001.

13
Singapore Biennale

Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images
Yayoi Kusama exhibited in the inaugural Singapore Biennale. Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images

The Singapore Biennale is relatively new as it started in 2006. Since its establishment, the city-state's art scene has strengthened and the Biennale has proven to be extremely popular with visitors. More

14
Whitney Biennial

Whitney Biennial 2014, Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images
2014 Whitney Biennial press preview at The Whitney Museum of American Art on March 4, 2014 in New York City. Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

New York's famous Whitney Biennial takes place at the Whitney Museum and showcases the artworks from both emerging and established American-based artists. It is often fondly referred to as the exhibition one loves to hate.

15
Manifesta

Manifesta, Getty Images
Queen Paola of Belgium visits Contemporary Art Biennale 'Manifesta' at a former coal mine at Waterschei on July 3, 2012 in Genk, Belgium. Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images

Manifesta, also called the European Biennial of Contemporary art began in 1996 and takes place in a different European non-art center every two years. Manifesta has taken place in Rotterdam, Luxembourg, Ljubljana, Frankfurt, San Sebastian, Trentino-South Tyrol, and Murcia.