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Ingrid Schaffner (photo by Bryan Conley, courtesy Carnegie International)

The Carnegie International might be most historically influential art biennial you’ve never heard of. Founded in 1896, it’s considered North America’s oldest recurring exhibition of contemporary art. Mary Cassatt, Henri Matisse, Thomas Eakins, Richard Serra, and Cindy Sherman are just a few of the artists featured over the course of the International’s 122-year history.

This Pittsburgh biennial’s history documents the gradual reception of modernism by America’s cultural gatekeepers from the 1920s onwards. One needs only to look at Henri Matisse’s meteoric rise in popularity through the latter half of the decade to understand how the Carnegie International figures into a major chapter of modernist art history. After all, the French artist won first prize at the 1927 International for one of his still-life paintings, and three years later sat on the biennial’s jury of award. In 1931, Matisse was the subject of major retrospectives around the world, from New York to Berlin. The Museum of Modern Art became a principal champion of the artist in America. (Not coincidentally, its influential director, Alfred H. Barr, had once served on the International’s jury himself.) The history of the Carnegie International is also the history of the Carnegie Museum of Art, which began its collection by acquiring Winslow Homer’s “The Wreck” (1896), the winner of the biennial’s first run.

Curator Ingrid Schaffner says her vision for the Carnegie International’s 57th edition is a return to the museum as a site of joy. Whereas many other contemporary art exhibitions (like Cleveland’s FRONT triennial, for example) spread across their host cities, this year’s International will consolidate its efforts within the Carnegie Museum of Art. Hyperallergic spoke with Schaffner about her curatorial framework and choices for this year’s show, and what she hopes visitors will gain from it.

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The Carnegie Museum of Art (photo by Tom Little, courtesy Carnegie International)

Hyperallergic: The Carnegie International is less than a month away from opening to the public. Where do things currently stand at the venue?

Ingrid Schaffner: Everywhere you look, there is artwork being installed by artists and our crew here at the Carnegie Museum of Art. This has been going on since June; it’s like a military campaign takeover [of the space] by contemporary art and artists.

H: What is the historical significance of a biennial like the Carnegie International?

IS: When Andrew Carnegie founded his Carnegie Institute for the people of Pittsburgh in 1895, it was a natural history museum, library, and art museum all in one building. And the Carnegie International started just a year later — it’s only one year younger than the Venice Biennale.

At the time, Carnegie was the richest man on Earth. Stop and think about that. He makes this institute as a gift to the people of Pittsburgh who have made his industry and wealth possible. It’s also a way to announce the cultural aspirations of the city while also bringing the world there.

In the Gilded Age, culture is being trafficked through these world expositions and fairs. Carnegie had gone to the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. It’s kind of in that vein, but it also became a collecting mechanism for the museum. The Carnegie International has shaped the DNA of this collection. The first painting to win the Carnegie International in 1896 was Winslow Homer’s “The Wreck,” which features men rushing out to the bluff to save a ship at sea. It’s accession number one for the museum.

H: If the Carnegie International is the oldest art biennial in North America, then why do you think less people know about it when compared to something like the Whitney Biennial?

IS: The Whitney Biennial is in New York City, right on the thoroughfare of contemporary world culture! Pittsburgh is a little Galapagos here in Appalachia, but people do make the pilgrimage because it’s something that moves to a different beat. I think it has a deeper rhythm. I’ve been coming to the Carnegie International since 1995. It’s kind of a seduction of the museum itself. This is a museum of museums. A museum of spaces — Gilded Age spaces. It’s such a beautiful, modernist building. It’s a material itself that the artists really respond to and have maybe been inspired by in making their work here. In that way, it’s a very situated exhibition.

I think of myself as building this exhibition in an aggregate way. For me, this is a sort of history of the contemporary as told through the Carnegie International’s exhibitions since 1991.

H: Why was the year 1991 so important for the biennial?

IS: That was the year when Lynne Cooke and Mark Francis were invited to be the first outside curators to organize the museum’s signature show since 1896. Lynne and Mark’s first move was to bring the International into parts of the Institute like the Museum of Natural History and the library.

At that moment in the nineties, artists were looking for more industrial, raw spaces in which to work. In Pittsburgh there is this certain maverick contemporary art space called the Mattress Factory that hosted installations by John Cage, Christian Boltanski, Ann Hamilton, and Christopher Wool.

So this sort of move into other parts of the museum and the city has been a part of the Carnegie International for years. But when I embarked on curating this year’s iteration, I felt very strongly that it was a moment for the exhibition to move back into the museum and really consolidate its energy there. And as museums and culture feel to be increasingly under threat, I think that it was a good move.

H: With that context in mind, is this year’s exhibition going to confront the politics of Donald Trump’s presidency? Are the artists involved explicitly commenting on the political environment of today?

IS: Um… no.

H: A succinct answer.

IS: When you come to the Carnegie International, many nations are represented by where the artists come from or where they live. But in composing the exhibition, I wasn’t looking to create an “It’s a Small World After All” of many flags and many nations; I was interested in more relevant conditions recognizable in the world today. By that, I mean conditions of borders within borders, shifting terrain, the effects of climate change, capitalism.

H: And I’m curious to hear about how this filters through your curatorial framework for the International, wherein you traveled with curators to destinations that neither of you have been to before during the research phase of planning the biennial.

IS: There’s a long history of having advisors for the exhibition. In 1896, James Abbot McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt were artist advisors. More recently, it’s been curators who advise the organization of the show. Maybe as a shift to that advisor role, I have invited curators as companions, five colleagues to each accompany me on one big travel and research journey. I see them as thinking partners, quite explicitly. Their job was not to help me find artists, but more to travel with me into art worlds that were new to us.

We wanted to get our bearings and be enriched by the experience. And we all know that you don’t go somewhere for a couple of days and have any great authority over that experience, but you are informed by it — and so is your work. I like this idea that travel and research supported by the Carnegie International is now moving through my colleagues’ work and out into the world beyond.

H: What do you hope visitors take away from this year’s iteration of the biennial?

IS: Museum joy. The pleasure of being with art and other people in a museum where we’re all together to do the creative work of interpretation. And may that museum joy inspire us all to want to travel more into the world of contemporary art, into exhibitions and exhibition-making — and also to see the experience of our museums as places creating contemporary culture.

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The 2018 Carnegie International runs October 13, 2018–March 25, 2019 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...