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Biennials & festivals

Can two festivals bring hope to Trump country?

Front International in Cleveland and Opens Spaces in Kansas City aim to encourage unity in the US’s divided heartland

Jonn Herschend with a tuba player for the work Theme Song for Cleveland & Akron Premier, which will premier at Front International Courtesy of Jonn Herschend. Photo: David Blinn

“Curating something really impactful right smack in the middle of Trump country is my way of doing what I think cultural policy in the US should have been doing all along,” says Dan Cameron, the director of the new Open Spaces biennial in Kansas City, Missouri. “[This] is getting our best artists and our best ideas and best policies, and pushing them into the Heartland so that we are not two countries, so that we become closer to a single country.”

Kansas City’s biennial is not the only major initiative to debut this summer in the American Midwest. Front International, a triennial in Cleveland, Ohio, also aims to draw attention to the under-represented art scene in the US’s Heartland. The region is a vague geography defined more by a state of mind: proudly homegrown but overshadowed by the rich coastal cities.

“I really think mid-size cities like Cleveland are the future,” says Michelle Grabner, the curator of Front International. “Artists are moving to these places where it’s reasonable and comfortable to make artwork.”

“Visitors will be quest-driven to encounter the triennial’s works” by more than 100 artists, adds Grabner, who was initially recruited in 2016 by Fred Bidwell, a local art collector and philanthropist, to curate his private art centre, Transformer Station.

Front International highlights regional landmarks and culture such as the opulent Federal Reserve, which will host a video installation by Philip Vanderhyden; the downtown library with Yinka Shonibare’s 6,000-volume work The American Library (2018); and John Riepenhoff’s homage to beer and sausage cuisine with clever new recipes. Cleveland’s position as the cradle of American Op art is celebrated with the re-creation of Julian Stanczak’s 1973 mural Carter Manor, and the commissioning of new abstract murals by Kay Rosen, Odili Donald Odita, Heimo Zobernig and others.

Overstood (2017) by Sanford Biggers is also part of Kansas City's Open Spaces Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery

“Artists are investigating forgotten spaces of [Kansas City],” says Cameron, whose Prospect New Orleans biennial helped revitalise that city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Open Spaces includes more than 100 artists; Kansas City’s significant jazz history is addressed in Nari Ward’s sculptural celebration of the saxophonist Charlie Parker, while Nick Cave’s technicolour Sound Suit dance costumes appear along with Sanford Biggers’s Overstood (2017), an imposing sequinned silhouette.

The city’s massive Swope Park has often been a dividing line between social classes and racial communities, but Cameron is using it as a hub for public sculpture and performances. Further out, visitors can explore installations and dance in unconventional venues such as the city’s famous limestone caves and its toy museum.

• Front International, Cleveland, Ohio, 14 July–30 September

• Open Spaces, Kansas City, Missouri, 25 August–28 October