During a 2016 visit to Cuba, Biennial of the Americas organizers discovered La Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a popular art space that inspired them to organize "Havana Nights" for this year's festival in Denver.

(Courtesy Biennial of the Americas)

Denver’s Biennial of the Americas returns this week with some big events during the five-day festival, but with a significant cut to smaller arts events seen in past years. 

The change comes after an ambitious schedule in 2015. Back then you could find art practically everywhere around town, from Denver International Airport to sidewalks in different neighborhoods.  

“When I think of 'What is a Biennial,' it is like this pouring out of art where you’re going to see things that you would never see,” Denver artist Theresa Anderson says. “You’re going to have this citywide feeling like you’re just being inundated with arts and culture. And that’s not happening.”

After participating in every Biennial of the Americas since the first in 2010, Anderson says this year she sees missed opportunities. And she fears that the Biennial won’t fully represent what Denver has to offer artistically.

Biennials are a pretty big deal in the art world. The Venice Biennale is the most well-known, with contemporary art exhibitions every two years that attract people from all over the world. It started more than 120 years ago, and many other biennials have sprouted since, from Sydney to Berlin.

Many see biennials as a way for cities to put themselves on the map culturally. At the same time, it’s a way to connect with other cities and cultures.

Anderson points to an artist exchange hosted by the Biennial that took two Denver artists to Mexico City, which in turn sent two of its artists here. The residencies culminated with an exhibition during the 2015 festival.

But that program had a broader impact that helped foster deeper relationships, Anderson says. She’s one of a handful of Colorado artists that has since gone to Mexico City to see and make art and discuss important issues.

“It really is about supporting each other in a very positive way and having conversations where we’re saying we can make a difference even if we don’t understand immediately what the difference is,” Anderson says.

That significance is not lost on the Biennial’s organizers. In fact, during this year’s festival they plan to announce some type of artist exchange that they hope to facilitate with details to follow.

At the same time, the Biennial also shifted resources away from things like public art installations and performances to help cover infrastructure needs, executive director Erin Trapp says.

“One of the things that we’ve heard in the past is that the Biennial is complex and hard for people to understand, so we thought we’d focus on a few really great events,” she says.

Whereas in the past the Biennial hired an artistic director and curators to organize a range of cultural events, they decided this year to rely more on community partners. The festival also hosts panels and a symposium to focus on business, technology and social issues like immigration and water.

“It’s not a retreat from the community here, it’s really looking at how we can make sure that what we do is sustainable,” Trapp says.

This year's Biennial centers on art and ideas across the Western Hemisphere. 

Here are five things to check out during the 2017 Biennial of the Americas, which runs Sept. 12-16.

  • Havana Nights brings Cuban rock star X Alfonso, who founded La Fabrica de Arte Cubano, and others to perform in Denver on Sept. 15 and 16.

  • The Black Americas Project hosts a series of events, including a concert by Afro-Venezuelan artists Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Chavo.

  • The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver’s exhibition “Saber Acomodar” surveys works made over the last 100 years in Jalisco, Mexico. The show opens on Sept. 13.

  • A symposium titled “Americas 2050” features LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman
    CEO, author Dave Eggers, Elizabeth Alexander of the Ford Foundation and more on Sept. 14.

  • Other exhibitions coinciding with the 2017 Biennial of the Americas include “Borders: Both Sides Now” at the Arts Students League of Denver and “Axis Mundi” at PlatteForum.