A Short History of Manifesta
by Henry Meyric Hughes
Manifesta was a Dutch initiative for a new, pan-European
Biennial of Contemporary Art, whose concept was developed
from initial discussions between representatives of the Netherlands
Office for Fine Arts and a number of colleagues from West
European countries. It was conceived in response to dramatic
political changes in Central and Eastern Europe, in the aftermath
of the fall of the Berlin Wall (November 1989), and to the
perceived inability of traditional large-scale events, such
as documenta and the Venice Biennale to respond adequately
to the new circumstances.
Manifesta was to be a nomadic event, whose operational base
would move from one city to another within Europe, every two
years -- Europe, being interpreted in the most generous spirit
possible, to encompass all the territories covered by the
current signatories of the Council of Europe's Cultural Convention,
and beyond. Its aim was to provide a platform for young artists,
who were already launched on their professional careers, but
who not yet been given widespread international exposure or
commercial backing. (In this sense, Manifesta was intended,
in part, to fill the gap left by the demise of the Paris Biennale
des Jeunes). It was to be interdisciplinary and cross-cultural,
to the extent that this reflected the current state of artistic
concerns. The emphasis was to be placed on inclusivity, rather
than exclusivity, and on collaboration between artists and
theoreticians, rather than on factional representation, competition,
commercialisation and prizes. It was to be a process, as much
as a product, and it was to take full advantage of the latest
developments in information and communications technology,
in building up a cumulative network of contacts and activities.
Robert de Haas, the director of the Netherlands Office for
Fine Arts, convened the first meeting of the International
Advisory Board of Manifesta in The Hague, on 8 November 1993.
At a subsequent meeting in The Hague, on 27-28 January 1994,
the final composition of this Advisory Board for Manifesta
1 was established, as follows: Els Barents (The Netherlands),
René Block (Germany), Svenrobert Lundquist (Sweden), Henry
Meyric Hughes (UK), Katalin Néray (Hungary), Anda Rottenberg
(Poland), and Lilijana Stepan~i~ (Slovenia).
At the same time Hedwig Fijen, working as a curator at the
Netherlands Office for Fine Arts, was appointed the full time
Co-ordinator (effectively Director) of Manifesta 1, and Katalin
Néray undertook to lead the formation of a curatorial team
for the first event in Rotterdam, in 1996. At the close of
this two-day meeting, the outcome of these deliberations and
the establishment of the Foundation European Art Manifestation,
registered in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, were presented to
the diplomatic representatives of some 30 European states.
The original structure of the Foundation European Art Manifestation
which was presented to the representatives of the foreign
governments, envisaged that the International Advisory Board,
would have responsibility for the artistic profile and the
integrity of the event, as well as the nomination of the curatorial
team; a National Committee would assume overall responsibility
for financial and organisational matters; and the Director
would be in charge of the day-to-day financial management
and liaison with the National Committee, Board members, curators
and representatives of the foreign and national institutions.
In the summer of 1995, The International Advisory Board announced
the names of the five curators who had been selected for Manifesta
1: Rosa Martinez (Barcelona), Viktor Misiano (Moscow), Katalin
Néray (Budapest), Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Paris) and Andrew Renton
(London). In the following six months, the members of this
team travelled the length and breadth of Europe and organised
a series of discussions (open and closed houses) in Amsterdam,
Antwerp, Budapest, Lisbon, London, Ljubljana, Moscow, Rotterdam
and Vienna, in the course of elaborating their plans for the
first edition of Manifesta.
Manifesta 1 was held in 16 different institutions in Rotterdam,
from 9 June to 19 August 1996. It involved 72 artists from
30 different cities in Europe and 5 from elsewhere. Total
attendances were in the region of 20,000. 350 accredited journalists
and art critics attended the opening event and there was widespread,
overwhelmingly positive, coverage in the national and international
media. All the works exhibited were created especially for
Manifesta and a number of projects were organised on a collaborative
basis. Many of the artists who showed work there for the first
time in an international context went on to exhibit extensively
in public and commercial galleries in Western Europe. The
total budget of Manifesta was 2 million Guilders (800.000
For Manifesta 2, in Luxembourg, in 1998, a new International
Advisory Board was assembled, combining two old members (Henry
Meyric Hughes and Lilijana Stepan~i~), the former Director
of Manifesta 1 (Hedwig Fijen), a representative of the previous
curatorial team (Hans-Ulrich Obrist) and two new members Chris
Dercon (Director of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which
hosted a part of Manifesta 1) and Kasper König (Rector of
the Städelschule and Director of the Portikus Gallery in Frankfurt).
Together with Enrico Lunghi (Casino Luxembourg), the newly
appointed Director of Manifesta 2, this Board selected a new
team of three curators, comprising Robert Fleck (Paris and
Vienna), Maria Lind (Stockholm) and Barbara Vanderlinden (Brussels).
Manifesta 2 was to be held from 28 June to 11 October at the
Casino Luxembourg and at 5 of the other principal artistic
institutions in the city of Luxembourg, under the immediate
patronage of the Minister of Culture and the Mayor of Luxembourg.
It included work by 47 artists from 35 different European
countries, most of whom created new work in situ.
Distinguishing features of Manifesta 2 included the series
of international discussions and debates and the institution
of a cumulative Infolab, with up-to-date printed and audio-visual
material about artistic developments in all parts of Europe.
There was also the welcome organisational involvment of some
30 trainee assistants (stagiaires) from Luxembourg and many
parts of Europe with the assistance of funding from their
national governments and from the Soros Centers in Central
and Eastern Europe.