Emerging in the East: the Shanghai Biennale’s pathways to legitimation, 1996 to 2018

Chenchen Zhu*, Lea Braden

*Corresponding author for this work

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This study examines the 22-year development of the Shanghai Biennale from a localized contemporary art exhibition to an internationally renowned art biennale. Through the lens of organizational legitimacy, this research examines how the Shanghai Biennale negotiated changing external pressures to establish within China and grow into the international art world. Using a mix-methods approach, we first create a unique database of participant nationality and then examine artist and curatorial statements, media reports, and interviews with organizers and curators of the Shanghai Biennale from 1996 to 2018. Our study delineates three periods of the Shanghai Biennale’s development: incipient (1996–1998), internationalization (2000–2010), and expanding period (2012–2018). Through these periods we examine the different pathways by which the Shanghai Biennale attained legitimacy first within the local and national Chinese context and then within the Biennale’s expansion into the international art scene. We find at the beginning stage of the Shanghai Biennale, establishing local legitimacy was the foremost concern. When the Shanghai Biennale started to diffuse into the global art world in 2000, focus shifted towards remaking the Shanghai Biennale to comply with international perceptions. That said, our research finds both local and international legitimacy requirements remained salient simultaneously, with the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the Chinese State as a critical basis for internationalization and development. In the most recent editions, more local and non-Western features are included in the Shanghai Biennale, signaling the Biennale’s efforts of distinguishing itself in the global biennale scene. This research contributes to organizational study by closely examining a cultural organization’s ability to negotiate legitimacy requirements in different contexts, but also empirically responds to recent calls for studies on the global development of non-Western biennales.

Original languageEnglish
Article number5
JournalJournal of Chinese Sociology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jun 2022

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