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The Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art was founded on March 26, 1996 by Klaus Biesenbach, founding director of KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and a group of collectors and patrons of the arts. The idea of establishing a biennial in Germany was inspired by the Venice Biennale in 1995. Following the demise of aperto – the forum for young contemporary art founded in 1981 – there was much discussion about the need to heighten the profile of contemporary art in Berlin, a fact which undoubtedly accelerated the project’s progress.
The first exhibition ran from 30 September to 30 December 1998 and was curated by Klaus Biesenbach, Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Nancy Spector. It took place in the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in Mitte, at the Akademie der Künste in Pariser Platz and at the postal centre in Oranienburger Straße.
More than 70 artists took part, including several unknowns who would later become famous, such as Franz Ackermann, Jonathan Meese, Thomas Demand and Olafur Eliasson.
The show was interdisciplinary to reflect the context of contemporary art; in the opening week the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija catered a banquet for 1,000 guests in the post office gymnasium, and a three-night combination symposium and festival, Congress 3000, took place in the House of World Cultures.
The Second Berlin Biennale ran from 20 April to 20 June 2001 and included works by approximately 50 artists (deliberately fewer than at the first) from more than 30 countries, several of them very young. It was curated by Saskia Bos, who adopted the theme of “connectedness, contribution and commitment” and sought to reject commercially oriented art and foster engagement with the public, to “exhibit a utopian sociability in art”.
Works were again exhibited at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Modern Art and the postal centre in Oranienburger Straße, and also under the elevated S-Bahn at Jannowitzbrücke and the Allianz Building, known as the Treptowers.