Jens Hoffmann. Photo: Robert Adler, courtesy New York Jewish Museum.

Eyebrows were raised yesterday when the FRONT Triennial—the highly anticipated international art exhibition due to debut in Cleveland this summer—announced that one of its artistic directors, Jens Hoffmann, would leave his post, effective immediately.

Hoffmann, a veteran biennial curator, had teamed up with Chicago-based artist and curator Michelle Grabner and local philanthropist Fred Bidwell to launch FRONT, a hugely ambitious event that would encompass work by more than 60 artists from Northeast Ohio and around the globe, as well as a residency program, online works, publications, and a lecture tour.

Asked to comment on his departure, Hoffmann told artnet News in an email that the issue boiled down to differences over the direction and organizational structure of the project. He said:

I have decided to withdraw from FRONT to focus on my other projects, such as the 2nd Honolulu Biennial in 2019, my role as chief curator at MOCA Detroit, my work for the Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco, and a number of other exhibitions taking place over the next years.

Putting together an exhibition like FRONT, which has so many different museums, off-site venues, and local curators and administrators taking part in the larger curatorial process, all of which need their voices to be heard, is not an easy undertaking.

As the triennial was evolving, I found that I personally could not identify with the directions it was taking but I am confident that FRONT will be a wonderful experience for visitors and the participating artists. I am very glad to know that Michelle Grabner, who has been a wonderful and inspiring co-artistic director, will carry FRONT over the finish line.

When he left his full-time role as deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York in 2016, Hoffmann said he hoped to focus less on administrative duties and more on organizing exhibitions, including FRONT. Hoffmann declined to elaborate further on the nature of the differences that spurred the split.

According to a statement from the triennial, Grabner will continue to guide the project as artistic director. She will “conduct artist studio visits and work collaboratively with curators at the various presenting partner institutions throughout Northeast Ohio to activate and realize a complex exhibition program,” the statement said. The organization’s partners include the Akron Art Museum, Oberlin College, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and MOCA Cleveland.

When FRONT’s list of artists was announced in July, founder Fred Bidwell told artnet News that the project’s budget was $4 million to $5 million—fairly modest for a project of its scale. “Our ambition is to be the most important contemporary art event in North America,” Bidwell said at the time.

In a statement provided to artnet News, Bidwell said that FRONT was on track to raise $5 million. “Michelle Grabner… is working closely with over 70 artists to realize projects within those budget parameters and with support and collaboration from our institutional partners,” he said.

Although he declined to comment on the reasons for the rift, Bidwell told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Hoffmann’s departure was “a little bit of a blip.” (He did not specify which party initiated the split.) Although some artists are expected to withdraw as a result of the new arrangement, Bidwell said any changes to the lineup would be “relatively minor.” Several participating artists did not return requests for comment on Tuesday.


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