American author and environmental activist Edward Abbey once noted: “What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.”
In many ways, Desert X abides by that principle with aplomb.
Produced by The Desert Biennial, a nonprofit 501(c)(3), the compelling biennial event launched seven years ago and has steadily grown in popularity and inventiveness. By all accounts, Desert X has delivered on its mission to bring recurring international contemporary art exhibitions by acclaimed international artists to Coachella Valley in the hopes of engaging curious art seekers.
The next outing, which runs March 4 through May 7, 2023, promises to inspire by looking at the theme of water. “When you say, ‘water,’ it seems somewhat of a contrary country topic to discuss here in the desert,” says Desert X Executive DirectorJenny Gil. “Yet we believe that the desert is not necessarily defined by the absence of water, but that the desert landscape is formed by the memory of water. Following that idea, the upcoming projects will address this important issue.
To be sure, Desert X has been more than just eye candy. The level of mindfulness brought to the event is noteworthy. Certainly, it provokes thought.
Who can forget the marvel of artist Pia Camil’s “Lover’s Rainbow” from 2019? Or Serge Attukwei Clottey’s “The Wishing Well” and Nicholas Galanin’s “Never Forget” in 2021. The list goes on…
“I believe contemporary art impacts our communities,” Gil notes.
Desert X relies on foundational support, individual support, and corporate support and sponsorships to curate and host exhibitions. This includes inviting artists to come to the desert to do research, produce artwork, and eventually set up exhibitions. In 2017, approximately 200,000 people attended the event; in 2019, more than 400,000. Last year’s event welcomed more than 650,000 people.
“That increase in audience also means an increased impact on the community,” Gil notes. “It allows us to also grow our public programs that we make accessible both in-person and online. Since 2017, our series of educational initiatives and programs have impacted more than 2,000 children in all three Coachella Valley school districts. Funding from all sources, big or small, all go to help not only the exhibition but everything around it.”
Beyond the attendance, the organization itself has grown. It now has five full-time employees and more than 100 volunteers who assist in all matters Desert X before, during, and after the exhibition.
Recently, Desert X received a grant from the Sheffer/Scheffler Donor Advised Fund from Inland Empire Community Foundation. “We’re grateful to Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler as they are the arts advocates and supporters of Desert X behind this grant,” Gil says, adding that the support will significantly impact 2023’s event.
There will be between 10 and 15 art installations scattered around the desert for the 2023 outing, as well as a series of public programs and educational initiatives, several of which are currently in place. Currently, Gil et al are fielding new artists’ proposals and talking to artists to gauge how they view the desert space. “We want them to understand how we acknowledge all the political, social, and environmental issues that affect Coachella Valley communities.”
The process of choosing artists is extensive and mindfully plotted out. Different curators filter into Desert X. Upon receiving artists’ proposals, feasibility research is conducted, and there’s an assessment as to how or whether various projects can be funded—for an upcoming exhibition or even future ones.
Announcements for 2023’s artists will occur in late January or early February next year.
“We’re working within an environment where many of the elements are out of our control, such as the desert itself,” Gil says. “We don’t control the weather, we don’t control the wind, we don’t control how people are going to interact with the artwork, and whether three people come or 3,000 in a day. There are so many different variables and unknowns and that’s why the process of deciding who and what is included in Desert X can take so long.”
There’s much to savor in Gil’s role, which is a kind of conduit for luring remarkable works of public art to Coachella Valley.
“I love that contemporary art can create a cross-cultural dialogue, the type of change it can affect, and how it engages with audiences,” she says. “Desert X happens outside the institutional space of a museum or art gallery, making contemporary art more accessible and inclusive, which is something I’m very passionate about. What I really love is the audience, whom I find very brave and adventurous to go out of their everyday lives to come and see these exhibitions.”
“I also love how people are really moved by artists’ projects,” Gil adds, “and how they pay attention not only to the physical installation itself, but also the stories that are behind them—the emotional stories, the personal stories, the social stories, the political stories. Stories that everyone can relate to.”
For more information about Desert X, visit desertx.org.
This article originally appeared in the Desert Sun, July 2022.
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