New Orleans, god love it, is a city of hard luck. And so it goes for the nearly 40 artists whose invitations to participate in the second-annual New Orleans biennial, Prospect.2, Oct. 22, 2011-Jan. 29, 2012, were revoked after a series of fundraising defeats stripped the hotly anticipated exhibition down to the marrow.
General critical acclaim greeted the first installment of the show, the ambitious $4.5 million Prospect.1 New Orleans, Nov. 1, 2008-Jan. 18, 2009, an acclaim initially shared by founding director Dan Cameron. Conceived as the largest international contemporary art exhibition in U.S. history, with 80 artists from 30 countries, the elaborate event nevertheless ended up in debt. And it seems possible that Cameron, who initially promised to organize five shows in ten years, may have to step aside.
But despite setbacks, Cameron has pulled Prospect.2 together, and the show is set for this fall, though a year behind schedule and, with a much smaller roster of 26 artists from nine countries.
The trouble began when Prospect.1 marooned organizers with a $1 million deficit and a board of directors that couldn’t agree on how to keep it from happening again. The board settled the debt in 2009, but the infighting caused nearly half of its members, including executive director Barbara Motley, to resign or be dismissed.
Cameron went ahead with plans for Prospect.2 and booked 62 artists from more than 20 countries. He re-staffed the board, now “lightened,” as he put it during a phone interview, “of some of the hobbyists,” with people like Prospect.1 artist Nari Ward and former New Orleans Arts Council president Bill Hines.
Perhaps he should have dragooned some deeper pockets. A substantial grant that Cameron expected from the National Endowment for the Arts never materialized (“for reasons we still don’t entirely understand,” he said). The indebted state of Louisiana wasn’t committing the $300,000 it had last time. And, though Cameron had vaguely hoped the city’s new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, might become a potential supporter, it turned out that “contemporary art doesn’t seem to be the most natural fit for either mayoral administration,” Cameron said.
By late 2010, when Prospect.2 was due, Cameron was able to put on only the $38,000 mini-biennial Prospect.1.5 as a kind of placeholder. This move, while understandable, didn't really get him anywhere. It was slowly sinking in that the now-postponed Prospect.2 would have to make do with just over half the budget of its prototype.
As of last count, the show's budget adds up to about $2.4 million, most of which is from private foundations, as well as corporations, individuals and foreign governments. The city of New Orleans has not yet committed any funding.
About six months ago, Cameron began making some heart-breaking decisions. “We had to actually disinvite artists, which is about the most painful thing a curator will ever have to do,” he said. “I mean, we had artists who had already come to New Orleans and were developing their projects.”
One major loss: A museum-scale show of works by Cindy Sherman, briefly billed as the artist's first major exhibition in the south.
“I was of course disappointed but you have to do what you have to do,” said the biennial’s founding benefactor, Toby Devan Lewis, in an email. “It will be a different show than Prospect .1, but I have total confidence in Dan and I am sure it will be worthy of a trip to New Orleans.”
Cameron whittled the list down to 26 mostly big-name or otherwise hot-ticket artists, such as Sophie Calle, William Eggleston, Nicole Eisenman, William Pope.L, An-My Lê, Ivan Navarro, Alexis Rockman, Jennifer Steinkamp and Francesco Vezzoli, who will be good for tourism and for the city. [A complete list of artists is available on the biennial’s website.]
“There was no artist in Prospect.1 that just had everyone in New Orleans going 'ooh, aah, I can’t believe they’re coming to town'," Cameron said, "whereas Sophie Calle has stirred up local interest." For the exhibition, the French artist is converting a historic home into a museum of memory, a multimedia homage to her family that’s reminiscent of her 2010 show at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo.
Cameron promises a strong homegrown presence. He points out that, percentage-wise, New Orleans artists, including Dawn DeDeaux, George Dunbar and Dan Tague, make up a higher proportion than last time -- about 18 percent compared to 12 percent.
The show faces other cutbacks. It has a slimmer catalogue, which is being printed only on demand. Admission is no longer free, either; a day pass is $10, and a week-long ticket is $20. And the show has no shuttle to transport visitors between the citywide venues.
That shouldn’t cause too much of a problem, though, since this year the exhibitions will take place inside 11 established cultural institutions, as opposed to the 30 unique, occasionally far-flung destinations of 2008, including a condemned church and several other sites in the flood-ravaged, then-vacant lots of the Lower Ninth Ward.
The decision to move the show indoors, to places like Tulane and Xavier universities, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Contemporary Arts Center, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Newcomb Art Gallery and the Isaac Delgado Art Gallery, was partly curatorial. In 2008, the Lower Ninth Ward still represented “a kind of gigantic memorial,” Cameron said. “There was one opportunity for the art world to come and pay their homage to the dead and that was it. We are now focused on the living, on New Orleans as a thriving, rebounding city.”
Instead of centering around the themes of loss and devastation still raw in the post-Katrina era of the first biennial, Cameron wanted to focus, loosely, on the subject of nature. New Orleans has faced singular environmental issues over the last three years -- including the BP "Deepwater Horizon" Oil Spill and a rapidly dissolving coastline. Cameron didn’t assign the topic, but said he selected artists who are exploring these kinds of issues in some general way.
Looking ahead, Prospect.3 is “definitely on the calendar,” Cameron said, but he’s not so sure he’ll be the one leading it. The exhibition is modeled after international biennials like the Venice Biennale, where, according to Cameron, “the idea is not to have the founding curator over and over again.”
That’s not good news for Cameron’s fans -- and there are plenty. “He’s one of the last independent voices who works outside of the art market and its pressures,” said Alexander Gray, a dealer for Prospect.2 artist Lorraine O’Grady, who will have a series of 40 photos on view in a space in the French Quarter. “He drives the organization and I can’t imagine anyone else doing it.”
The New Orleans art scene has been revolutionized of late, noted native artist Dan Tague, who will have an installation at the Contemporary Arts Center for Prospect.2, “and 99 percent of that is because of Dan Cameron.” At least a dozen small galleries popped up in the Bywater district, he noticed, all of them under “the premise of getting recognized by the barrage of people coming to see Prospect.” Three years later, most of those galleries are still open, he said, and new ones are opening their doors every few weeks in anticipation of Prospect.2.