The Big Easy's Canvas

How Art Can Help New Orleans

Mark Bradford's post-Katrina ark, part of Prospect 1

Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

NEW ORLEANS—Can art save a city? Curator Dan Cameron's answer is a resounding yes! For the past two years Cameron, director of visual arts at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, and a former curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, has been organizing a contemporary art event in New Orleans called Prospect 1.

Nicknamed "the bleeding heart biennial" by some critics, and praised as "a shifting, healing kaleidoscope" by others, Prospect 1 opened to great fanfare last month. The first international biennial of art in New Orleans, and the largest in the United States, it promises to attract more than 100,000 people before it closes January 18, 2009.

At the opening event on Oct. 31 Cameron told a crowd of art-world regulars, "I wanted to bring people to New Orleans so that they would fall in love with it. I realized that if I found the 81 best artists I could and brought them to be inspired by the city, they would make art that is inspiring to visitors and locals alike."

To foster a love affair with New Orleans, Cameron spread Prospect 1 across the city and made all of the exhibitions and events free and open to the public. Visitors receive a specially designed map to navigate around sites and learn about satellite art events not connected to the biennial. Venues include traditional places such as the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Contemporary Art Center, as well as historic homes, storefronts, a funeral home, an abandoned church, a couple of Katrina-cleared empty lots near the Lower 9th Ward levee break, and vacant buildings terribly battered by the storm.


Mural of the Superdome on the walls of the 75-year-old Colton School, closed since Katrina

Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Though most of the art is not about the architecture of New Orleans, the city has an enormous impact on the art work—and on participants. Even veterans of international biennials and art fairs were moved by the sight of art displayed against a backdrop of historic buildings or ravaged landscapes. Art that might seem overly sentimental or politically obvious in another context, instantly became relevant commentary on what happened here and what might lie ahead.

"It was impressive to see how the exhibition galvanized and energized New Orleans, said Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. "So many of the artists deeply connected with the city, its history, and its recent tragedy. Their work offers great hope and prospects for the future."

But what about saving historic places? Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu believes that events like Prospect 1 have an important role to play in the city's recovery. "This biennial can help us orient how we see ourselves post-Katrina," he said at the opening press conference. "Those of you who work in historic preservation know that you can lose your home, your school, your office, but not your soul. Having this event all across our city is a powerful message about our lives and shows people that we will not give up…Prospect 1 will set the tone for how this century will look in New Orleans."

On display in the Lower Ninth Ward is Argentine artist Leandro Erlich's "Window and Ladder."

Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Saving places was not necessarily the motivation for participating artists, but most took the spirit of the endeavor to heart. Argentinean artist Leandro Erlich, for example, chose an empty lot in the Lower 9th Ward for his work entitled "Window and Ladder, Too Late For Help." Calling up images of the flood he suspends an open window with a leaning ladder in a fragment of a brick wall. High above the scrub grass, with an empty stoop and a nearly collapsed wreck of a house on the lot next door as background, the sight of the window in mid-air is shocking. Visitors stare at it and consider escape and devastation. Both poignant and provocative, the work stands where literally nothing is left whole and little has been rebuilt even three years after the hurricane.

In a warehouse artist's space called the Lower 9th Ward Village, New York artist Janine Antoni, mainly known for her surrealistic photography and sculpture, has created a multimedia work entitled T-E-A-R. The work juxtaposes a worn wrecking ball with film of a staring eye accompanied by an echoing boom with each blink. Not subtle, Antoni warns us that the world is watching but doing little to stop the destruction taking place outside. Or, as one critic said, "more of the city is lost with each blink of the eye."

Nearby, Mark Bradford, a California native, takes a more poetic but no less direct approach to the situation with his much-written-about Ark. A huge wooden boatlike structure covered with torn and rotting billboards, the ark seems poised for the next storm or shipwrecked in the sand. One of the most powerful sculptures in the biennial, the work is a symbol of belief and hope marooned in the vast empty landscape swept clean by Katrina.

Across town where the storm did less visible damage, New Orleans artist Willie Birch uses the occasion of the Biennial to right a previous wrong. As an African American, his visits to the city's art museum were carefully orchestrated to ensure that he and other people of color did not come into "unnecessary" contact with the city's elite. "When I visited this museum as a child I felt that it was not my place," he told New Orleans Museum of Art officials. "Having my art in this atrium now is very important to me." His work, large multi-paneled black and white drawings depicting life in New Orleans, provides a powerful introduction to the museum and makes viewers long for more.

"Have a safe weekend," an Aug. 26, 2005, message on the blackboard of the 75-year-old Charles J. Colton School, which closed after Katrina

Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
In the Charles J. Colton School, one of many historic schools closed after the storm, Prospect 1 exhibitions include internationally recognized art stars. But the most moving aspect of the experience is seeing what the students and teachers created before the storm changed their world. On the blackboard of one classroom is a last message dated August 26, 2005. The teacher writes "Have a safe weekend." Homework includes writing an essay about anything learned that week in class. In a badly scarred hallway, an upright piano sits beneath a brightly colored mural depicting the city with the superdome as its most prominent feature.

Other events of the biennial spilled out into the streets. Since 2006 Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul and Canadian curator Tyler Russell have Googled the world for people named Navin in order to create an unlikely community. They found the misspelled name of jazz musician Narvin Kimball in New Orleans and went to work creating an imagined and real life for him in artworks that they then installed in the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Foundation and Center. In a mashup between New Orleans and the Far East, the duo, who call their project Navin Party, created an artistic tribute that incorporates film footage of the musician, historic photographs, and painted works that resemble concert posters with an oriental flavor. Because Kimball died just shortly after Katrina, he was never given a proper jazz funeral, so, in one of the more emotional events of the weekend, the artist and his crew in collaboration with Preservation Hall, staged one. Funeral participants danced and held the artworks as they paraded through the streets accompanied by a horse drawn hearse and a jazz band. Following the ceremonies the film footage was made part of the installation.

The most moving element of Prospect 1: Narvin Kimball's funeral

Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

"I am touched and impressed by Dan Cameron's devotion to New Orleans and grateful to him for being able to express his passion in a way that does this much good for the city," said resident Jack Davis, a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Prospect 1 gets people to go to uncomfortable and illuminating places and I hope they will see our city's possibilities. … It is a wonderfully inventive way to get people out of their comfort zones."

According to Cameron, this is just the first in a series of Prospect biennials in New Orleans. He has made a 10-year commitment to the project, promising that Prospects 2-5 will grow stronger and larger each year. Judging from the enthusiasm of the first weekend, the art world will come back again to see them.

"Dan Cameron did an amazing job with little time and few resources," says the Whitney's Weinberg. "The next Biennial will be more challenging, however, as it will have to move beyond the Katrina tragedy as a motivating force. I look forward to it."

Vacant Houses, Blank Slates

Several existing arts programs used the occasion of Prospect 1 to unveil satellite exhibitions and experiments. One of the most exciting of these is KK Projects, brainchild of Kirsha Kaechele, and located on a derelict block of Villere Street in the St. Roch neighborhood. Using her own home and six abandoned structures on the street, Kaechele invites artists to do site-specific installations. "Artists often have an idea of what they will do before they come," says project manager Katherine Bray, "but the work doesn't really begin until they get here and start working in the space." Exhibitions remain on view for three months before another artist takes over, and according to Bray, the condition of the space left by one artist often heavily influences the next one.

In the current KK series artist Mel Chin has created Operation Paydirt, an ambitious art/science project in what he calls the "flood-wrecked and lead-laden neighborhood of St. Roch." Chin used an abandoned structure to create a "Safe House," where he is storing thousands of "Fundred Dollar Bills." This "funny money" is hand-drawn interpretations of $100 bills by children across the U.S. Once he has gathered $300 million in bills, Chin plans to drive the artworks to Washington, D.C., and demand $300 million of services to help mitigate lead pollution in New Orleans.

Down the block in a building listing dangerously toward the street, international art superstar Tony Oursler staged a video work that can only be seen by peering through holes in the collapsing walls. British artist Peter Nadin pierced his vine-covered structure with lances and the house next door is filled with rusting artifacts of the flood. Other works can be seen in Kaechele's home, a former bakery that serves as KK's offices and occasionally as a sort of community center for the neighborhood. During opening weekend Kaechele and company hosted some of the wildest and most entertaining of the parties, some free and others to benefit KK Projects. Although locals warned that finding a cab in the middle of the night might be difficult, hundreds of art lovers flocked there for the festivities.  

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed