Lower Ninth Art Center (2008)
It's been estimated that more than 60,000 people visited Prospect.1 New Orleans, the first biennial of international contemporary art in the United States. Developed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history—the three-month biennial sought to reinvigorate the city following the human, civic and economic devastation of 2005.
Reflecting on my own experience of the biennial, a casual statement made by a collector amid the opening events continues to resound: “This is great, but no one will come after we [art world types] leave.” While others nodded in agreement, it was disheartening to think that Prospect.1 might cease to be attractive once the ribbons were cut, the parties and brunches were over, and the heavy-hitters of the art world went home. Certainly, the importance of the biennial would manifest beyond the gaze (and pockets) of this small monarchy. Was it not just as important for New Orleans residents to see the biennial, to see the “cream” of contemporary art on their own turf? Was it not a goal for the city to see itself in a different light post-Katrina? Prospect.1 seems rather inconsequential in the massive and monied framework of the art world where international exhibitions and cultural tourism are routine. And yet, it seems equally foolish to think that the impact of Prospect.1 on local residents, artists, dealers, and communities can be considered completely outside of the art world bubble.
In a recent interview, New Orleans art dealer Jonathan Ferrera spoke candidly about a newfound sense of validation by the local arts establishment: “New Orleans is a very weird place in that we tend not to validate ourselves unless someone else does. All of a sudden the local community says, ‘Wow, we have something really special here.’ [But] New Orleans has had an active contemporary art scene since 1976, with the founding of the Contemporary Art Center. Add Prospect.1 and you have people coming here saying, ‘P.1 is amazing and so is the local art scene.’ New Orleans has a history of the arts. This was visual art taking its rightful place alongside its partners.”
In the last three months, Ferrera’s gallery has catapulted from national to international attention, his sales broadening across the country by 15 to 20 percent; his collector base, which was already diversifying, is now global; and Prospect.1 has “opened critical and curatorial doors” for Ferrera’s artists, garnering attention that might have otherwise taken many years to obtain.
New Orleans anticipated 10,000 visitors over the course of the biennial. “The goal was to bring a ‘better class’ of tourist to town—a class more culturally sensitive, yes, but also one with access to power and money to spend,” writes Steven Stern in the January issue of Frieze. Tourism is the largest industry in the city and, according to the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, it brought in $5.8 billion per year in the pre-Katrina era. After the storm, revenue dropped to $1.2 billion, eliminating 60,000 jobs. New Orleans is still struggling to recover. A few months before the opening of Prospect.1, the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center reported that 16 of 50 New Orleans neighborhoods that flooded following Katrina have less than half of the households they did in June 2005.
Make no mistake: Prospect.1 was an economic-stimulus package, funded, in a manner of speaking, by the outside art world.. But the influence of Prospect.1 reaches far beyond the economic. Local resident Shawne Major, whose beaded and object-embellished quilts were on view at the Contemporary Art Center, says: “I saw many artist friends go from anger and/or depression post-Katrina to hope and pro-active organization once the Prospect.1 opening approached. There are many more artist co-ops and alternative spaces now than before the flooding. People are excited about what can be done instead of the angry defeatism that I saw these last couple of years. Once the show ends and the numbers are calculated we'll have an idea how much P.1 contributed financially to the city of New Orleans, but I think the biggest and most important affect was psychological for the artists of the region.”
Happily Ever After (2008)
That psychological element was apparent in a number of the pieces on view in the biennial, as many artists took up the themes of home and dwelling in their work. After all, the loss of homes is one of the city’s most visible losses, and nowhere more evident than in the Lower Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit by the hurricane, and re-flooded a month later by Hurricane Rita. It’s hard to imagine that the mostly overgrown lots and derelict houses where works by Mark Bradford, Wangechi Mutu, Ghada Amer, Leonardo Elrich, Paul Vilinkski, Nari Ward, Robin Rhode, Adam Cvijanovic and others populate the landscape were once entirely submerged in a sea of floodwater. A Prospect.1 shuttle driver related to me how the levee had only been repaired at the breach point; the rest of the wall remains in its previous, substandard condition. Mark Bradford’s massive ark Mithra responds to the past events but also to this very uneasiness about the future security of the city.
On the same shuttle bus, I sat in front of a local couple that had lived in New Orleans since long before Katrina, though the Lower Ninth was just as foreign to them as it was to me. Their passing xenophobic comments made clear why that was the case. Former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial speaks of Katrina in the timely HBO documentary, The Black List Project, saying, “Katrina is an American tragedy. There were times when the aftermath was taking place and I asked myself, 'Is this the city I know and love?' It's as though certain people after the hurricane cheered that lots of African-Americans were displaced. The cocktail commentary was, 'Good, these folks are gone. We will rebuild the city without them.'” Given the way that race factored into Katrina, and continues to arise in subsequent discourse, the presence of the couple seems to speak to a whole other local dialogue that Prospect.1 might have brought about—one of tolerance. With a nod to the biennial’s contrasting audiences, Chris Rose of the Times-Picayune wrote in the January 7, 2009 edition that both “uptown locals” and “local locals” were “looking at the works, wanting to understand.”
Katharina Grosse, Untitled (2008)
New Orleans resident and artist, Willie Birch, recalls when the New Orleans Museum of Art was off limits to people of color. Birch’s drawings of his Seventh Ward community hung in the foyer of the institution as part of Propsect.1. In the December 5 edition of the Times-Picayune, the artist told New Orleans’ leading art critic, Doug McCash, “That space is a greater metaphor. It made total sense that that's where people should enter the museum and see local people. I hope people see it as another step in that journey, the journey of freedom, of where we come from as human beings and where we're going. This is an ongoing process.”
The biennial, too, is an ongoing process and much of the impact of Prospect.1 is only just beginning to be analyzed. It might be years—and a few Prospect biennials from now—before we can fully ascertain its power. But like Katrina, it has undoubtedly ushered in a new era for the city.
Nicole J. Caruth is a writer and independent curator based in Brooklyn. She frequently contributes to Might Be Good, a contemporary art e-journal produced by Fluent~Collaborative, and the Art21 Blog. She was recently selected for CUE Art Foundation's Young Art Critics program. Her recent curatorial projects include "Near Sighted—Far Out," a video art festival for Harvestworks Digital Media Art Center, and "Burning Down the House: Building a Feminist Art Collection," currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum.