Before I say that Prospect.1 New Orleans was the most exciting art event to take place in the U.S. in the last decade, I should probably provide the disclaimer that I was responsible for its docent training (on a volunteer basis) as well for its archival photography (on a not-so-volunteer basis). But you don’t have to take my word for it: my Art21 blogging colleague Hrag Vartanian did a great job of chronicling the biennial on these very pages. It was truly a landmark event, and it’s a safe bet to say that there are still a lot of us here in New Orleans who are still catching our breath from the whole magnificently chaotic experience.
Prospect New Orleans curator Dan Cameron, however, doesn’t have the luxury of catching his breath like the rest of us. It’s the nature of biennials that plans for the next one begin the moment the previous one is finished, and Cameron is already immersed in preparations for the opening of Prospect.2 in the fall of 2010. I sat down with him this week at his home in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans to find out what’s in store.
John d’Addario: Let’s start by talking about some the lessons you learned from Prospect.1 that will change the way you’ll be doing things for Prospect.2.
Dan Cameron: Well, it’s not so much a case of what lessons were learned as it will be tweaking the model a little bit and improving on things that did work.
One of the top things I want to see happen is having the biennial more neighborhood-identified within the greater context of New Orleans. Over the course of Prospect.1, I noticed that some people found the whole thing very daunting given the scale of what we were doing, especially people from out of town who maybe were just encountering New Orleans for the first time, or who didn’t know that there’s a lot more to the city than the French Quarter. And a lot of those people might not have been familiar with what the different neighborhoods in New Orleans were all about.
This city is made up of incredibly diverse, vibrant neighborhoods and I want Prospect.2 to become more closely associated with places like Mid-City, Tremé, the Warehouse District … the list goes on. So we’re hoping that by branding the different neighborhoods as exhibition venues, it will make the whole experience more manageable for the people who come to see it.
Another thing is that Prospect.2 is going to be more focused on music than Prospect.1 was. On one level, the Prospect biennial is an art festival, and I always wanted to differentiate it from other festival-type events like Jazz Fest. But instead of using the festival concept as a restraining idiom, I want to focus on the concept of an art festival as grab bag: the biennial as centerpiece of a wider festival of the arts, which will include music as well.
So we’re planning to have some kind of music event somewhere in the city every night of the exhibition—we’ve already been discussing programming in terms of “65 Nights,” which is how long the biennial will run. It will be similar to the type of programming that goes on during an event like a World’s Fair, or a Documenta, except that our focus would be mostly on music. We’re thinking about a possible collaboration with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and about inaugurating a visual and performing arts community space in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Of course we had a strong performing arts presence in Prospect.1 too … there was Kalup Linzy’s “Members Only” cabaret at Sweet Lorraine’s, and Navin Rawanchaikul and Tyler Russell’s jazz funeral for Narvin Kimball. But there are so many amazing performance spaces here in New Orleans that I’d like to utilize over the course of the exhibition, like the mortuary on North Rampart Street that the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation has taken over and Le Chat Noir, a cabaret on St. Charles Avenue. So there won’t be a problem finding enough material to have every night covered. It’s hard to predict how it’s exactly going to pan out at this point, but that’s what I want to see happen.
Jd’A: So what other changes can we expect to see in Prospect.2?
DC: There’s a somewhat higher number of New Orleans and Louisiana-based artists proportionately, though there’s also fewer artists overall: about 60 this time around, compared to over 80 last time.
We’re also going to charge this time, which hopefully won’t surprise too many people. Right now we’re discussing how best to do that, though it will probably involve a tiered system of day passes, weekend passes, and exhibition-long season passes. We’re fortunate that pretty much every institution that was involved in Prospect.1 wants to be on board for Prospect.2 as well, so that will give us the opportunity to do more clustering of venues throughout the city as we add new locations to make it easier for visitors to see everything.
A big challenge is how to expand the biennial’s presence in the French Quarter, which is of course the part of town that most visitors are familiar with – although we want to convey the idea that it’s a genuine neighborhood, not just a strip of bars on Bourbon Street. A lot of people told me how much they liked the “treasure hunt” aspect of Prospect.1, going all over the city to seek out some of the more out-of-the-way venues. That would work really well in a neighborhood like the French Quarter, and would give us the opportunity to draw attention to some great cultural landmarks a lot of people don’t get to see.
Seeing people in the New Orleans art community take advantage of the occasion to mount related exhibitions was one of the most exciting things about Prospect.1, and I want to see those satellite programs become even larger than the biennial itself. I want everyone – visitors and residents alike – to be able to see art all over the place, all the time.
I also expect to see at least twice as many visitors as we did for Prospect.1. We had 89,000 visitors last time, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see that figure double next year.
Jd’A: Any chance you’ll share a list of some of the artists you’ve selected to be in Prospect.2?
DC: Well, we’ve already announced some of the New Orleans artists who will be part of the biennial, like Bruce Davenport, Jr., Dawn DeDeaux, and Dan Tague. And since I was a recipient at an awards ceremony at the Anderson Ranch in Aspen a few weeks ago where Cindy Sherman was also being honored, I had the opportunity to let her know in front of a live audience that her work will be featured in Prospect.2. Beyond that, though, let’s just say the list is still in formation.
Jd’A: What about themes, then? Are there any particular ones you can identify as P.2 takes shape?
DC: I’m not such a big believer in themes; they tend to be imposed on art from the outside, and I’d rather the art speaks for itself. I do like titles for exhibitions sometimes, but on the whole I’d rather leave things open to interpretation, or various interpretations.
If there is a main subject of an exhibition like Prospect New Orleans, it’s the city itself and where it is at a particular point in time. During the months leading up to the opening of Prospect.1, for example, there was a tremendous optimism in the air about Barack Obama being elected president, and of course the economic climate was somewhat different than it is now. We don’t know what New Orleans will be like when P.2 opens in 2010, but it can’t help but influence the way the exhibition is perceived.
Jd’A: How do you hope to see New Orleans change from its involvement with the biennial?
DC: When I started working on Prospect.1, I was prepared to come into the situation being a standard bearer for the city even if I ended up being disappointed by the local arts scene. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case at all.
Part of the problem is that New Orleans lacks a major contemporary art museum, so there are people who assume that the art community here must somehow be suffering as a result. But despite, or maybe because of the undercapitalized nature of the art world here, there is a large volume of very high quality art being made in New Orleans which could be thrust into the international art mainstream. And if you keep in mind that New Orleans is also a showcase for Louisiana art, that there are amazing things going on in places like Lafayette and Covington … well, it makes the art scene here even more important, and it’s something more people need to be made aware of.
Last month we took a small group of people from New Orleans to the Venice Biennale where, incidentally, there’s a big overlap of artists from both Prospect.1 and Prospect.2. Some of them couldn’t believe the sheer number of people we ran into there who told us how fantastic Prospect.1 was, or how much they’re looking forward to Prospect.2. And so there’s a gradually developing sense of pride for people from New Orleans that their city is becoming a destination on the international art circuit. For all of us to be able to look through the Venice Biennale and see the future of New Orleans on the other side was really great.
It’s always been my belief that if you could just get the art world interested in New Orleans, so many things about life here would improve, and that the art world as a whole could benefit from what New Orleans has to offer. All we have to keep doing is expanding the cultural identity here, and all good things will follow.