For aspiring artists of the Fine Art subset, being chosen by the massive international exhibitions known as biennials is how you know you’ve made it. Having your work featured in such an exhibition can attract the attention of elite art connoisseurs and collectors—an opportunity that carries with it the potential to alter the course of an artistic career. Since the 1990s, a veritable jet set of creative professionals has descended each year upon one of the capitals of international art to hobnob and identify up-and-coming artists. From Berlin to São Paulo, Moscow to Shanghai, cities chosen to host biennials are pinnacles of global culture, as glamorous and cosmopolitan as the exhibitions themselves. But if the optimal environment for a biennial is an urban space on the cutting edge of modernity, then what in the name of Peggy Guggenheim is such a top-notch international cultural event doing in New Orleans, Louisiana?
In the early aughts, there was a growing feeling among American art professionals that the United States was lagging behind in the biennial game. The Whitney Biennial in New York operates on a scale comparable to those held in Sidney or São Paulo, but its history of political faux pas—from the 1987 show so lacking in diversity it inspired the famous Guerilla Girl protests, to the recent controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till—has earned it a reputation as a biennial everyone loves to hate. When curator and self-described “Nolaphile” Dan Cameron, who had previously served as artistic director and organizer for biennials in Istanbul and Taipei, made his first post-Katrina visit to the city, he saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Organizing a large scale biennial in New Orleans would bolster our country’s artistic reputation abroad as well as bring much-needed tourist dollars to the city. Using the exhibitions to draw tourist dollars to host cities is a tradition as old as biennials themselves. The world’s first biennial, the Venice Bienniale, was conceived in 1895 by Venetian city officials as a scheme to revive their flagging tourism economy. It was generally agreed that in establishing Prospect New Orleans, the international art world would be doing its part for the recovery effort.
While Dan Cameron’s ambitions for Prospect.1 may have been a bit high—the debut show put the organization almost a million dollars in debt in spite of its critical acclaim—Prospects 2 and 3 scaled back and shifted to a triennial schedule. And after Franklin Sirmans’ widely-acclaimed curation of Prospect.3, Prospect New Orleans secured a place on artnet News’ top 20 international biennials. With its fourth installment opening this past November to rave reviews from artnet News and The New York Times, it is clear that the triennial is thriving. It seems worth asking, however, whether after ten years in operation, Prospect has been as good to New Orleans as New Orleans has been to Prospect.
On the economic impact section of their website, a detailed financial report of Prospect.1 calculates that the show brought in $23.2 million of consumer spending to the city. Prospect.3 broke all previous attendance records, surpassing Prospect.1’s attendance by over 10,000 visitors. Even without a more recent report it is clear that Prospect is continuing to bring some revenue into the city. However, in the decade which has passed since the report’s initial calculations, skyrocketing real estate prices, displacement from short term rentals, and the failure of minimum wage jobs in the tourism sector to cover the rising costs of living in post-Katrina New Orleans has drastically shifted the conversation around tourism. This March, NOLA.com reported that as of 2016, when over 10 million visitors came to the city and spent $7.4 billion, the city has finally broken the pre-Katrina record for visitors. Then again, once hotels, Airbnb, and special purpose entities like the Convention Center have all taken their cut, the little that is left of tourist revenue doesn’t go very far towards improving the day-to-day standard of living for New Orleanians with the most need. Even if Prospect’s (at most) 100,000 or so visitors every three years were a more significant percentage of the overall tourism in the city, it’s unclear how these cultural consumers would really improve the lives of the people living here.
From the organizers’ perspective, though, the biennial’s contribution is as much cultural as it is economic. The Prospect New Orleans website declares its mission as one which promotes “cultural tourism” and creates “projects that resonate deeply with the City’s unique history, culture, people, and institutions.” “At the heart of Prospect,” they claim, “is the connection that it enables between ‘high art’ and the larger cultural landscape of the city.” Though Prospect New Orleans may be well-intentioned, it’s hard not to take offense to the claim that they are filling some kind of cultural deficit by bringing “high art” to the city of New Orleans. “High art” is a term which has historically been used to differentiate the art consumed by cultivated elites from the more accessible “low art” of the masses. “High art” may have gone through a lot of changes since these terms were first created, but participation in contemporary international art culture is still generally limited to those with considerable means.
While representatives of the organization have spoken loudly and often about their commitment to using art as a platform for larger conversations about social justice and economic disparity, these conversations tend to be more theoretical than concrete, and the organization has yet to address how a temporary influx of wealthy creatives should respectfully interact with a local population dealing with severe economic pressures. The post-Katrina displacement of New Orleans natives and the corresponding influx of coastal creative professionals is something towards which Prospect has been particularly insensitive.
If Prospect New Orleans can find a way to treat the city as an active participant instead of an exotic backdrop, the show has a chance to bring a genuinely fresh perspective to the international biennial circuit.
In 2014, as the housing crisis reached new heights, Prospect.3’s featured display was Tavares Strachan’s 100 foot sign in pink neon which floated the words “You Belong Here” on the Mississippi. Strachan, who made his reputation as a wild card conceptual artist in 2013 when he shipped five tons of ice from the North Pole to his installation at the Venice Biennale as a testament to the threat of climate change, was inspired to create the piece after he “discovered that New Orleans, like most places, is very complex.” His stated purpose in creating the piece was to explore the “anxiety of belonging” in New Orleans. That it failed to occur to the curators that a Yale art school graduate from the Bahamas living in Brooklyn was unqualified to make that kind of “exploration” indicated a startling disregard of the issues facing New Orleanians in real time.
Prospect.4 is making a fresh attempt to connect with the city. Artistic Director Trevor Schoonmaker has clearly made an effort to give New Orleans a central role in his curation. In his Artistic Director’s Statement he pays tribute to the “hybrid nature of New Orleans” stemming from the city’s history as an international trade hub, which he credits for the creation of unique cultural exports like jazz. While his analysis may not be particularly original, he still seems sincere in his desire to present an exhibition which resonates with New Orleans. “Because Prospect is so young,” Schoonmaker told artnet News, “there is a need for it to feel rooted here—to not only try and lure the international art world to New Orleans, but to still get the local community, the regional art goers, to want to buy in and embrace it as their own. We want to be getting to communities that don’t always go and see art.”
In addition to local artists ranging from Quintron and Miss Pussycat to Louis Armstrong (it would seem Satchmo took up collaging in his later years), some of the international artists included took up local themes. Rotterdam and New York-based artists Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher moved into a houseboat on the swamp for a few weeks to collect images for their Contemporary Art Center installation “Highway Gothic.” The series, printed on blue cyanotype film, concerns animals and people dislocated by the construction of Interstate 10.
It seems unlikely, though, that these displaced Louisianans, theoretically the artists’ subjects, would see themselves reflected in the art alone. The blue images of overpasses and pale crawfish silhouettes are appealing, but enigmatic. Like most conceptual visual artists, Gallagher and Cleijne rely heavily on obtuse descriptions to convey their meaning. How exactly from the visuals could we know that “merging the opposite ends of traditional and digital imaging, Cleijne looks at the effects of our anthropocene in the crossing points of nature and culture,” or that Gallagher “brings together non-representational formal concerns and charged figuration” to explore a “tension sustained between minimalist abstraction and image-based narratives”?
One way to look at the disconnect between international art and New Orleans culture is in terms of a language barrier. While top-tier artists are chosen from a wide array of nations and ethnicities, they have all agreed on a language of abstraction, which gives their work equal relevance when it is shown in Moscow, London, or Havana. That the contemporary art Prospect.4 favors expresses itself in ways that are almost completely inaccessible to anyone who isn’t familiar with their vocabulary makes it hard to see how it could reach a wider audience.
If Prospect New Orleans really wanted to engage the city in a meaningful conversation, it would first have to notice that New Orleans artists don’t necessarily speak that language, or agree with the biennial on what constitutes art and culture. Art Directors like Franklin Sirmans and Trevor Schoonmaker pay lip service to unique local traditions like second lines, but they don’t recognize them as part of a cultural system which completely contradicts the values of the avant garde. When life is as precarious as it is here, art for art’s sake stops making sense. Second lines aren’t about posterity or individual genius, but a community coming together to sustain themselves and celebrate being alive. You can’t take a second line outside of the context of its neighborhood, let alone state or country, without diminishing its power. It takes both creativity and community to deal with the strange and numerous challenges of living here, not to mention commitment. New Orleans art reflects that, and not just in its more traditional forms. All kinds of New Orleanians put their time and energy towards the creative work which makes living here worth the hardship, whether or not they get money and recognition in return.
There are some phenomenal New Orleans artists included in Prospect.4 who could serve as a bridge between the two worlds. Michel Varisco is a New Orleans-born artist whose work can be described in abstract terms, but is rooted in her native landscape. Her Prospect.4 installation of metal prayer wheels along the Lafitte Greenway, “Turning: Prayer Wheels for the Mississippi,” is conceptually imaginative, but doesn’t rely on a wordy description to explain itself. Inside the wheels are images of the Mississippi as it has evolved over time: from its ancient form, to the arrival of Europeans, to the present day destruction by petrochemical companies, the piece bears unmistakable witness to the river’s troubling transformation.
However, the nuance local artists bring to a Prospect show centered around New Orleans themes tends to get lost in the shuffle. Each piece by Prospect.4’s 73 international artists is self-contained; the curators would have had to work harder to find a non-rhetorical way to put them in conversation with each other. Rather than just displaying Chief Darryl Montana’s suits in the Old Mint, they could have compared the social impact of a contemporary art “intervention” and that of a painstakingly crafted Indian suit, which is paid for out-of-pocket by a community low on resources, who will then spend thousands of off-the-clock hours to keep a hundred-year-old tradition alive for future generations. Or they could’ve tried asking Monique Verdin—a Prospect.4 local artist whose stirring photography goes hand-in-hand with her unflinching opposition to the oil industry—what she thinks of Tavares Strachan using fossil fuels to haul five tons of Arctic ice to his art show on the other end of the planet. If Prospect New Orleans can find a way to treat the city as an active participant instead of an exotic backdrop, the show has a chance to bring a genuinely fresh perspective to the international biennial circuit.
Compared to mass incarceration, crumbling infrastructure, and the abuses of real estate developers, Prospect New Orleans may not seem like much of a threat to the city. But the global monoculture represented by the international art world is fed by the same billionaires responsible for worldwide economic disparities and environmental degradation. Art Basel, a legendary three-part art show which oversees billions of dollars in contemporary art sales every year, calculates the total take for auctions and private art sales worldwide as $56.6 billion. Here in New Orleans, one of the most devoted patrons of the contemporary art scene is millionaire developer Sean Cummings, who recently staged an exclusive P.S. (Prospect Satellite) event in which he unveiled a Banksy graffiti mural that he “discovered” on one of his development sites before “installing the artifact” at the Cummings International House Hotel.
With the ruling class as gatekeepers, it’s hard to imagine anyone intent on undermining the power structure becoming successful, and this is bound to compromise global art. New Orleans is one of the few cultural centers in the country that genuinely prioritizes free expression over money and prestige. It takes integrity to put so much of yourself into work whose only real payoff is community support and personal satisfaction. That so much of New Orleans culture operates within its own value system makes it subversive to the global capitalist model. Even when it isn’t overtly political, our vision of culture as a collective creation demonstrates art to be something more expansive than the four white walls of a gallery can hold. If, after a decade of proselytizing “high art” to the provincials, Prospect still hasn’t understood that, it is probably time someone set them straight.
illustration KATIE O’CONNOR