Think of the trajectory of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival: It began as a brilliant little homegrown party where Sister Gertrude Morgan, robed in white, preached and sold her otherworldly paintings from a makeshift booth. Now it’s an almighty tourist magnet and Super Bowl of talent — a pricey, mass-marketed mega-event.
In any arc of this nature, certain points on the trajectory are more creatively thrilling, other parts more financially robust.
Prospect.3, the sprawling banquet of contemporary art that opened to the public in venues citywide on Saturday, may find itself on a parallel path. P.3, as it’s commonly known, is probably somewhere in the early stages of its life span and poised for big growth.
Clearly, it has moved past its passionately inspired but administratively troubled beginnings.
“It’s a different organization now — much healthier, more inclusive and substantial,” gallery owner Arthur Roger said. “Everyone feels ownership this year.”
But first things first: If anyone finds the exhibition a bit confusing or off-putting, it might have to do with nomenclature. Prospect New Orleans is the umbrella organization of the ambitious international art biennial launched here in 2008, even if the name does sound like the local branch of a mammoth insurance company.
The abbreviated name P.3, which refers to this year’s spectacle, seems to suggest some obscure aviation concept. But both refer to the same thing: a big, high-level art happening where buzz, money, power and creativity get shaken up together. It’s fizzy, provocative, stimulating fun.
With a $4 million budget and money in the bank to pay its staff through March, P.3 so far is fully solvent, according to Susan Brennan, chairwoman of Prospect’s board. This is more than can be said of Prospect.1, a sweeping critical success that overspent by $1 million, or of Prospect.2, which never quite got off the ground financially or creatively.
“I think it’s going to be very big,” Brennan said of P.3, which runs until Jan. 25. “It’s healthy. I think we have the right team in place.”
Prospect’s executive director, Brooke Davis Anderson, who came on board two years ago, “is an incredible manager and brought a new level of professionalism to the organization,” Brennan said.
William Fagaly, the New Orleans Museum of Art’s curator of African art and a Prospect board member, vouched for the quality of this year’s art.
“It’s brilliant,” he said of the body of work chosen by P.3’s creative director, Franklin Sirmans, who’s also the curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “He’s bringing art to New Orleans that New Orleans hasn’t seen. I’m overwhelmed by his selections.”
Fagaly said Sirmans is the first to curate the exhibition with a conscious, guiding theme in place. Sirmans lifted his theme from Walker Percy’s 1961 novel “The Moviegoer,” which is set in New Orleans; it has to do with Percy’s quizzical protagonist, Binx Bolling, who embarks on a philosophical search for identity, meaning and a convincing sense of place. All of the art relates to these quests in some way.
As if to underscore the literary theme, several P.3 artists use language on a grand scale to make their points. Renowned conceptual artist Tavares Strachan, who was born in the Bahamas and has spent a lot of time on boats, has mounted a giant neon sign on the side of a 150-foot-long river barge.
It reads, “You belong here” in glowing flamingo-pink script.
“Definitely it’s the biggest piece I’ve ever made,” he said of the 120-by-27-foot sculpture just before it launched from the Esplanade Avenue Wharf. “It’s floating and it’s electric. This is a little crazy.”
And its meaning? It’s an all-embracing affirmation, right?
“The work seems very direct, but it’s also indirect,” he said. “Who gets to determine where you belong? It raises more questions than it resolves.”
Artist Lisa Sigal, who also mines the power of language, inscribed poetry across the façades and boarded-up windows of 25 blighted houses in several New Orleans neighborhoods, including Mid-City and the Lower 9th Ward. She wanted to “tease out their spirits,” she said of the fragile structures.
To spice things up, there’s at least one white-hot art star in the mix. Lucien Smith, 25, a New York painter, may look like a skater kid in his sweatshirt and knit cap yanked down to his eyes, but his painting titled “Two Sides of the Same Coin” recently fetched more than $360,000 at Sotheby’s in London. Two of his paintings are on view at the Contemporary Arts Center.
Sirmans also has broken though unspoken conventions by including works by two dead artists: Paul Gauguin and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose artworks are hanging at NOMA and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, respectively.
The “Basquiat and the Bayou” show in particular is a coup. The group of nine paintings, drawings and collages relates directly to life in New Orleans and the South. One mind-bogglingly valuable painting, “Zydeco,” is on loan from Zurich gallery owner Bruno Bischofberger’s legendary private collection.
‘A treasure hunt’
All told, Prospect.3 features 58 artists from all over the world. A few reside as close as Bywater, others as far away as Argentina, Turkey and Southeast Asia. Their work is ensconced in 18 official venues and many more unofficial ones throughout the city and region. The majority of the venues follow the river from Jackson Avenue to Poland Avenue and from the riverfront to Claiborne Avenue. Exhibits fill walls at NOMA, but they also hang, sit or flicker in less familiar environments, like the video installation at Treme Market Branch, a former bank building.
“Finding them can feel like a treasure hunt,” Brennan said.
There are also myriad satellite locations, some of them steeped in local trauma. Crevasse 22, a sculpture garden on the levee in St. Bernard Parish, was inspired by the great flood of 1927. A group of artists including Michel Varisco, Mitchell Gaudet and Robert Tannen has installed work there recalling an explosion that tore out the levee at that site, devastating St. Bernard Parish.
Twenty-six of the 58 artists are black. Though Sirmans declined to explain that percentage, the geographical and racial distribution makes sense. This exhibition is emphasizing a non-elitist, non-European perspective. It reflects the fact that in art these days, some arbiters believe that the real energy is coming from places once considered by Americans to be exotic.
“This is much more of an emerging world biennial than either P.1 or P.2,” said art critic D. Eric Bookhardt, who has covered the local art scene for decades. “Franklin thinks like an artist. His overview is international. He’s not coming from a dogmatic perspective — he’s very much a synthesizer.
“Many of the artists are better known elsewhere in the world than they are in the U.S. They haven’t necessarily been lionized in New York, but they embody something of the creative spirit of the places where they’re from, whether it’s Mexico, Brazil, Africa or Asia, and Franklin relates to that. It all works because New Orleans is a prototypical global city.”
Nothing for sale
Like the other 180 or so biennials and triennials worldwide, Prospect New Orleans is an exhibition, not an art fair, so nothing in P.3 is for sale. But that hasn’t kept dealers, collectors, museum curators and their ilk from descending on the city in droves.
This year, a publicity machine led by Deveney Communications surrounds the exhibition. Groups from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern, the Whitney Museum of Art, the Venice Biennale and 10 other major arts institutions flew into New Orleans late in the week to attend P.3’s gala Friday night at the CAC, where the cheap seats cost $500 apiece.
Partygoers entered the sold-out event through a giant ring of aluminum and white light devised by Dawn DeDeaux, a local artist and one of the event’s honorees. DeDeaux’s art has lately been about an ecological endgame as she perceives it now playing out on Earth — a doomed planet as far as human habitation goes, in her opinion. She hung 24-foot-long metallic photographs of apocalyptic landscapes around the gala, including one of Plaquemines Parish, where hundreds of acres of oak trees are dying due to saltwater intrusion.
Was it a suitable backdrop for martini sipping and table-hopping? “Like so many of these landscapes, it’s terrifying and beautiful,” she said.
Indeed, DeDeux’s emphasis on earthly devastation and the terrible, strange beauty it sometimes exudes goes back to the roots and the heart of the biennial.
Prospect.1, which opened in November 2008 and ran for three months, is now looked back on as a watershed moment and a clear triumph in the cultural history of the city. It was the brainchild of Dan Cameron, a somewhat controversial New York art world figure who came to town after Katrina. A curator at the CAC from 2007 to 2010, Cameron conceived P.1. as a way to hoist up the hurricane-ravaged city by reinventing it as a riveting art destination. Having worked on other international exhibitions throughout the world, he had a global perspective and connections.
Cameron curated P.1 and P.2, then abruptly resigned just after P.2 opened in 2011 because of disputes over finances with his board. He is now chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport, California.
In the New Orleans art community, many have bellyached privately about Cameron’s leadership style. But no one has disputed his vision or the artistic stature of his first New Orleans biennial. Prospect.1 was marveled over by critics from across the country. Most P.1 artists displayed work that Cameron commissioned for the event, and they took their inspiration from New Orleans’ near-annihilation.
The artworks were further heightened by raw, unexpected visual settings that were rampant in the city at the time. In addition to white-box museums and galleries, which couldn’t contain all the art, many uncanny and even ephemeral locations were pressed into service — an auto body shop, an ancient grocery, derelict houses, a funeral home, devastated lots and a ruined Baptist church, among others. It amounted to a jaw-dropping urban tour.
“Most biennials bring art to a city like Istanbul or Pittsburgh,” said Elizabeth Baker, an editor-in-chief of the magazine Art in America who came down for P.1. “But this was sort of the opposite. It brought the city to the world through an amazing art project. It’s now become the fashion to extend biennials citywide, but as far as I’m concerned, Prospect.1 was the only one that had a point to it.”
Cameron also raised New Orleans’ profile on the international art world map. One New York dealer who grew up in New Orleans remembered running into all kinds of luminaries from the Manhattan art world at P.1 and watching them realize for the first time that New Orleans is interesting.
“Ardent East Coast art collectors were asking, ‘Why have we never been here before?’ ” the Chelsea gallery owner said. “There are so many biennials now that one melts into another. It’s hard to ascribe purpose or meaning to them. The subtext is often, ‘This is just some art I like; thes.1 had a real and powerful message.”
Some have speculated that the artistic success of Prospect.3 will hinge on whether Sirmans has been able to infuse it with a sufficiently compelling meaning. Even when you rope in the creative brainpower of Walker Percy, it’s not an easy task. Because of the moment it took place and the kinds of emotions and energies it harnessed, Prospect.1 will always be a hard act to follow.
“We are not the hurricane-damaged city anymore,” Roger said. “But Franklin was a brilliant choice. I think he will pull it off. There’s a lot of good will, and everyone’s rooting for him.”