When Prospect.1 opened in two dozen locations across New Orleans in October 2008, it’s safe to say that the city had never seen anything like it.
Touted as the largest contemporary art exhibition of its kind ever organized in the United States, Prospect.1 was conceived by curator Dan Cameron as a New Orleans-based response to art biennials in major cities in Europe, Asia and South America.
Many of the 80 prominent international artists chosen for the exhibition designed site-specific pieces for parts of the city that until then had remained far off the radar of the contemporary art world.
Installations included a giant ark by Mark Bradford in a deserted lot in the Lower 9th Ward, where the ravages of Hurricane Katrina three years before were still plainly evident. A few blocks away, Nari Ward filled a flood-damaged church with salvaged gym equipment to create a giant sculpture in the shape of a diamond. And at the Contemporary Arts Center, Skylar Fein re-created a long-vanished New Orleans gay bar and memorialized the lives that were lost when a fire consumed it in 1973.
But all that art — more specifically shipping, insuring, installing and protecting it — came at a cost. Despite claims by Prospect.1 on its website that the 11-week exhibition raised more than $25 million in visitor revenue, the exhibition itself opened in the midst of the 2008 national financial crisis and its attendance fell short of expectations.
Its eventual expenses wound up outstripping its nearly $5 million budget to the tune of more than $1 million, according to The New York Times, with tales of unpaid vendors, artists and arts organizations circulating in art world circles during and after the exhibition’s run.
On Saturday, the fourth iteration of the triennial, dubbed "Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp," opens after more than a decade of retrenching and rebuilding.
After years of downsizing, Prospect appears to be gradually returning to the scale conceived by Cameron in its initial outing: While its footprint is significantly smaller than Prospect.1, with 17 venues mainly concentrated between the Warehouse Arts District and Bywater, the Prospect.4 lineup numbers nearly as many artists as Prospect.1.
And that’s a boon for New Orleans art lovers and the more than 100,000 visitors who are expected to enjoy this year’s main exhibition and satellite programs.
For Prospect New Orleans interim director Ylva Rouse, who has been part of the Prospect team since the beginning, Prospect.4 represents the latest step in an ongoing journey.
“This exhibition is an enormous undertaking,” she said. “I’m excited to share what we have been working on for the past three years.”
The budget deficit that resulted from Prospect.1 was one of the main factors that led to the resignation of most of the Prospect board members in early 2010. Cameron himself resigned as artistic director a year later.
The operating budget was cut by more than half for Prospect.2, which opened a year behind schedule in October 2011. The retrenching was necessary to protect the long-term viability of the biennial — which practically speaking had already become a triennial, though that wasn’t made official until the announcement of Prospect.3 in 2014.
That third iteration was the first to be curated by someone other than Cameron: Los Angeles-based curator Franklin Sirmans, who brought a well-received “show within a show” of paintings by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat to the Ogden Museum for the exhibition.
Officials say that the triennial reached financial solvency with Prospect.3, even ending with a budgetary surplus, and that Prospect.4 is anticipated to end up in the black as well. Its current $3.8 million budget is commensurate with past installments, and proportionate to the number of artists it includes.
That budget was raised through a combination of grants and donations from government sources, foundations, corporations and private individuals. Locally, Prospect receives funding from the Mayor's Office of the Cultural Economy, the Wisner Donation fund and the Arts Council of New Orleans. In addition, this weekend’s fundraising gala at the Sugar Mill is expected to raise $800,000 for the organization.