D. Eric Bookhardt on how New Orleans art built connections to the outside world this year
By D. Eric Bookhardt | Gambit Weekly
In the New Orleans art scene, as in the city itself, change is in the air. Drivers can’t help but notice the construction zones that have turned many city streets into obstacle courses. Now orange mesh caution fences even appear in front of the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), where a newly acquired Roy Lichtenstein sculpture, Five Brushstrokes, is being installed. But most of this years’ local art news has taken the form of incremental changes - new programs, plans and personnel - that the observer must divine like tea leaves. What do they portend? On close inspection clues abound, and all the current signs and omens point to a deeper emphasis on local culture coupled with an expanded relationship with the world at large.
Anyone wondering what that means need look no further than the preview of the Prospect.3 New Orleans contemporary art biennial sketched out Dec. 12 by Creative Director Franklin Sirmans at Xavier University. Titled “Notes for Now” and inspired by Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer and its theme of how people come to understand themselves through others, Prospect.3 will feature more than 50 artists from 20 nations. It’s a colorfully diverse mix that includes a series of paintings by the late Haitian-American art star Jean-Michel Basquiat that focused on our region as the birthplace of jazz and other uniquely American cultural idioms. With an organizational structure spread between New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles, it also reflects a degree of tri-coastal collaboration that would have been unthinkable in years past.
Local and global connections also appear in the ongoing collaborations between NOMA and the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), as seen in the vast Water expo (open through Jan. 19, 2014) of monumental large-scale photographs by Canadian master Edward Burtynsky. Organized by NOMA photography curator Russell Lord, Water covers two floors of the CAC with images that graphically illustrate how the world’s bodies of water affect us, as well as illustrating how the two institutions can pool resources to create internationally acclaimed exhibitions. New CAC Director Neil Barclay also announced recently the appointment of Claire Tancons as guest curator for a large-scale multinational expo titled En Mas, slated to open in late 2014. A Guadeloupe-born, New Orleans-based curator of international biennials, Tancons says Mas (a Caribbean term for masking) “explores the intersections between contemporary art and historical masquerade” while revealing how Carnival in Europe, the Caribbean and New Orleans anticipated the evolution of modern performance art.”
Meanwhile, across town on Bayou Road, the Joan Mitchell Center (JMC) recently named New Orleans native Gia Hamilton as its new director. The only American satellite facility of the influential New York-based Joan Mitchell Foundation, JMC recently hosted not only a national artist residency program but also a Mardi Gras Indian chief retreat, among other innovative programs.
In some ways, 2013 could be deemed the year of the curator. Former CAC Visual Arts Director Amy Mackie returned to New Orleans to become co-director of the Parse Gallery in the CBD. Mackie says that in its new iteration, Parse is “all about bringing curators to New Orleans … who are engaged in dialogue about contemporary art internationally,” a direction also evidenced in the increasing number of recent international art events in town. In September, the Mexican consulate opened its own gallery to highlight that nation’s vibrant contemporary art scene. Throw in all the St. Claude art spaces that have hosted European artists over the past year and the trend lines are clear. Although the New Orleans’ art scene has been vibrant for decades, it also was very insular. That is no longer the case as a new paradigm of local and global arts collaborations continues to take shape.