Big Easy's new biennial energizes arts community
Influx of foreign art work around the city is complemented by 'unofficial' local installations.
Art has often been championed as a vehicle for urban redevelopment, and perhaps in no other recent time and place has the notion been so tested as it is now in New Orleans. On St. Claude Avenue in the city's Ninth Ward, where a new international art biennial is vying for attention with a resurgent local art scene, it seems to be working. While the project is still an endeavor in progress, the once-blighted neighborhood has a palpable energy and excitement and is making significant strides, with art at center stage.Skip to next paragraph
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Billed as the largest exhibition of contemporary art ever held in the United States, the new biennial, called Prospect.1 (www.prospectneworleans.org), has brought 70 international visual artists to the still-recovering city. High-flying art collectors and museum officials were in attendance for its Nov. 1 opening, and the biennial is expected to draw 50,000 visitors through its close on Jan. 18. Exhibition spaces range from the Contemporary Arts Center – where works by 20 artists, including Cuban painter Luis Cruz Azaceta, young Chinese artist Cao Fei, and Amsterdam-based photographer Fiona Tan, are displayed on four floors – to empty lots in the hurricane-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward. There Argentine artist Leandro Erlich's "Window and Ladder – Too Late for Help" offers a surrealist-inspired take on disaster response, and Jamaican-born sculptor Nari Ward has created one of her cubist installations of reclaimed objects inside a gutted Baptist church.
Organizer Dan Cameron, visual director of the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center, conceived the biennial as a way to give the visual arts a higher profile in the city's rebuilding efforts, while raising New Orleans' profile in the art world.
The biennial is truly a citywide event, with hundreds of residents participating as volunteer organizers and docents. In a place where spectators quickly become the main action of any parade, an expected consequence of Prospect.1 has been a parallel outpouring of effort from native artists and local galleries that rival the best of the biennial.
One example can be found on
St. Claude Avenue, where a whimsical chimera constructed from driftwood – equal parts seagoing ark, mythical creature, and shamanic altar – rises from an empty lot across from Charles J. Colton Junior High School. On a recent afternoon a child from the neighborhood stopped to ask if it could fly. "Sure, it flies in your head, in your imagination," artist Herbert Kearney answered. "You're the kid – you tell me if it flies."