Big Easy Art Event Aims to Heal City
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. This weekend in New Orleans, 81 artists from more than 30 countries will unveil new work all over the city. The massive undertaking is called Prospect 1. And it is an experiment with the hope that Prospect 1 will become a regular event which brings new life to New Orleans. Reporter Eve Troeh sent this story.
EVE TROEH: Dan Cameron is just about as entrenched in the contemporary art world as a person can get. He was senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and he's organized exhibitions from Istanbul to Taipei. Cameron is also entrenched in New Orleans. He says he's been coming here for decades, never misses a jazz fest, loves brass bands, savors a perfect fried oyster. After Hurricane Katrina, he didn't see many of his peers in the visual arts step in to help New Orleans.
Mr. DAN CAMERON (Visual Arts Director, Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans): When I looked at the music industry, the film industry, and you know, oh, my God, look what the literary world is doing. And it got a little frustrating.
TROEH: So Cameron did something big. He announced the first New Orleans biennale. That's Italian for two years, and that's how long it takes to organize. The first one happened in 1895 in Venice. The city aimed to reinvent itself as a cultural center. And today, the Venice Biennale draws millions of visitors to see art, film, dance, and architecture from around the world. Prospect 1 hopes to do the same for New Orleans.
Ms. SHAWN MAJOR (Artist): I started last summer. When I found out that I was going to be in Prospect 1, I knew that I better get started right away.
TROEH: Artist Shawn Major often takes six months to hand sew one of her tapestry-like pieces. For Prospect 1, she made three of them, each four times the size of her usual work.
Ms. MAJOR: I don't have to worry about the size of my gallery if it's going to fit in there or not. You know, I can do something that's more on the scale of a public art piece.
TROEH: Her studio is a barn in rural Appaloosas, Louisiana. The large, heavy works hang from the ceiling as the tiny redhead adds to them.
Ms. MAJOR: The first layer of this piece is panties. It's like about 700 women's underwear, all new.
TROEH: On top of that, she stitches layer upon layer of cheap trinkets.
Ms. MAJOR: Little plastic footballs and more plastic snakes. I love plastic snakes. And there's little American flag pins. What I'm trying to do with the three of these pieces is to kind of get at what is an American identity.
TROEH: Artists from outside Louisiana are more inclined to focus on Hurricane Katrina. One Los Angeles artist has built an ark in the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward. Another, from Japan, has put a tower of timers in a closed public school, one for each person who died in the storm and the floods afterward. Strangely, devastation has become part of New Orleans' appeal. Mark Souther of Cleveland State University studies the city's history and tourism.
Dr. MARK SOUTHER (Professor of History, Cleveland State University): Katrina has given people a new reason to visit New Orleans. It becomes a new thing to see in the city. And not just something that you see with detachment, but something you have to engage with.
TROEH: Organizers hope Prospect 1 will give visitors a way to engage with the storm, but they also want it to reflect the city in a larger context, its history and future beyond Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans native Willie Birch stands in the lobby of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Nine of his charcoal and acrylic works will fill the ornate front hall during Prospect 1. Birch remembers when African-Americans couldn't walk on the land surrounding the museum. He says teachers hired buses to drop students on the front steps.
Mr. WILLIE BIRCH (Artist): At 11 years old, in the '50s, we did the same thing. So this lobby and this museum has a special significance.
TROEH: Birch left New Orleans as a young artist. But he came back to depict black neighborhoods and traditions. He hopes Prospect 1 will raise international attention for local culture.
Mr. BIRCH: This venue will allow a lot of people to see my unique interpretation of the place I love, so I'm really looking forward to the dialogue. No expectations beyond that.
TROEH: Birch isn't convinced that Prospect 1, for all its size, will transform New Orleans' reputation, much less his career. He's contributed his work and moved on to new projects, including ideas for Prospect 2. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh.