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Lights, Cameron, Action

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The CAC’s director of visual art puts the spotlight on New Orleans with Prospect.1

Photo By Claudio Papapietro
Photo By Claudio Papapietro

In some places, brainstorming happens in offices, on golf courses or over coffee. In New Orleans, it usually takes place over a meal. Such was the case when gallery owner Steve Martin and world-renowned art curator Dan Cameron got together and developed Prospect.1 New Orleans, the multisite art exhibition that opens November 1 and runs for 11 weeks at locations across the city.

At dinner in 2006, they floated ideas for uplifting the battered but still standing art community. Pondering ways to attract businesses and build on a then-fractured base of tourism, Cameron, on leave from New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, a fearless bastion of avant-garde art, suggested an international show that could focus the art world’s attention on New Orleans, much like other biennials have done for their host cities, including the one in Istanbul, which he’s curated.

“Until then, the international art community had no significant response to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina,” says Cameron, who now serves as director of visual art at the Contemporary Arts Center. “This was and is an effort to galvanize support for New Orleans. I have always believed that the U.S. needed a real international biennial.” Referencing the world-famous exhibition that draws international talent, collectors and curators to the City of Canals, he continued: “This seemed as good a moment as any to begin one, in our own Venice.”

Cameron, who has faithfully attended JazzFest since the ’80s, appreciates the tourist attractions that draw so many here, but he thinks we should explore ways to attract other types of visitors as well. “One of the ideas behind Prospect.1 is to revamp New Orleans’ current image as a tourist destination, to replace the image of Mardi Gras with an event that will draw the other kinds of people who help sustain a city’s cultural vitality.”

Just as Miami morphed into a fashion hot spot and one of the most important commercial art destinations in the world, with Art Basel Miami, Cameron sees New Orleans becoming a city where every two years the world’s most experimental artists come to poke, prod, irritate and excite the art world. Cameron is known for his cutting-edge shows, so don’t expect the banal. Brace yourself for installations and all manner of work that knocks down preconceived notions of what art is, what it looks like and feels like.

Cameron is forward thinking, which is apparent in the exhibitions he curates. He doesn’t look backward, except in his research, which this time uncovered the fact that New Orleans had once had a biennial. That fact made it easier for him to get things moving. And Cameron is nothing if not a mover. In months, things were happening: meetings with museums, gallery owners, collectors, artists and potential underwriters. (As of this writing some six grants worth near $1 million have rolled in from places expected—the State of Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism—and the unexpected—the Taiwan Cultural Center in New York, and more.)

As if by magic (and the efforts of construction workers, installation specialists and others), the works of some 81 artists now appear scattered around the city, in an attempt to promote the show. Additionally, local and itinerant exhibitions and activities are springing up. In the advertising world, that’s called “guerrilla marketing”; in Cameron’s world it’s called “added benefits.”

In the short time Cameron has called New Orleans home, he’s saturated himself in the culture, cuisine and camaraderie of the city, which leads us to ask:

Starbucks or Café du Monde? “I never go to Starbucks. My choices are Community Coffee and PJ’s.”

Raw oysters or po-boys? “That’s tough, but I have to say po-boys.”

Favorite Stage at JazzFest? “Congo Square. I’ve been coming to JazzFest since the 1980s.”

Uptown, Downtown or the French Quarter? “Marigny.”

In a town full of activities and on the eve of a show with mounting pressure, where do you go to collect your thoughts? “My backyard has a great view of St. Augustine Church, so I spend some of my downtime there.”

Prospect.1 New Orleans has a policy of free admission, extended hours and daily guided tours. For more information on the 11-week show, including teacher workshops, field trips and venues, visit www.prospectneworleans.org.