TOPICS > Arts

New Orleans Art Exhibition Aims to Help City Heal

December 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM EST
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A new contemporary art exhibit in New Orleans that's billed as the largest of its kind to ever be held in the U.S. seeks to help bring about the healing and rebirth of the vibrant city that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina three years ago. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Through layers of slime, a trumpet is raised, a trombone pokes out, and you can almost hear the sounds of New Orleans. These photographs once documented the vibrant life of this city. Now they capture something else: the destruction wrought by Katrina.

KEITH CALHOUN, photographer: They’re not photos anymore. They’re objects now. The water took it to another level.

JEFFREY BROWN: Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick are married and professional photographers who’ve been documenting their city for 30 years. When Katrina came, their Lower Ninth Ward home and much of their work was destroyed.

CHANDRA MCCORMICK, L9 Art Center: We had to pressure wash that several times and treated.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the couple and their children left for Texas. Now, they’re back as part of an effort to restore their neighborhood and city through art.

L9, their new home base, is part-art gallery, part-community center.

KEITH CALHOUN: We see this space as a light for the community. What we’re doing here in L9, as artists, we take in our space. We have art. We’ve got painters coming in. We have photographers, filmmakers, people who just want to come and help. So we’re going to make sure that we have a space that’s vibrant in the community.

CHANDRA MCCORMICK: We needed a space for ourselves to stay visible, because what we do makes us whole. It just seems right that art can help rebuild, art can heal.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the area where the couple once again lives and works, there are some signs of life and rebuilding. But drive down almost any street here and it’s clear that, more than three years later, this is a community mostly gone or in exile.

Citywide, the population is some 25 percent to 30 percent lower than before Katrina.

Exhibit the largest of its kind

Dan Cameron
Curator, Prospect.1
There are artists here in the city, and they lost their homes and their life's work, as well. Art maybe seems to some people as a luxury, as a secondary need of life. If you're involved in art vocationally, that's not true. Art is your lifeblood.

JEFFREY BROWN: The notion that art can heal and be part of the rebirth of New Orleans is being tested in a big way right now, through "Prospect.1," an exhibition of contemporary art that's billed as the largest of its kind ever held in the U.S., with works by some 80 artists from around the world on display at sites throughout the city.

Some address Katrina directly, like Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford's "Arc," made of plywood and tattered posters on an abandoned site in the Lower Ninth Ward, and Japanese sculptor Takashi Horisaki's ghost-like "Reconstruction" of a destroyed home on display in an old warehouse downtown.

DAN CAMERON, curator, "Prospect.1": I didn't really set out with a conscious framework of how many venues or where, but what I wanted to do was make sure that the whole city was involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: The man behind "Prospect.1" is Dan Cameron, a veteran international curator. He began coming to New Orleans in the '70s for JazzFest and ended up making it a second home. Then came Katrina.

You were clear from the start that this was about helping the city as much as putting on an art exhibition?

DAN CAMERON: Exactly. I had kind of reached my limit of seeing disaster footage. And I thought, "Well, why can't we create a new symbol for the city, something along the lines of JazzFest, which is known around the world as a cultural celebration and as something which brings hundreds of thousands of people to the city with a lot of goodwill and some money in their pockets?

JEFFREY BROWN: Cameron raised almost $4 million, mostly through private foundations and donors, and conceived of the exhibition as a biennial, to be held every two years, like those that grab the art world's attention in Venice, Sao Paolo, and other major cities.

He wanted, and got, a number of contemporary stars to get it off the ground quickly, but he was also eager to include local artists.

DAN CAMERON: There are artists here in the city, and they lost their homes and their life's work, as well. Art maybe seems to some people as a luxury, as a secondary need of life. If you're involved in art vocationally, that's not true. Art is your lifeblood.

Artists honor local culture

Willie Birch
Artist
The best art is always layered. And it's layered in a way that it reveals story upon story ... once you get beyond that particular veil, you find that there are other stories that are there.

WILLIE BIRCH, artist: I can remember the first time I came. It was called Delgado Museum then, and I was 11 years old. And before that, African-Americans weren't allowed in the museum.

JEFFREY BROWN: Willie Birch is one of New Orleans' best-known artists. Born and raised here, he spent years in New York, but returned in 1997.

In "Prospect.1," his work has a place of honor in the grand foyer of what is now called the New Orleans Museum of Art.

You love this juxtaposition of these columns and your work looking at the street?

WILLIE BIRCH: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why?

WILLIE BIRCH: Well, it's bringing my world inside of a place where traditionally we haven't seen much of what's in my community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Birch's multi-paneled large-scale drawings capture scenes and tell stories from his Seventh Ward community.

WILLIE BIRCH: The best art is always layered. And it's layered in a way that it reveals story upon story, so you may come in and see a picture or a group of imageries, but once you get beyond that particular veil, you find that there are other stories that are there.

JEFFREY BROWN: "Prospect.1" also honors local culture with the Mardi Gras suits of Victor Harris, also at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Harris, the big chief of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tribe FiYiYi, makes one of these a year for the annual celebration.

The 'other side of New Orleans'

Stacey Head
New Orleans City Council
[W]e are having so many tourists come to New Orleans, so many art lovers come to New Orleans to be part of this initial "Prospect.1" event, is very good for our local economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: A rather different image of New Orleans is captured in the work of Deborah Luster, another local artist, whose photographs are on view at the Louisiana state museum in the Old U.S. Mint.

Black-and-white ovals, these are city scenes that have an almost nostalgic cast to them, until you learn that each is the site of a recent homicide. In what remains a violent city, Luster wants to show the darkness alongside the beauty.

DEBORAH LUSTER, photographer: I think everyone knows there's this other side of New Orleans, but we've become numb. And I guess showing it in another way, in another context opens people's eyes to the subject again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, this is probably not the image that city officials want visitors to take away from the exhibition. Councilwoman Stacy Head's district includes a number of "Prospect.1" sites, including the Contemporary Art Center.

STACY HEAD, New Orleans City Council: This is one of the silver linings to the cloud of Katrina, the fact that we are having so many tourists come to New Orleans, so many art lovers come to New Orleans to be part of this initial "Prospect.1" event, is very good for our local economy.

And what it tells them is, we are a city where you've got two stories. You've got one story of incredible resilience, where we have "Prospect.1." But we also have horrible needs still in the community, and it's really hard to get that message out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dan Cameron had a goal of 100,000 visitors before the exhibition closes in mid-January. Even though it's all free, the economic slump is holding down the number of outside visitors.

On a recent weekend, though, the L9 Gallery was a hub of activity of people coming and going.

A sign of progress amid the destruction, with the hope of things to come: Cameron is working on "Prospect.2" now and has committed to see this through to 2016.