Sunday, February 1, 2009

Back in the Big Easy

To date, New Orleans’ reputation in the arts rests primarily on music performance and literature. (I’d add haute cuisine to that list of artistic accomplishment.) The city has never been known as a fine arts mecca. Oh sure, Edgar Degas paid New Orleans a brief visit in the 19th century and produced work that merited a museum named for him. But from there the list of New Orleans artists runs to regional painters and folk practitioners. In Katrina’s wake (so many sentences could begin with that phrase), a small group of art impresarios organized Prospect.1, a multi-venued, two-month-long biennial intended to bring the city squarely into the international art scene. The exhibition opened November 17, and from that date forward, my wife and I whetted our appetites for a visit by reading what were uniformly positive news accounts. Finally, on Prospect.1’s last weekend, we went to see the art and to avail ourselves of the collateral pleasures that New Orleans always offers its visitors.

The difficulties of travel from Ithaca are one of the staples of this blog. Winter snow adds an additional element of risk for those using small airports and taking multiple flights to reach their destinations. For this trip, we decided to improve our odds by booking a passage through Syracuse. While hardly a major hub, Hancock International hosts twice as many carriers and roughly three times the daily carriage of Ithaca. However, to fly from Syracuse, Ithaca travelers must brave sixty miles of highway, some subject to heavy snows, and, sure enough, heavy snows were forecast for the day before our flight. We reasoned that, given our scheduled departure (mid morning) and bad weather drive time to the airport (who knew how long?), we would be best served by driving to Syracuse the night before, spending the night near the airport and checking in as early as possible. Events were to support our reasoning, but good luck figured heavily in our success. We met people in our motel who had used our strategy only to be stranded for two days.

We managed to find a hole in the weather, and both our flights flew through it. US Airways delivered us to Louis Armstrong International right on time, and we marched out into the balmy weather that held for the entire weekend. A South Asian cab driver took us to our hotel, Soniat House in the French Quarter. For the record, New Orleans cabbies much prefer street numbers to coordinates. My directions, “corner of Charters and Governor Nicholls, please” produced only a blank stare, and the attempted clarification, “near Rampart Street,” proved equally ineffectual. I had a similar experience on the last morning when I took a cab to one of the houses that we had gutted after Katrina. Am I missing something?

One of Soniat’s calling cards is a room service breakfast of juice coffee, and biscuits, served with local strawberry preserves. Fortified with this and a good night’s sleep, we set off to make contact with Prospect.1. Turns out that this was not so easy. First, it didn’t seem to us that New Orleans locals were totally enthralled by the biennial. Perhaps they didn’t see it as a big revenue generator, in the way that Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest is. Perhaps they were reserving judgment, but for whatever reason, neither our hotel concierge nor the staff at the New Orleans Historical Foundation was able to direct us to where we needed to go. Finally, we managed to reach P.1 headquarters, a small desk in a large empty building in the Warehouse District. There a perky, young woman provided us with complimentary passes, an orientation and directions to shuttle bus stops.

The idea of Prospect.1 was to make the whole city an art venue, and there were exhibitions all over town. But many of them, and most of the signature ones, were in the Lower Ninth Ward. That area is still blighted, three years after Katrina. Large swaths of land lie fallow, cleared of its homes, schools and business establishments and of most signs of civic life, including public transportation. The P.1 shuttle service provided an orientation to the art sites and a whirlwind tour of them, but it did not stop long enough for passengers to absorb what they were seeing. We wished we had rented a car, as some of the other visitors did, but we ended up settling for a second visit to the area on Sunday. A pedestrian-paced tour revealed that the Lower Ninth might be on its way back.

The “Brad Pitt Houses,” winners in a design contest sponsored by the Hollywood actor have sprouted up near the Industrial Canal. These brightly painted, raised dwellings offer a flood resistant, energy efficient vision of repopulating the area. Another approach, stressing very low-cost construction, comes from Common Ground, an NGO that has established a beachhead in the Lower Ninth and teaches organic gardening and recycling along with home building. For now these initiatives look like the demo homes at the front of a subdivision. We’ll be watching to see if property owners are impressed enough to buy into them.

I am not a great fan of contemporary art, especially its nonrepresentational forms. So I treated many of the P.1 exhibitions as walk bys. For me the photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick at the L9 Center and an installation of film clips on Royal Street that illuminated the French contribution to Louisiana culture were the most enjoyable stops on our tours. But, with our without art, the Lower Ninth is a venue all by itself. On our Sunday morning visit, we took a slow walk around the area, scrutinizing Mark Bradford’s Arc, the signature piece of the biennial, and the haunting metal and mirror sculpture inside the shell of the Battleground Memorial Baptist Church.

On our way out of the city, I picked up a Times Picayune to read on the plane. The editorial page was largely a post mortem on the biennial. Civic leaders and members of the local art scene reflected on the significance of the event and openly speculated on whether there would be a Prospect.2. I certainly hope so, and I hope that when they return in 2010, the artists will find a less devastated New Orleans.