Can art save a city?" So began a glowing article on the Prospect.1 biennial in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's magazine, Preservation. Even if it sounds far-fetched, it may not really be much of a stretch. Prospect.1 is the most obvious example, but it's not the only ambitious art effort designed to reclaim New Orleans' greatness. Although our art scene has long been bigger and more vibrant than those of many other cities, we were often insulated from both the global cultural elite and the backstreet communities of the inner city. That began to change in 2008, as the art world's leaders visited en masse and artists increasingly focused attention on our most neglected neighborhoods.
"It's almost like being in some other city," says gallery owner Arthur Roger. "There's a fresh, new energy here now." Jonathan Ferrara, of the gallery that bears his name, agrees. "I was at Prospect.1's booth at the Art Basel art fair, and the people who were coming up and discussing their experiences here were some of the top names in the international art world. It was amazing." Of course, the Wall Street crash that preceded Prospect.1's opening undoubtedly hampered attendance and cash flow, yet it and other projects designed with socio-economic benefits in mind, have still been game changers as reflected in glowing stories in The New York Times, The New Yorker, London's The Guardian, Art Daily, Artforum and on NPR's All Things Considered, among others. Prospect.1 is the most visible part of a movement of America's brightest and most creative citizens to come to the city to help "make it right," as Brad Pitt so aptly put it.
Consequently, New Orleans is now the leading American city for "relational" or "community-based art," with many new projects building on old stalwarts such as the KID smART program for inner-city youth and the Arts Council's varied initiatives. One of the most ambitious is acclaimed conceptual artist Mel Chin's Fundred project for removing the lead from soil estimated to have poisoned 30 percent of New Orleans' at-risk youth, contributing to learning disabilities, crime and violence. Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research scientist Howard Mielke estimates the cleanup cost at $300 million, and Chin has already given countless hours and many thousands of dollars to the task. (Visit www.fundred.org for more information.)
Inspired community art efforts include the St. Claude Collective's art and healing center at 2372 St. Claude Ave., the Creative Alliance of New Orleans' Colton School project at 2300 St. Claude Ave., a Prospect.1 site that also provides free studio and exhibition space to more than 100 artists who agreed to create collaborative works with New Orleans high school students. The project Sculpture for New Orleans treats the city as one big exhibition space and has so far installed 21 major world-class sculptures to enhance its position as a global art capital. AORTA Projects uses grassroots art installations to enliven the post-disaster landscape so "crisis becomes an opportunity for positive growth" — a goal shared by Transforma Projects, which has the motto: "Every community needs the creative power of its people." What these and related groups share is a sense of New Orleans as an artwork unto itself, where the creative community is actively engaged in what Seventh Ward art activist Willie Birch calls "the practice of being here."
Not long after Prospect.1 opened, the Houston Chronicle's art writer, Douglas Britt, ran some photos in his "Arts in Houston" blog with the comment: "There was some terrific art at the conventional sites, but what really made this biennial special was the site-specific installations in the Lower 9th Ward." Others have said as much for the city overall, but the Lower Ninth really is special — not because of the destruction, but for the sense you get on a quiet, sunny day in Holy Cross that this may be the most soulful neighborhood in America. Traces of things hauntingly poetic coexist with the damage and decay, but the biennial is the main attraction, and trying to find all the sites by car can pose some navigational challenges. What follows are a few tips for finding your way around, as well as some commentary on the installations themselves.
The first step is to get to the L9 Center for the Arts (539 Caffin Ave.). On one side is Anne Deleporte's ethereal Editorial Blue collage mural, and the other side features Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick's eloquent photographs of local street life culled from what they could salvage of their three decades worth of work after the storm.
On a nearby table are Prospect.1's free and very helpful maps of its site-specific installations in the area, and this map is really the only way to find them by car because the larger official map lacks the necessary street information.
Catercorner from the L9 Center is Wangechi Mutu's Miss Sarah's House, a skeletal frame where Sarah Lastie's house once stood. Luminous at twilight, it's essentially a visualization that will hopefully lead to its restoration.
The next stop is the nearby Tekrema Center (5640 Burgundy St.), a one-time hardware store that now houses a mysterious installation by Chilean artist Sebastián Preece. Like an odd archeological dig, it features concrete slabs turned upside down, or replaced with other concrete slabs to reveal secret topologies or obscure geopsychic excavations.
Upstairs, the walls are covered in Louisiana swamp murals by New York painter Adam Cvijanovic, which are upstaged by the house itself, a time warp filled with the spirits of its former inhabitants and their assorted relics, some of which remain on a mantle in the form of old turpentine and mouthwash bottles, a battered crucifix and a calendar from February 1924.More problematic is a house (5418 Dauphine St.) transformed by the talented German artist Katharina Grosse into a fiery expressionist painting. Such tactics work well in soulless urban environments but can seem tone deaf in this most soulful of neighborhoods.
While Mark Bradford's house-size ark (2201 Caffin Ave.) is well known, Miguel Palma's Rescue Games piece at the Lower Ninth Ward Village (1001 Charbonnet St.) is no less monumental. A life-size recreation of a World War II Higgins landing craft, it holds a shallow sea of water that becomes a tidal surge when the craft lurches to and fro on hydraulic pistons as the eerie soundtrack from Janine Antoni's video of horrified eyes and wrecking balls emanates from the next room.
The flood ravaged Battleground Baptist Church (2200 Flood St.) holds Nari Ward's Diamond Gym sculpture. A skeletal diamond-shaped steel cage filled with gym equipment surrounded by mirrors, it makes an inexplicably powerful statement to the accompaniment of famous Civil Rights-era sermons. Robin Rhode's simple fountain in the shell of a former playground structure (2500 Caffin Ave.) is meditative when the water's turned on, but almost disappears when it's not.
Finally, Argentine artist Leandro Ehrlich's great Window and Ladder sculpture (1800 Deslonde St.) serendipitously takes us to the new Brad Pitt houses and the old Common Ground compound, where Egyptian artist Ghada Amer's spindly Happily Ever After metal sculpture suggests the fragility of such glad tidings. With regard to the Lower Ninth Ward, we can only hope it's a prophecy.
Through Jan. 18
Various Sites, 715-3968; www.prospectneworleans.org