Sunday, December 23, 2018

2018: The Year in Review

Monument to Latino Workers
When 2018 began, it had the makings of a monumental year. It was this city's' 300th anniversary, after all, and some monumental art news – for instance, the New Orleans Museum of Art's planned 6 acre expansion of its popular sculpture garden – only added to the celebratory aura. But the protracted controversy over the city's removal of Confederate monuments from their prominent locations last year raised lingering questions about the actual meaning and purpose of monuments that, after months of debate, crystallized into one fundamental question for both the city and its art community: which versions of history should we commemorate and how should we go about that process? In true New Orleans fashion, what happened was a mix of planning and surprise, deliberation and unexpected grass roots serendipity. 

Any city's tricentennial celebration might reasonably inspire art exhibitions involving elements of grandeur, and in that sense the New Orleans Museum of Art's spectacular “Orleans Collection” exhibit of masterworks from the 18th century collection of Nola's namesake, Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, did not disappoint. Random references to the old European colonial powers also turned up in the Newcomb Art Museum's “Empire” expo that referenced New Orleans' history as a French and Spanish colony while celebrating the cultural contributions the ordinary local folk who made this city what it is. In a surprising twist, those working class heroes, whether famous or anonymous, emerged as a quiet but consistent presence that defined many of our most intriguing 2018 art events, in museums such as the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, for instance, in Elizabeth Bick's streetscape, above right, among any number of widely varied local venues.  

In the monumental vein, New Orleans maestro Franco Alessandrini's bronze and marble “Tribute to Latin American Workers,” top, was unveiled in Crescent Park on November 10th. Commissioned by retired New Orleans physician Dr. Juan Gershanik, the Creole-constructivist statue is dedicated to the Hispanic laborers who facilitated the city's rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina unexpectedly hinted at the revolutionary worker murals by Diego Rivera who, with his wife Frida Kahlo, is celebrated in a dual portrait exhibit at the  Mexican Cultural Institute. Topically related socially conscious art, such as Brandan Odum's mural of local civil rights leader A. P. Turaud and his wife Lucille in the lobby of the newly renovated Pythian Temple building, was unexpected augmented by a series of posters celebrating events like the successful 1867 protests to New Orleans streetcars that the Paper Monuments organization pasted on unoccupied buildings about town. The power of works on paper to immortalize the workers whose contributions are so often overlooked is exemplified by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormic's “Labor Studies” documentary photo expo, above, at the Contemporary Arts Center, a survey of the Lower 9th Ward natives' views of traditional Louisiana farm, dock and restaurant workers salvaged from their vast 40 year archive, much of which was lost to Hurricane Katrina. Curated by the CAC's Andrea Andersson, “Labor Studies” complements CAC exhibits by William Monaghan and Zarouie Abdalian that she says collectively reflect the “fragile and often invisible laboring community” that sustains so much of what we take for granted.

This year's most widely celebrated local monument to the laborers who built much of this state and nation was Kara Walker's massive working steam calliope sculpture, “Katastwóf Karavan,” above, dedicated to the memory of the African slaves held at Algiers Point before being sold. Walker's performance ended Prospect.4, “The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” on a high note when it closed on February 25th after a three month run that attracted over 100,000 visitors to view work by over 70 contemporary artists from the Caribbean, Africa and the Americas -- a number that Prospect's new director, Nick Stillman, says augers well for Prospect.5, slated to open in fall of 2020 under the creative direction of curators Naima Keith and Diana Nawi. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, it also named Christopher Alfieri as its new president and board chairman. The role played by Prospect New Orleans, since its spectacular inaugural Prospect.1 in 2008/2009, should never be underestimated. As the city changed, in many ways for the better, Prospect New Orleans was the catalyst and the challenge that caused so many artists to rise to the occasion, resulting in new experimental arts communities, most notably along the St. Claude corridor. Other changes at the top include Contemporary Arts Center Director Neil Barclay, who after ushering in new energy and focus is stepping down later this month as CAC veteran M.K Wegmann returns as Interim Director; and Gia Hamilton, who left her post as Director of the Joan Mitchell Center last August, has been named the new Director of the African American Museum, where where her plans include collaborations with cutting edge art organizations such as Independent Curators International among others similarly focused on collaborative innovation. Hamilton's flair for outreach was what successfully enabled the Joan Mitchell Center to become a vital part of the life of the city in ways that made everyone feel welcome and involved, and we look forward to seeing her do as much for the New Orleans African American Museum. +++