The international art world is buzzing about New Orleans because of an upcoming event that has never been witnessed in any American city. Ironically, many New Orleanians know next to nothing about it. It's called Prospect.1 New Orleans, and it's an international art biennial an 11-week public display of some of the world's greatest contemporary art. Prospect.1 will feature the work of 81 top artists from around the world, including 12 local artists, beginning Nov. 1 and continuing through Jan. 18, 2009. The event, which is the first of its size and scope in the United States, will encompass 22 venues scattered across the city. It promises to make New Orleans the No. 1 destination for art lovers and high-profile art collectors in the world during its run. Prospect.1 organizer and art curator Dan Cameron says this will be the first of at least five biennials in New Orleans during the next 10 years; he hopes it will become for art lovers what Jazz Fest is to music lovers. We hope so, too.
An event of this scope and magnitude was conceived as a post-Katrina gift to New Orleans. We should treat it that way. The city hasn't had to put up any money for the event, but New Orleans stands to reap huge dividends. Jazz Fest draws 375,000 to 400,000 attendees and has an estimated $300 million impact on the local economy. Cameron says he expects the first biennial to attract 50,000 visitors, almost all of them the arts equivalent of high rollers, who will leave behind an economic impact of $20 million to $30 million.
Cameron is the heart and brains behind this first biennial, and he is renowned in the art world for his ability to place visual art in venues beyond museums. He has organized and curated successful biennials in Istanbul, Turkey, and Taipei, Taiwan. During his first visit here in 1987, Cameron spent a Sunday at Jazz Fest, and between bites of a soft-shell crab po-boy while listening to the Neville Brothers, he, like so many before and since, fell in love with our city. 'You can't explain it. You just have to get people to come down here and experience it," Cameron told Gambit Weekly last year. 'I couldn't get them down before; well, I can get them down now."
Cameron, who has signed on to organize the first five New Orleans biennials, has secured more than $3 million in funding from foundations, government grants and private sources. He didn't approach local government, figuring (correctly) that New Orleans was tapped out after the 2005 levee failures. For the exhibition's opening weekend, he has attracted museum patrons from the world's top art institutions. In typical Cameron fashion, these visitors will not be sheltered inside a tight downtown radius, but instead they'll be bused all over the city, exposing them to New Orleans' architecture, culture and post-Katrina landscape. The buses will stop at individual artists' displays at places as diverse as Central City's Ashé Cultural Arts Center, the Battle Ground Baptist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward, the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans and even in the old Universal Furniture facility on St. Claude Avenue in Bywater.
These guests will include some of the world's most affluent art collectors, but most of them are interested in much more than purchasing art. They also will avail themselves of all the city has to offer in luxury hotels, quiet bed-and-breakfasts, neighborhood restaurants, fine dining institutions and other amenities. Many other visitors won't have trust funds or huge portfolios, but they will spend money in local shops and restaurants " thanks to the biennial.
"This will create an immediate economic impact, but we're also going to have the equivalent of 50,000 cultural ambassadors going back to their home cities and bringing the story of a reborn, artistically driven New Orleans," says Steve Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Perry's right. Contemporary art is a multi-billion-dollar international marketplace, and Prospect.1 gives New Orleans an exclusive American stake in it. This kind of global exhibition occurs only in the world's greatest cultural centers, such as Venice and Istanbul, as well as in thriving metropolises such as Johannesburg, South Africa, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Taipei. Truly, this is a wonderful gift to New Orleans " and we need to make the most of it.
We urge all New Orleanians to support Prospect.1. And here's the really good news: It's free, including the shuttle service from location to location. All it will take to support Prospect.1 is a little of your time. In return, New Orleanians will get to view works by more of the world's greatest living artists than ever before seen on this continent at one time. At the same time, local businesses will get a needed boost.
We can't think of a better gift to New Orleans.