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The Art & Commerce of Prospect .1

Prospect.1 was hailed as a success in the international art world. But some of its bills remain unpaid

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Tony Mason (front) and Travis Marking of Syzygy Construction dismantle a Prospect.1 exhibit in the Lower Ninth Ward. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Tony Mason (front) and Travis Marking of Syzygy Construction dismantle a Prospect.1 exhibit in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Prospect.1 New Orleans, the 11-week international art biennial that ended earlier this month, garnered admiring reviews from the national media and drew crowds from around the world, but now it is facing a $1 million deficit due to cost overruns from its citywide art exhibit.

  Travis Marking is among those who wants to know when he'll get his money. Marking, the co-owner of Syzygy Construction, a small local contracting company, says Syzygy installed 11 art exhibits for Prospect.1 before the Nov. 1 opening, and was paid $56,000, but has yet to receive $15,000 still owed to him. Now Prospect.1 is asking Syzygy to take down five of those public installations, which would increase his unpaid bill even more.

  "It's putting a hurting on us," Marking says, adding that a lumberyard where his company buys supplies no longer will extend him credit.

  Dan Cameron, visual arts director of the Contemporary Arts Center, who founded and directed the biennial, says he became aware of the problem in late October and began additional fundraising to fill the budget gap. Cameron was surprised by high costs from the artists' productions — creating and building the artwork from start to finish — and local contractors.

  Marking says the $15,000 he is still owed accounts for about 60 percent of the average monthly income for his six-employee company, which includes Marking and his business partner Tony Mason. Syzygy began work for Prospect.1 in September 2008, and by November had completed more than $71,000 in installation projects for the biennial. Syzygy has been sending invoices (which allow 10 days for payment) to Prospect.1 since October, but Marking has yet to be fully reimbursed.

  Mike Siegel, an executive vice president for Corporate Realty, a commercial real estate company, became a Prospect.1 board member in December. He says the board is now taking an active role in the biennial's financial concerns. According to Siegel, Prospect.1 raised its original projected budget of $3.5 million, and there has been no mismanagement or misappropriation of funds. The costs of executing the ambitious exhibition simply exceeded the projections. "I can't tell you how it slipped, but I can tell you at the end, instead of spending $3.5 million, it was more like $4.5 million," Siegel says.

  Cameron says part of the problem was Prospect.1 didn't have a staff member whose full-time job was managing the biennial's finances. Normally, biennials are started by governmental agencies, foundations, cities or countries, and a budget is set before a curator is hired to plan the exhibits. Cameron, who has curated biennials in Taipei, China, and Istanbul, Turkey, says Prospect.1 was unusual because he was simultaneously arranging the artistic elements and raising the money.

  By the third week of October, Cameron says, he realized Prospect.1's bills were going to be greater than the money pledged in grants and donations for the project. He began trying to raise additional funds, but did not have enough money to pay contractors and workers on time. Prospect.1 also was slow to explain the delays to those owed money.

  Richard McCabe, an art preparator at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art who did some contract work for Prospect.1, says he's been paid in full and is happy with the experience. For a while, though, he says, some workers and contractors were left wondering when they would be paid.

  "Once they explained, it was fine," McCabe says. "After months of people grumbling, they put out this mass email saying, 'Our funders' — because of the financial crisis, probably — 'have been late.'"

  It was more than promised donations not arriving in a timely fashion, however. It was a funding shortfall, and not everyone was satisfied with the emailed explanation. But even those who still have unpaid bills were reluctant to speak to The Gambit because they feared it would hurt their chances for securing work in the future with Prospect.1 or other art-exhibiting organizations.

  "It's pretty much half-and-half," says McCabe. "Half of the people had a good experience, and half of them didn't."

  Contractors and vendors weren't the only ones hesitant to speak about Prospect.1's finances. When first contacted, Siegel refused to comment: "I don't really want to talk about it. I'm not sure what the purpose of writing that article is right now unless you guys are trying to make it difficult for Prospect.1 and the city of New Orleans."

  In a later interview, Siegel said the impetus for his initial reaction was the fear that negative press could jeopardize current fundraising for the budget gap, as well as potentially damage New Orleans' reputation. Although attendance did not reach Cameron's prediction of 100,000 (estimated attendance was 70,000, but exact figures are unavailable, since exhibits were free), reviews both nationally and locally were overwhelmingly favorable. Peter Schjeldahl, an art critic for The New Yorker, declared, "It is my favorite biennial since the 1980s."

  Cameron says most cities would have given their "eyeteeth" for a biennial like Prospect.1, but he wanted to give New Orleans a gift as well by making it free to the public. "Our belief is that cultural tourism is quickly becoming, if not the number one, certainly one of the top sources of revenue for the city of New Orleans," Cameron says. "Up until now, art has not (been) featured in that in any way, shape or form."

  For his part, Marking says he still supports the biennial — he still has a Prospect.1 bumper sticker on his pickup truck — although at this point, he's not sure if his company will take down exhibits.

  "I don't want to hurt them, but I don't want to be hurt either," Marking says.

  Cameron and Siegel express confidence the shortfall will be covered by sometime in February. Siegel says there is still a strong belief in both the art-funding community in New Orleans and Cameron's skills, and the remaining funds won't be coming from a large grass-roots fundraising effort, but rather a handful of donors. Siegel also stresses all current efforts are concerned with paying off Prospect.1, and not with a 2010 biennial, which had been proposed even before Prospect.1 ended. In the meantime, Siegel says the CAC is coordinating a study of Prospect.1's economic impact on New Orleans.

  "There is a future for [Prospect.2]," Siegel says. "We're all counting on there being a Prospect.2, but nobody is sitting here planning for Prospect.2. Nobody is sitting here fundraising for Prospect.2."

  "We had 70,000 visitors, but we didn't charge a penny," Cameron says. "All we would have had to do was, I don't know, charge 10 bucks a head and we'd be in the clear right now."

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