Born at a tumultuous time in a mostly empty and devastated city less than six months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Prospect New Orleans has been as resilient as its namesake. Against all odds, it garnered global critical acclaim with its Prospect.1 international biennial, which opened Nov. 1, 2008, and then survived a crippling worldwide recession and a major leadership upheaval when founding director Dan Cameron announced his resignation at the opening of Prospect.2 in 2011. Since then, production of the soon-to-open Prospect.3 (which runs Oct. 25-Jan. 25, 2015) has been led by current artistic director and Los Angeles County Museum of Art contemporary art curator Franklin Sirmans and Executive Director Brooke Anderson, formerly a director and curator of the American Museum of Folk Art. It may seem surprising that the leadership is partially based in other cities, but such decentralization has become routine in the ever more wired world of digital communication, and in some ways reprises the fluidity that defined New Orleans' art scene in the latter 19th century when local artists were often educated in Paris and European artists migrated here in significant numbers.
The cultural implications of place and dislocation are explored in two of Prospect.3's major influences, Paul Gauguin, whose near-anthropological Tahitian paintings anticipated the advent of multiculturalism, and Walker Percy, whose 1961 National Book Award-winning, New Orleans-based novel, The Moviegoer, explored the sense of psychological displacement that resulted from the impact of social and technological change on America's traditional sense of identity. Percy's response was his notion of "the search," which he saw as a quest for meaning in an increasingly unsettled world. That search for meaning had earlier been articulated in the title of Gauguin's iconic painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, which appeared at a pivotal time, when obscure and distant lands were first opening up to Europe and America. To more fully appreciate the underlying sensibilities of the more than 50 established and emerging international artists represented in Prospect.3, it helps to realize we are at another pivotal point in history as the formerly underdeveloped nations in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean-Latin American region assert themselves culturally and economically. The art world is starting to shift on its axis as a result. Prospect.3 reflects the changes now taking place in the global art world.
Because New Orleans was always the paradoxical other among American cities — a place that birthed uniquely American cultural expressions such as jazz, R&B and Creole cuisine while remaining America's most exotic and "foreign" city — it is a place that has much in common with the emerging nations that have long symbolized the other to many Europeans and North Americans. In Prospect.3, that sense of otherness turns up in some big name expos like Basquiat and the Bayou, a series of Haitian-American art superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat's later works inspired by New Orleans and the South, as well as a thematically related series by contemporary art star Carrie Mae Weems that builds on her earlier Louisiana Project themes. Also represented are established yet under-recognized figures like native New Orleans abstract expressionist Ed Clark — a pioneer of shaped canvases whose Gulf/Caribbean color palette sent a jolt of electricity through austere mid-20th-century modernism — as well as others long recognized in their homelands yet still largely excluded from our leading art history books. All were products of Prospect.3's search for meaning in the shifting sands of global culture, a search that now imbues it with the potential to become a catalyst for how 21st century art is perceived.