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The Year in Art

D. Eric Bookhardt looks back at 2012 in New Orleans galleries and museums


Rontherin Ratliff's Revolve handgun assemblage cobbled from toys and bedsprings in the Contemporary Arts Center's Corner Gallery.
  • Rontherin Ratliff's Revolve handgun assemblage cobbled from toys and bedsprings in the Contemporary Arts Center's Corner Gallery.

The year — including the so-called Mayan apocalypse — has come and gone and most of us are still here. Even among the Maya there was no consensus about what it all meant beyond a vague sense of transition. Maybe the Taoist maxim, "continuity in the midst of change," offers the best explanation and provides a pretty good description of our local art community during 2012. Although 2011 was unusually tumultuous, 2012 was a time of consolidation and assimilation, and was not entirely uneventful.

  One looming change involves Heriard-Cimino Gallery. Long recognized as a Julia Street leader for its distinct curatorial vision, the gallery just closed and will move to San Francisco for an indefinite period, says longtime director Jeanne Cimino. Although it is not known what form its new iteration will take, its elegantly provocative presence will be missed. A new gallery will open in early January at the same location (name and ownership to be announced), ensuring an almost seamless transition.

  If Julia Street seemed relatively serene, the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) provided a colorful counterpoint in March when curator Amy Mackie quit after 14 months on the job. Her philosophical differences with CAC management seemed underscored when the main exhibition, titled Spaces and spotlighting St. Claude Arts District artists, was unexpectedly shut down for several days to facilitate a film shoot. Many artists protested by removing their work, and while film shoots have interrupted CAC exhibitions before, New Orleans has changed since Hurricane Katrina and St. Claude artists are famously passionate, so the uproar, if unprecedented, was not surprising.

  In late May, CAC executive director Jay Weigel announced he would resign pending the hiring of his replacement, something that had been in the works for years but had never happened. Since then, the CAC has intensified its outreach and programming while launching innovative exhibition projects like its "Press Play" video expos and its "Soundscape" series of works by sound artists, programs that, with rotating shows in niche spaces like its Corner and spiral ramp galleries, have created what Weigel calls "a more collaborative atmosphere" — and he credits interim curator Jan Gilbert with implementing the changes. Meanwhile the search is on for a new director. Former CAC board president and search committee chair Robyn Dunn Schwarz says, "Over 60 resumes have been received, out of which 10 applicants are now under consideration." She and Weigel say the search will remain ongoing until "exactly the right person" is found.

  Most of the city's respective art communities are exhibiting strong vital signs. After weathering turbulence last year, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art now features some outstanding exhibitions that merit a visit, and the low-key McKenna Museum of African American Art perennially deserves more attention than it receives. The St. Claude scene continues to expand with minimal obvious financial support even as it epitomizes an alluring sense that something dynamic and authentic is happening — a quality that propels some intriguing interactions with other cultural capitals. The New York-based Joan Mitchell Foundation maintains its only American satellite facility on Bayou Road, where its quietly substantial activities have significantly enriched our art scene. The management of the Prospect New Orleans international biennial, now paradoxically based in Los Angeles, appears more organized than ever as it prepares to launch Prospect.3 in 2014.

  And finally, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) seems to have emerged from its first century of existence in fine form thanks to the efforts of current director Susan Taylor and her longtime predecessor E. John Bullard. If surging attendance, strong finances and high visibility are any gauge, NOMA may have entered a golden age. Some of its current success can be attributed to sophisticated outreach efforts.

  "We're always looking for ways to engage our audiences, new and current," Taylor says, citing popular exhibitions coupled with "a relaunched educational program focused on schools and literacy, including a visual literacy program for 3- and 4-year-olds." Taylor says she wants NOMA to be so much a part of the city's fabric that it becomes our "cultural living room." If appearances are any guide, she seems well on her way.

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