The New Orleans art scene has long appeared so stable and cohesive it seemed immune to the wild ups and downs of major art capitals like New York — until this year. 2010 has been a doozy, at least at the institutional level, where there were many leadership changes, some very sudden. As far as local artists and galleries were concerned, the situation was much more normal as the scene continued to grow. As in years past, especially since Hurricane Katrina, young artists have continued to move here, and new art spaces, including the deluxe Martine Chaisson Gallery in the Warehouse District, opened their doors. The city's best-known galleries survived another year despite a bad economy nationally and the BP environmental catastrophe locally. Chalk it up to New Orleans exceptionalism — the intangibles of a culture based more on love than money.
Finances contributed to some top-level changes at local arts institutions. When it comes to making news, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art has long been a leader. Late last year, longtime director Richard Gruber resigned amid rumors the Ogden was in financial trouble, and a 2009 state audit confirmed it. When the audit went public last month, board chairman Julia Reed said its findings were old news and the museum had balanced its books, restructured its debt and its continued existence was no longer in question.
On Dec. 10, Reed announced that longtime curator David Houston had resigned. She offered no specifics, and Houston declined to comment. In the past, Ogden officials praised his ability to stage high-quality shows on a shoestring budget, and he is known for his comprehensive curatorial insight, so art lovers were left scratching their heads and wondering what's next at the Ogden.
Joy Glidden resigned her post as director of Louisiana ArtWorks, the large multipurpose art facility on Lee Circle. Credited with successfully overseeing ArtWorks' emergence as a force in the local art world, Glidden is now the director of the public television series Art Index TV. Louisiana ArtWorks' acting director Ariel Brumley says, "We are open, but most of our resources are going toward completing construction on the upper floors that had been delayed, after which we will conduct a search for a full-time director. We have a PhotoNOLA photography show in the gallery, and our print workshop maintains its full schedule of activities."
By contrast, the changes at the New Orleans Museum of Art went off like clockwork. John Bullard, the museum's director since 1974, retired at age 67, and former Princeton University Art Museum director Susan Taylor took over in September. In retrospect, Bullard's long tenure seems to have been about as smoothly productive as any director could have hoped. For her part, Taylor says, "I see a tremendous opportunity for the museum to respond to the city's history and culture, and to be a catalyst for it."
The changes at the Contemporary Arts Center were less predictable. Last March, the CAC's top brass announced they wanted a full-time visual arts director for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. That would have been difficult for Dan Cameron, who now holds the position on a part-time basis, given his status as director of the Prospect New Orleans Biennial. Cameron spent the year overseeing shows he had already scheduled, and last month the CAC announced that Amy Mackie, currently an associate curator at the New Museum in New York, would take over as visual arts director in January.
At Prospect New Orleans, Cameron encountered turbulence in February when several board members resigned in a dispute about how much oversight the board of directors would have, an issue that arose as Prospect.1's million-dollar cost overrun was being paid off. These and other factors caused Prospect.2 to be postponed. Prospect.1.5 filled the calendar void as a locally flavored expo, and some of its shows remain on view through Jan. 20, 2011. Cameron says he is "thrilled with the response to Prospect.1.5," which he calls "the most thorough overview of contemporary New Orleans art" ever staged. He also says Prospect.2, slated to open Oct. 22, 2011, is on track, while noting that future Prospect expos will need better local financial support. The focus on a need for better funding was a recurring theme this year, and if the changes at some arts institutions sound like a wild ride, the silver lining may be that our art scene, like New Orleans itself, appears to be learning how to thrive on chaos.