Miranda Lash did not introduce New Orleans to contemporary art, but her exhibitions garnered an impression similar to the shock of the new.
"People would always say to me, 'I can't believe you got away with this!'" she says with a quizzical smile.
As the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), Lash highlighted contemporary conceptual and installation art, as well as curating shows of more traditional paintings and sculpture. But a couple of her early shows established that she was doing something different at NOMA.
Lash introduced the current contemporary art world's focus on studio practice in 2009 when she invited local musician Quintron to create an album in a studio set up in second-floor contemporary art galleries (adjacent to a show of puppets by his partner, Miss Pussycat, aka Panacea Theriac). Quintron worked at the museum, literally clocking in like a 9-to-5 employee, and worked with various electronic instruments set up below paintings he had selected from NOMA's collections.
The project put NOMA at the forefront of art museums engaging with artists in a new way, focusing on the creative process instead of just the final produced object and building a new kind of relationship with young artists. Quintron's Sucre du Sauvage album cover art features a photo of a crowd of blindfolded listeners in NOMA's Stern Auditorium as Quintron debuted recordings.
But it was the opening reception for Skylar Fein's Youth Manifesto installation that really turned heads. With oversized sculptures of cassette tapes and sticker-covered speakers, concert ticket stubs and photos, the show invoked the era when punk music burst into popular culture and it explored punk's appropriation and commercialization via T-shirts Fein printed and displayed as if in a retail store (also available in the gift shop).
For the September 2009 opening reception, Lash told Fein they could use a grant from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation to hire a band. They chose a post-punk opening band and the metal band Mars to perform in the Great Hall. Museum staff was aware of the evening's offerings, and some tried to keep things tame.
"People were saying, 'Miranda, don't let it be too loud,'" she says. "In my mind I am thinking, 'It's a marble hall with a punk band.' If you drop a book in the Great Hall it echoes."
For NOMA, the music was loud.
"It didn't matter," Lash says. "When the moment came, it was flooded with people. It was so euphoric that no one cared."
"One of our museum staff picked up a basket and helped hand out earplugs," Lash recalls. "She handed earplugs to one guy and he asked, 'Is this Ecstasy?'"
The show was defying a lot of expectations about NOMA, and even serendipitous perceptions can be lasting. As the reception's official ending time neared, sheriff's deputies, who provide security at the museum, approached the stage to tell the band to bring the show to a close.
"Two deputies were giving the hand-across-the-neck gesture," Fein says. "The band is holding the last note; the sheriffs are looking for something to unplug. The crowd takes a half-step closer to the stage, and I was like, 'Oh my God, if the deputies put their hands on the band, it's going to be mayhem.'"
The band members held a final note as long as they could and then put down their instruments.
"Then the deputies started pushing people out of the museum," Fein says. "My 75-year-old mother was standing next to me, we were being pushed at the end of a police baton. She turned to me and said, 'That was fantastic.'"
Fein, his mother, curators including Prospect New Orleans founder Dan Cameron, music fans and other attendees stayed on the front steps.
"Everyone was so energized," Fein says. "No one wanted to leave. We hung out for hours."
NOMA was the place to be.
Lash's final day at NOMA was July 28 and she begins working at The Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, next week. She'll return to NOMA to open Photorealism: The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection in November and for the citywide art biennial Prospect.3, which opens Oct. 25. In her six-year tenure at NOMA, Lash presented an engaging variety of shows featuring commissioned work, large-scale installations, performances, video, folk craft and expos drawn from NOMA's collection of more than 40,000 pieces. She played an instrumental role in the museum's recent revitalization and made it the premier local institution for contemporary art.
Lash arrived in New Orleans and at NOMA in 2008, as the international art biennial Prospect.1 was in its final months of preparation. That citywide expo featured shows and site-specific installations by cutting edge contemporary artists from around the globe. It brought international art critics, collectors and tourists to New Orleans, and it introduced many New Orleanians to contemporary art, particularly through Hurricane Katrina- and flood devastation-inspired installations spread around the city. Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford's massive ark-like vessel, Mithra, was constructed in a devastated 9th Ward neighborhood. Paul Villinski's Emergency Response Studio, a work of technology, environmental and artistic fusion was parked on the lawn in front of NOMA. Monica Bonvicini created the massive sign spelling out "DESIRE" mounted on top of NOMA.
In the wake of Prospect.1, NOMA became the center of contemporary art in New Orleans as Lash engaged young artists, bringing them into the museum, presenting new shows, generating art events and pushing contemporary art out of its designated galleries into other areas of the museum. In 2011, she opened the museum's Great Hall to Swoon, one of the founding artists behind The Music Box, aka Dithyrambalina, the conversion of the remains of a collapsed Bywater shotgun home into a cluster of interactive musical structures. At NOMA, Swoon, aka Callie Curry, transformed the museum atrium's stately columns and white marble interior into the home of a giant sea goddess, Thalassa, a massive, colorful, tentacled paper installation.
More recently, the Great Hall was hung with Our Strange Flower of Democracy, what looks like a satellite made of bamboo and bottlecaps, part of Lash's Mel Chin retrospective, Rematch. Chin has been on the national radar since the 1980s, when his environmentally inspired Revival Field installation was singled out among art projects objected to by conservative U.S. senators — their attempt to defund the National Endowment of the Arts primarily focused on what they characterized as "obscene" art by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley and Andres Serrano. It was the first retrospective of Chin's work, and the first retrospective undertaken by Lash. (It opens at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis Sept. 5 and then moves to Houston, where four institutions will co-host it.)
Lash met Chin while she was working as a curatorial assistant at The Menil Collection in Houston. At an opening of Robert Rauschenberg works on cardboard, Chin attended in an outfit made entirely of cardboard boxes. Lash introduced herself and they kept in contact.
Chin also began a project in New Orleans. His Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill projects involved children decorating fake money templates ("Fundred" dollar bills) to highlight lead paint poisoning in disadvantaged neighborhoods. He expanded the project nationally, and the goal was to deliver bills from children across the country to Congress and get legislators to approve a like amount of dollars for lead paint remediation. The local project also included his installation of a massive bank vault door on the facade of a Bywater home (Safehouse, 2008).
While in New Orleans, Chin visited Lash at NOMA. As they talked, she inquired about doing a retrospective.
"It felt like a marriage proposal," Lash says. "It's a big thing to ask an artist. It's asking an artist to trust you with their entire career."
Chin's career existed largely outside of the gallery world, and many of his projects were unconventional. His work was not in any way archived or cataloged, and the retrospective and accompanying catalog would become the first major characterization of his career.
"I think he was taking a risk," Lash says. "I was touched by that."
A former Texan, Chin currently resides at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina, where his studio occupies a former birthing hospital. Lash traveled there often to go through his collections of slides.
The retrospective drew from an eclectic and prolific career. It featured works and representations of installations and projects inspired by science and social issues concerning ethnicity, media and violence. The vault door and palates of bundled Fundred bills were displayed as well.
"The Mel Chin show was her biggest," says former NOMA director John Bullard. "It was a major mid-career retrospective for an important artist who perhaps has not received the recognition he deserves because he is not based in New York, which is the center of all things contemporary. It was by far the largest of the projects she did at the museum. She worked on it for three or four years. It was a magnificent show."
Lash met Bullard when she conducted a tour of John and Dominique de Menil's private collection in Houston for a group of visiting NOMA members. She welcomed them and mentioned that she was engaged to a New Orleans native. Bullard replied that the museum was looking for a contemporary art curator, and Lash later inquired about it. She told Bullard that she would be visiting the Crescent City soon, but she couldn't interview, because she'd be on her honeymoon. Her fiancee, Jim Mulvihill, pushed her to do the interview.
Mulvihill worked in public relations, and he also applied for an open position at NOMA.
"When I came to NOMA for my second interview, and Jim for his first, we walked up the steps of the museum hand in hand," Lash says.
"When I started talking to people about taking the position, many people discouraged me," Lash says. "People cautioned me that it would be hard in a lot of ways, because of where the city was at: A combination of NOMA not having a track record for contemporary art, and in late 2007, the city was in a tough place (still recovering from Hurricane Katrina)."
Lash looked at the situation and saw potential.
"I figured I'd have many opportunities in my life to join a contemporary art department, but I may never have another opportunity to start one."
The century-old institution had moments on the leading edge before Lash's arrival. When Bullard arrived as director in the 1970s, he brought photography to the forefront, making NOMA one of the first art museums to do so. The museum also has leading American collections of Edo-period Japanese art, African art, Spanish colonial art and decorative arts. Contemporary art was formerly under the direction of Bill Fagaly, who relinquished it and focuses on his area of expertise, African art.
"She was able to breathe life into contemporary art at NOMA," Fagaly says. "It isn't that NOMA hadn't been doing contemporary things, but Miranda gave it focus and direction and did a bang up job."
NOMA's previous "contemporary" projects often focused on Louisiana and Southern artists, who were generally not as avant-garde as their peers elsewhere, Bullard says. Now the museum's contemporary art program reflects national and international art world focuses.
The position of contemporary art curator grew out of the museum's expansion in modern art holdings. The opening of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden was a major addition to the museum's collection of Modernist art. The garden falls under the purview of the contemporary art curator and Lash was tasked with producing a catalog for the garden when she arrived.
In her first year, as Prospect.1 unfolded around the city, she realized that she was in the right place at the right time.
"It was transcendent," she says. "There were so many late nights working at the museum. ... I remember the doors flying open and the art world coming into NOMA and seeing everything. There were so many Prospect.1 moments — sitting in the Cai Guo-Qiang chairs at Colton School (reclining motorized massage chairs that offered a view of lit stars hung from the ceilings) — so many moments where I felt like crying because it was so beautiful. ... It was a spiritually cathartic moment for the art scene."
At the close of Prospect.1, Lash was ready to make the most of the opportunity.
"From there it was energizing," she says. "Now what are we going to do? What are we going to take on? I think I made a conscious choice not to do expected things at NOMA. I wanted NOMA to leapfrog over the idea 'We're going to show contemporary art' straight to 'We're going to debut important contemporary art.'
"I passed over great projects we would have been the third or fourth venue for; I passed over projects where there was a great artist but people already knew their work. I think that was a controversial decision at first. I have come to know and respect a lot of more-established artists in New Orleans. But I will readily say that I wanted NOMA to be a place where people saw things first."
The last six years have been a period of growth in contemporary art across the city. The St. Claude Avenue arts district had started to develop before Hurricane Katrina, but Prospect.1 greatly accelerated the opening of more artist-owned and -operated galleries. The New York-based Joan Mitchell Foundation created a local presence by opening its center on Bayou Road. The Contemporary Arts Center initially hired Dan Cameron to curate visual art, and after a period of transformation has in the last year presented the large-scale photography show Water by Edward Burtynsky and 30 Americans from Miami's Rubell Family Collection.
"What (new director) Neil Barclay is doing at the CAC is really interesting," says NOMA director Susan Taylor. "His program design and the kind of (performers) he's bringing here is very ambitious."
For Taylor, who arrived in 2010, contemporary art is a necessary part of her vision for the museum.
"For me, contemporary art is a point of access for an audience," Taylor says. "Whether it's young people or an intergenerational audience or people just committed to the idea that art has a place in their lives, contemporary art can animate ideas and approaches."
Lash grew up in California, both in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles and in Fresno, an inland agricultural area, where her mother, a doctor, worked with migrant laborers. Lash thought she'd follow in her mother's footsteps, becoming a doctor and helping people, until she realized as an undergraduate at Harvard University that she didn't love biology and chemistry.
"My mother always said I'd know when I felt the calling," she says.
Lash found that calling in art history.
"I signed up for a class just on Van Gogh," she says.
Later, during an internship at a museum, she realized she wanted to go into curatorial work rather than the academic world.
"(Curator) Diane Larsen pulled out a chalk drawing by Edward Burne-Jones," Lash says. "She pulled it out of the (storage) racks and there was this mermaid; this beautiful thing. I loved that there were just the two of us, and we could go look at it any time. ... I like being close to the objects. Curating is from Latin: curare, to care. It's about caring for the objects."
At her first curating job at The Menil Collection, Lash fit artists into the picture.
"I didn't understand living art until I got to The Menil Collection," she says. "I had many friends who were artists in Houston. The artist took shape — not a shadowy person, but a real part of the story. I wanted to be as close to the heat of the fire as possible."
Contemporary art programs have welcomed art-making into museums in a variety of ways, in terms of creating installations and exposing their creative processes. At NOMA, Taylor would like to see more shows generated by artists interacting with museum collections and acting as curators. One of Lash's first shows featured artist Jennifer Odem culling pieces from NOMA's collections.
Working with artists is something Lash made a regular practice in her work at NOMA.
In another exhibit not in the contemporary art galleries, she presented works by New Orleans native Rashaad Newsome, who now lives in New York and had work included in a biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Lash met Newsome at Prospect.1.5 when he had a video installation at Good Children Gallery.
For his show at NOMA, he created canvases and video works mounted in gold leaf frames fusing the aesthetics of hip-hop bling and the heraldry of traditional European portraiture, particularly people of wealth or nobility. Newsome also created his own coronation video. To create it, Newsome brought vogue dancers from New York to perform with Mardi Gras Indians and the Eleanor McMain marching band.
"One of the dancers wore parts of a Mardi Gras Indian costume and vogued down Lelong Drive (the entrance to NOMA) with indians behind them," Lash says. "You typically think of Mardi Gras Indian chiefs as being very traditionally masculine, straight masculine. There's traditionally resistance to queer culture in the African-American community. To see those two come together was very special. And the vogue dancers were amazing. ... They came into the Great Hall with flag girls on the stairs and the band playing. Rashad pulled up in a Lamborghini covered in one of his vinyl designs. It was a very baroque performance.
"It resonated for me because at Mardi Gras you have the meeting of the courts on TV with Rex and Comus and the idea of coronation. Here was this New Orleans black artist crowning himself in the presence of a marching band and Mardi Gras Indians. It was a self-assertive moment for Rashaad. As a lively, colorful event, it was beautiful."
Lash also curated French artist Camille Henrot's first U.S. museum show; Irish artist Katie Holten created an installation in the Great Hall about coastal land loss; and Lash invited Odili Donald Odita to create the 110-foot mural beyond the Great Hall entrance.
Not everything Lash curated is new work. Currently, the contemporary gallery space includes Robert Rauschenberg and "Five from Louisiana."
"It's my power ballad tribute to Louisiana," Lash says, pumping her fists in the air as if she was at a rock concert.
The show is a reference to a 1977 NOMA show curated by Fagaly, in which he highlighted the work of five artists who generally weren't known for their connections to the state. Lash's show features later works by the same five artists, and it prominently features Melic Meeting, a large work of painting and silk screening on a patchwork on fabric by Rauschenberg, whose mother was from New Orleans. Lash was instrumental in NOMA acquiring the piece with the support of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and help of the Helis Foundation. It's one of several pieces Lash helped the museum acquire, including adding the first pieces of installation art to the permanent collection.
Across from the exhibit is a piece Lash loves: a 10-feet-tall, shiny, baby blue, perfectly rectangular piece by John McCracken.
It's a solid color with a car chrome finish and completely simple in its dimensions, but she extols its virtues as a hand-made object.
"It's polished like a surfboard," she says. "It's carefully lacquered; a carefully constructed object. Art can get down to just essentials."
Not everyone appreciates it as much as she does.
"My docents, so many of them hate it," she says. "They really hate it."
"I learned something special about New Orleans," Lash says. "When we showed the Kalup Linzy video in Prospect.1, I was really worried about the reaction from people because there are some sex scenes in the video, and one is fairly graphic. I thought 'We'll put a sign out, saying parents, please preview this...' I remember being really worried. Then one day I saw two of my docents walk past the video, and they both watched it. And I was watching them. They cracked up laughing. They thought it was so funny.
"Then I did my docent training about minimalism and John McCracken," she says. "People were just not having it. They were saying, 'It's just a plank!'
"Minimalism is no good to New Orleans, but you can show anything you want in terms of sexual content or obscenity. Because we have Carnival, no one seems to care. I thought I would scandalize people with a Sam Taylor-Wood piece with a lot of male nudity, but no one seems to care."
In the end, she's intrigued by the interaction.
"I want people to understand art in a better way," she says. "I will gladly talk about a master painting with anyone who will care to listen, but I also want people to understand that art can be more than you think it can be."