Michael Pajon first started working in New Orleans as an assistant to Tony Fitzpatrick, a Chicago-based artist who has been a longtime fan of the Crescent City and was invited to participate in Prospect.1. In the year before the international art biennial opened in November 2008, the two visited the city often and combed through antique and vintage thrift shops for old paper for Fitzpatrick to incorporate in his collages of found materials, drawing and written aphorisms and observations.
"We were looking for matchbooks, prayer cards, anything in old paper lots," Pajon says. "Once people knew that we were looking for that, they called us. Sometimes they'd want $10 for something, and I'd be like, 'Doesn't that say $1 on it?' But we just paid the $10. We thought we were helping (the city rebuild)."
In spite of the tourist treatment, Pajon was seduced by the city. By the end of Prospect.1, he told Fitzpatrick we was going to move to New Orleans. After more than five years working with Fitzpatrick, who initially hired him to assist with printmaking, Pajon gave him a year's notice and set out to save enough money to relocate and have time to explore his new home.
In September 2009, Pajon moved into an apartment on Poland Avenue in the Bywater, bought a bike to get around, adopted a dog and focused on his own collage work. He now culls the city for old photos, tintypes, illustrated dictionaries and paper items, and he displayed some of his work at the now closed AMMO gallery in the French Quarter. After surviving his first summer of brutal New Orleans heat, he's fully settled in his new home.
"Everyone said I'd gain a lot of weight living here, like I'd be going to Croissant d'Or all the time," he says, laughing. "I spent eight weeks this summer biking out to UNO in 95-degree heat to teach a class on etching."
Pajon will have his first major local show at the Louisiana State Museum's Madame John's Legacy during Prospect.1.5, which opened Saturday, Nov. 6. The group exhibition titled Fresh Off the Turnip Truck features accomplished but relatively young or early career artists who have moved to New Orleans to live and make art. Other artists include ex-New Yorker Justin Faunce, a painstakingly precise painter of large canvases exploding with manipulated pop-cultural images. Ryan Watkins-Hughes is a photographer and web designer who enrolled in an MFA program at Tulane University so he could move to New Orleans. The former New Yorker has created two video installations at Madame John's.
Taken together, it's what Louisiana State Museum director Sam Rykels proudly dubs "brain gain."
"New Orleans' oldest house and newest artists," Rykels says, summing up his interest in seeing the state museum's historic properties incorporate contemporary art and culture exhibits and programming.
During Prospect.1.5, more than 50 artists will be featured in shows opening between Nov. 6 and Dec. 29 at venues including Madame John's Legacy, Delgado Community College's Isaac Delgado Fine Art Gallery, the Mahalia Jackson Center in Central City and galleries around town. Different in concept and smaller in scale than 2008's Prospect.1 — which featured the work of international artists — it focuses heavily on the New Orleans art scene and building relationships.
"I think we'll develop good will in the community," says Dan Cameron, Prospect's founder and director. "It's New Orleans-driven content."
Prospect.1.5 was not part of Cameron's original plan for Prospect New Orleans. While Prospect.1 was a critical success, issues with fundraising and organization caused a delay in the rollout of Prospect.2, which is now scheduled to open in November 2011. To maintain continuity, Cameron created Prospect.1.5, a smaller-scale citywide event with a budget of less than $15,000. Instead of Prospect.1's heavy use of major museum spaces and installations spread around the city (particularly the Lower 9th Ward), many shows are at local galleries, with some changing exhibits monthly.
By creating alternating series of shows — international art biennials on whole numbers, New Orleans-focused shows on ".5" years — Cameron hopes to improve Prospect's local recognition and brand November through January as a contemporary art season. He also hopes the local focus will encourage artists who live here, attract collectors to new work, and build the local art community's links to the international contemporary art world that discovered or rediscovered New Orleans during Prospect.1.
As an international art biennial, Prospect.1 was a critical success, garnering a long feature in ArtForum magazine and raves from critics like The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl. It drew visitors from around the world, and on-site surveys reported that more than 93 percent of respondents said they would return to New Orleans and would recommend Prospect New Orleans to a friend. A study funded by the Getty Foundation calculated the event's economic impact at $23 million, with $14 million in visitor spending, including $1.25 million paid in city and state sales taxes.
"We opened in one of the worst recessions," Cameron says. "Considering how many people canceled discretionary travel and the impact that had on our numbers, we did fantastic."
On the balance sheet, however, Prospect.1 spent roughly $1 million more than it raised.
As Prospect.1 closed, its board of directors set out to retire that debt. Early in 2010, differences arose between Cameron and the board of directors about fundraising, creating a budget for Prospect.2, organization, and the way Prospect straddles New Orleans and New York, where Cameron incorporated U.S. Biennial Inc., the nonprofit that produces Prospect. While Cameron bought a home in Treme in 2007, he still works internationally, most recently curating a biennial in Kwangju, South Korea, in August. And Prospect relies on New York resources, such as a marketing and public relations firm that has a specialized niche in international art world media.
At a board meeting two days after the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, board members and Cameron disagreed on key issues, according to both Cameron and former Prospect director Barbara Motley. The majority of the board resigned en masse. Cameron assembled a new board and began planning for Prospect.2.
Cameron must juggle the awkward balance of funding a New Orleans biennial by raising 80 percent of funds outside of Louisiana. As shows open this week for Prospect.1.5, he's also preparing for an art auction in New York on Nov. 19, at which he hopes to raise $1 million for Prospect.2. He also needs to raise 20 percent of Prospect.2 funds in the New Orleans region.
"We need harmony for this to succeed in the long run," he says. "We can't be perceived as outsiders. We need to make sure people in New Orleans feel this is part of their city to invest their time, efforts and resources."
Prospect.1.5 has its own New York-New Orleans divide. Some of the artists in the show are former New Orleanians who gravitated to New York to work. It's an art world version of brain drain Cameron recognized as he started planning the exhibitions in May.
"I began to think of our scattered sons and daughters," Cameron says, "and the question: What is a New Orleans artist?"
Rashaad Newsome was one name that came to mind. Newsome was born in New Orleans, grew up in St. Charles Parish and attended Tulane. His work has been included in a few group shows locally, at the Contemporary Arts Center and Zeitgeist-Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, but he moved to New York for its multitude of resources.
Newsome arranges performance art events, which he then films and presents as video. In the 2010 Whitney Biennial in New York, he presented a video he made by filming voguing, the beauty pageant/fashion runway events of societies of New York crossdressers. He filmed a special voguing event, then isolated aspects of fashion, performance and dance and edited the video to develop themes.
"I took movement from the original piece and reframed it," he says. "It's taking a new approach to choreography through post-production."
"There isn't infrastructure to support work like that (in New Orleans), unless you're a painter or sculptor," he says. "In New York, there's more residencies, opportunities and grants — so many things for artists to take advantage of."
For Prospect.1.5, Newsome's video creation Shade Compositions will be at Good Children Gallery. Newsome created a sort of human orchestra with 21 African-American women performing culturally specific remarks and gestures that he conducted in person and then edited on video, creating a rhythm out of the repeated phrases.
"We've reached a point where (art) insiders know (Newsome's) work," Cameron says. "We want New Orleanians to have the same recognition."
Newsome is not the only former New Orleanian in the show. Maximilian Toth is a painter who was born in New Orleans and now lives in Connecticut. Tameka Norris grew up in Gulfport and Pass Christian, Miss., and has family in New Orleans. She moved to California in her late teens and eventually entered art school. She's represented by CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles and at 31 just started an MFA program at Yale, which gives her a few more years to decide whether she'll pursue her career in an art capital like Los Angeles, or try to do so from her former home.
"I have a romantic image of simplicity," she says. "I want to grow my own food, just eat and make art."
Her show at Good Children Gallery will be her first in the region, and she plans to visit family in the city in December and attend the exhibit. She's also trying to set up art workshops at high schools in Mississippi.
For established artists, there are tradeoffs between making connections and the face-to-face opportunities of living in an art community in a city like New York versus living remotely. Pajon used to sell his work out of Fitzpatrick's Chicago studio, but now he shows work on his website (www.michaelpajon.com). Faunce jokes that he had never planned to enter the formal art world, though he went to art school and is represented by the Leo Koenig Gallery in New York.
"I never intended to be a gallery artist," he says. "I wanted to be an outsider. I thought I'd be a guy in a garage doing weird stuff after work."
Instead, Faunce is a workaholic who labors from mid-morning until 3 a.m. most days, setting aside a couple of hours in the evening to read.
The painter employs a time-consuming process of stitching together images in Photoshop, transferring them to canvas and using an exacting combination of masking tape stenciling and fine brushwork. It yields roughly one new work per year.
"I work really fast," he says. "But paintings take eight months up to two years. It's not a leisurely process."
His large-scale works tend to feature a kaleidoscopic array of manipulated pop-cultural images. In the painting Emperor Tomato Ketchup, a Heinz 57 bottle dances with the New York Stock Exchange exterior as a backdrop and Glinda the Good Witch, Campbell's Soup cans, oil dredges and the fused image of Michael Jackson's face under Che Guevara's beret and curly locks clutter the dazzling explosion of commercialism.
Faunce's self-described "lifeline" to his New York gallery enables him to support himself as a full-time artist. He was a full-time artist in New York as well, but lived in more crowded conditions. His reasons for moving to New Orleans were more aesthetic.
"With all the best possible connotations, it's off the grid," he says. "There's this rawness, this aspect of reality that's intact. Other places seem like appendages of the virtual world. New Orleans is introverted. There's an organic feel to it. ... It's a great place to be an artist. I draw most of my inspiration from walking down the street."
Faunce chooses to live ascetically rather than spend time at any sort of regular job. For other artists, the trade-offs are different. Watkins-Hughes moved to New Orleans after a decade in New York. He works professionally as a designer and teaches at Tulane while pursuing a degree, which allows him access to benefits like health care. And he is in a different phase of his career.
"When I was younger, being surrounded by other creative people in terms of sheer numbers and the way New York is overtly competitive — I used to enjoy that," he says. "As you get older, you get more focused on your own work. ... At that point, the lower rent and friendlier community aspects, which might seem quaint if you were in that cutthroat New York mentality — you're like, 'Holy shit. I have more time to work, I have more space to work.'"
New Orleans has always produced artistic talents and is becoming more attractive to professional artists. Institutions have embraced contemporary art as well. Rykels was very pleased with the state museum's experience opening the Old U.S. Mint to Prospect.1 artists and visitors, saying it fits into his mission to do more contemporary programming aimed at engaging young audiences. The New Orleans Museum of Art also has expanded its offerings, adding a curator of contemporary art, hosting more art events and opening its doors to a residency by musician and puppeteer duo Quintron and Miss Pussycat.
Another necessary component of a growing art scene is the development of galleries and collectors, Cameron says.
"We now have a community in New Orleans where artists have better knowledge than collectors," Cameron says. "It's hard to construct a scenario for artists to succeed (without buyers).
"I am a curator, I am an educator," Cameron adds. "I'm confident saying there's a big gap between the adventurousness of art made here and art collected here. It's a New York bias. You take collectors to young artists' studios. In New York, collectors will join your organization because that information about what's new is highly valued. Here, it's worthless.
"If we can't generate excitement in Uptown drawing rooms about art being made in Bywater, it's not going to work. We've got to bring people together. If the collecting community doesn't get excited about the newest developments in the city, then you don't have a healthy art scene."
New Orleans is not home to the type of world-class collectors who buy art in New York and at international events like Art Basel Miami Beach. But it does have serious collectors, and they generally follow a conservative approach to acquiring art.
Gallery owner Arthur Roger, who operated a gallery in New York for three years before opening his current space on Julia Street, says collectors in New Orleans often have stuck to traditional works. He has nudged some bigger collectors with the message that "Southern art didn't end in 1950."
"There's more than all those landscapes," he says.
Roger's gallery features well-known contemporary artists including Douglas Bourgeois, Lin Emory and Willie Birch, and it has established enough of a reputation to do experimental shows.
"We can do a crazy show," he says. "But we're doing well because we invested well in the past."
His is one of many local galleries participating in Prospect.1.5, including Julia Street neighbors Heriard-Cimino, Jonathan Ferrara, M. Francis and LeMieux galleries. Also participating are Octavia Gallery in Uptown and Good Children Gallery on St. Claude Avenue. Cameron has curated those shows, matching appropriate artists and venues. Roger recently added a video room to his gallery, and during Prospect.1.5, the Austin, Texas group Okay Mountain will present a video installation.
While Roger is not certain how video will fit into the art world, he sees the current trend and notes that many video artists support their work by selling photography and more conventional pieces.
"I have always said follow the art and not the collectors," he says. He may suffer a loss on investing in the video space of his gallery, he says, but it's part of the art world he wants to be able to engage and present at his gallery. He notes that there's already been a video biennial at SITE Santa Fe.
"[Video] isn't new, but it's more accessible," he says.
Since Hurricane Katrina — and greatly enabled by Prospect.1 venues at the Colton School and former Universal Furniture — the St. Claude Avenue corridor has developed a cluster of newer galleries, generally featuring young artists. Watkins-Hughes noticed the growth in the gallery scene in New Orleans.
"I think galleries on St. Claude do a great job of showing what they want to show," he says. "They're comparable to their peers in Brooklyn."
He sees Julia Street's more established galleries as similar to New York's commercial gallery district in Chelsea, but less adventurous.
"There's a limited number of a certain type of collector (here)," he says. "It's not uncommon for a Julia Street gallery to put on a challenging, forward-thinking, progressive show. But then the following month, they're balancing the books by doing something more tried and true, a nice classic collection of paintings. Not to say that those paintings of flowers aren't quite lovely, but you see them doing that balancing act."
Development and addition of new galleries should allow for stratification and specialization, Watkins-Hughes says, so there will be room for galleries known for new and established artists, conservative and experimental works, traditional and new media.
Roger is quick to point out that there are downsides to the New York art world as well, particularly the prices.
"There's a joke that if two people are in line to buy a piece in New York, it was undervalued," he says. The New York stamp of approval may make some buyers feel more comfortable with what they paid, he adds.
"Why is it that if a person comes to New Orleans and buys a piece of art, he's a tourist?" Roger asks. "But if someone flies to New York to buy art, they're a 'collector'?"
The prospect of a growing art scene is good on a number of fronts, including for artists who can choose to live and work here rather than cycling through an art capital. And that can make the city as attractive to collectors as tourists.
"New Orleans has always had the artists," Roger says. "What's changed is that artists are staying here and being sold here and (art is) staying here. Art being bought here was being shipped everywhere. Ida Kohlmeyer pieces were shipped everywhere."
For young artists, the sense of opportunity is palpable.
"There's kind of a creative flourish going on right now," says Pajon as he finishes installing his works at Madame John's. "It's exciting to be a part of it. There are empty spaces to fill. It's kind of like a canvas: There's something there already, but there's fresh attention. All sorts of people are coming here to repopulate and rebuild."