It's been a hell of a year. That can be taken in a number of ways, but what stands out is that more changes have occurred in this city's art scene over the past 12 months than typically would take place over many years in more normal times. While local galleries maintained their predictably stable status, 2011 was a mixed bag for arts institutions as directors and curators came and went. Champagne corks popped at some as others bled red ink. In this the city was hardly unique — arts institutions all over the world are still reeling from the global financial meltdown — and while some crises lead to unexpected opportunities, not everyone saw a silver lining.
The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) appears to be thriving on new energy and interest as it celebrates its 100th anniversary with an eclectic expo of new acquisitions ranging from blue-chip golden oldies to iconic contemporary works by art stars like Matthew Barney and Anish Kapoor. Popular programs including performances by musicians such as Quintron and Irvin Mayfield also abounded in the first year under the directorship of Susan Taylor. A former Princeton University Art Museum director, Taylor has overseen incremental yet pervasive changes across the board, right down to the bold redesign of NOMA's website. A new emphasis on recent art has been under way since Miranda Lash was appointed contemporary art curator in 2008, and this too seems to mesh with Taylor's flair for, as she puts it, "engaging more completely in the cultural life of the city." That was evident when New York-based street artist Swoon's 20-foot-tall cut-paper sculpture Thalassa was suspended over the museum's Great Hall last summer. Its presence suggested a new relationship with the edgy St. Claude Avenue arts district where Swoon's work is more often found, and while the vibe may seem new, longtime NOMA watchers say Taylor is doing her version of the base broadening that former director John Bullard undertook so successfully during his 38-year tenure, only now the local avant garde is part of the mix.
Although New Orleans has long been considered America's last bohemia, much of the youthful ferment that now characterizes its art community is a post-Hurricane Katrina phenomenon. Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) visual arts director Amy Mackie, now wrapping up her first year on the job, sees this new energy as reminiscent of the adventuresome spirit of the CAC's freewheeling early days. She's now using the building's rough and rarely open third floor to rekindle some of the rugged allure of the warehouse it was prior to its late 1980s renovation. Like New York's PS1, which it resembles right down to its 1976 origins, the CAC is one of America's oldest institutions devoted to contemporary art, and Mackie believes the city's bountiful crop of emerging artists provides an opportunity to explore "new work from a new creative class."
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which opened in its current form in 2003, weathered recent financial turbulence. Last month the Ogden named current University of Mississippi Museum director William Pittman Andrews to take over in January 2012. In his two-year tenure at Ole Miss, Andrews oversaw a 35 percent increase in attendance, a feat the Ogden hopes he can replicate here.
The situation was less hopeful at Louisiana ArtWorks, which was shuttered last January when the board realized there wasn't enough money to cover the cost of insuring the deluxe $25 million structure with its maze of artists studios and state-of-the-art facilities. While its problems partly can be blamed on an inadequate business plan, catastrophic flooding followed by a severe global recession obviously hurt. After closing up shop, the ArtWorks board dissolved itself, and while the Louisiana Artists Guild still officially owns the building, its future now rests with City Hall.
When it comes to making news, there are probably no local arts institutions that can match the wild ups and downs of Prospect New Orleans, the organization founded by former New Museum curator Dan Cameron in 2007 to launch the Prospect.1 biennial that opened in 2008. Prospect.1 got great reviews but ran up a $1 million deficit, and plans for Prospect.2, originally slated for 2010, were put on hold after several financial backers withdrew. The Prospect.2 that premiered in October was a much more modest affair, but even this was more than many thought possible for a new biennial with no city or state sponsorship in a time of global recession. Then on P.2's opening night festivities, Cameron stunned those present by announcing he was stepping down as artistic director to accept a new post as chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, and that the artistic director for the Prospect.3 expo in 2013 will be Franklin Sirmans, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Cameron remains on the board, and his influence is expected to continue even as local observers try to make sense of the bizarre sequence of events. No stranger to controversy, Cameron has his critics, but few would deny that the Prospect biennials galvanized the visual arts community while putting New Orleans on the global art map for the first time since the 19th century. As independent curator John Otte remarked recently, "So much of what we see around us here in the St. Claude arts district never would have come as far as it has if the Prospect biennials hadn't motivated artists to go the extra mile."