None of those experiences prepared him for New Orleans post-Katrina.
Gallery owner Arthur Roger had decided to sponsor a forum in January 2006 to talk about the future of the arts and culture in New Orleans. Almost 300 people packed his gallery to listen to a panel that included moderator John Hankins, COO of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra; historian Doug Brinkley, then working on his book about the storm; Duke University professor of art and art history Richard Powell, who had curated a recent retrospective of sculptor John Scott's work at NOMA; and Cameron.
"I have never faced an audience like that before in my life," Cameron says. "They were looking at Rick and me like, "Give us something to believe in --Êand don't even think about bullshitting this audience."
"We still had our hands in the mud, picking up our belongings," Roger recalls.
It was Cameron's first trip back to the city since the storm. He had been a regular visitor for 20 years before Katrina, and he had made many friends over the years. NOMA curator Bill Fagaly, Powell and Cameron had spent the day driving through storm-ravaged neighborhoods.
"We couldn't believe our eyes -- the fields of devastation," Cameron says.
He hadn't come to the panel with a plan or prescription, but during the debate he stumbled upon an idea.
"I took issue with something Doug Brinkley said -- that the recovery of the art world depends on the vitality of the tourist economy, that tourists buy art," he says. "I was thinking out loud, but I said, 'Tourists don't buy art, collectors buy art. If you want to help the art community, bring in collectors.' I said, 'You could have a big international art show and bring them here.'"
Cameron had in mind something like one of the many international art biennials that draw not just collectors but also thousands of visitors to citywide, months-long public displays of contemporary art. European cities such as Venice have some of the oldest biennials, but other cities from Johannesburg to Havana to Shanghai have initiated their own biennials to raise their cultural profiles and to draw visitors and attention.
"I woke up the next morning and I was like, 'Damn. I said it. Now I have to do it. I have to do more.'"
It took Cameron a while to go from the germ of an idea to a full-fledged project he could pitch, but he now has a plan, a 501(c)(3) charitable corporation to produce it, $600,000 in seed money from a couple of New York donors and the cooperation of New Orleans' major art institutions, including NOMA, the Ogden Museum and CAC. The New Orleans biennial, dubbed Prospect1, will be a citywide array of art exhibitions, installations and performances from October through December 2008. Cameron has committed to building the New Orleans biennial through its first five installments. Prospect1 is already attracting attention well beyond the local art community.
"The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has been a great international brand for the city," says Steve Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "This could be looked back upon years from now as having the same exponential impact for the arts scene."
In June, Cameron announced Prospect1 at the current Venice Biennal, which at 60 is the world's oldest international biennial show. He has already curated large-scale biennials in Istanbul (2003) and Taipei (2006). Besides being the first American to curate an international biennial, Cameron remains one of the few biennial curators in the world. While the United States has some art fairs of a different and smaller nature, it doesn't have a major international biennial. New York's Whitney Museum has a biennial that features American artists and the museum's own space. Miami started an internationally oriented art fair several years ago, but it is more of a show put on by art dealers for collectors.
The biennials take on different forms in each city, and as the name implies happen at regular two-year intervals. The Venice biennial happens in two major centers but within them are permanent pavilions for approximately 80 countries, each of which sends its own representative artists. The entire city gets involved in official and unofficial ways. Local gallery owner Jonathan Ferrara recently returned from the Venice event.
"It's like a city on exhibit. There are markers and kiosks throughout the city. You get the idea that the biennial is ever-present for six months," Ferrara says. "It's people from all over the world coming to see the best contemporary art offered. You turn a corner and there's a video installation in a window that's there because of the Biennal. It's everywhere."
Other cities have taken different approaches. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the biennial takes place in a massive complex, almost like an Olympic village, designed by one of the nation's most famous architects. In its effort to open its cultural doors to the world, China held a biennial in Shanghai and concentrated its show spaces. Other cities have chosen to spread out their events, in the European model. When Cameron curated the Istanbul Biennial in 2003, he chose to incorporate the city's history and culture. That meant placing art shows, installations and performances at historic and cultural sites.
Bill Fagaly, curator of African art at NOMA, is a longtime friend of Cameron's and visited the Istanbul show. The government of Turkey invited Cameron to do the show and cooperated by opening state-owned and historic sites.
"It was phenomenal," says Fagaly. "It was all over the city. It was in large warehouses by the Bosphorus River. There were presentations in the Hagia Sophia, the great mosque of the Ottoman Empire. It was the first time they allowed art to be installed in it. Istanbul has cisterns below ground as part of the water system. There had never been any art in the cisterns that dealt with architecture and the water. I think he pushed boundaries. It was Dan's idea to get out in the community."
Istanbul initiated its biennial in 1987 as Turkey was focusing efforts on becoming part of the European Union. Opening cultural ties to the West also spurred the creation of film, art and jazz festivals. Johannesburg initiated its biennial after the fall of Apartheid. In many ways, it was part of a reintroduction to a cultural world that had been boycotting the nation.
Showing the city of New Orleans to visitors is one of Cameron's goals in organizing Prospect1. He believes that an international show of this nature should look at art from the point of view of the city in which it takes place. With New Orleans and its post-Katrina context, that's essential.
"It's very important to me that people who see the show see the city," he says.
To do that, Cameron has secured exhibition space at the CAC, Ogden and NOMA and is pursuing other institutional spaces from the Louisiana State Museum system as well as historic spaces, galleries, warehouses and more. He expects to fill 100,000 square feet of exhibition space. Visitors will have to explore the city as they travel to sites around town, making the character of the city's neighborhoods part of the experience.
"I want people to be blown away by New Orleans architecture," he says. "Many people in the contemporary art world have never been to New Orleans."
The various shows that will comprise Prospect1 will be free to the public. To fund the project, Cameron isn't even pursuing local sources. Believing that New Orleans was tapped out after Katrina, Cameron focused on his connections in New York and in the art world. He raised the initial $600,000 in New York, much of it from The Toby Fund, created by philanthropist and collector Toby Devan Lewis. Cameron expects to raise $2 million to $3 million from private sources, government grants and foundations.
Though the opening date is still more than a year away (Oct. 4, 2008), Cameron anticipates inviting a total of 85 artists to participate by creating new works or site-specific installations. He's spending time this fall previewing the city with visiting artists who will participate in the biennial. The group will include local artists, artists with ties that reflect New Orleans' historic roots to Africa and the Caribbean, and other international artists. So far he's compiled a list of 60 names and invited half of them.
"Everyone [invited] has accepted so far. That's not typical," Cameron says. "That has everything to do with New Orleans. This is one of the greatest American cultural treasures to the rest of the world."
Cameron's love of New Orleans is a familiar story.
"It was love at first soft-shell crab po-boy," he says. His first visit was with an artist who was having a show in the city -- Peter Halley in 1987. Cameron went to the opening on Saturday night and on Sunday went to Jazz Fest. "I got my first soft-shell crab po-boy just as the Nevilles were going on. I looked around. There were all these people enjoying the scene and music. It was the most amazing combination of sensations I had ever felt. And it was fleeting. But afterwards I kept asking myself, 'Did that really happen?' I kept coming back and it wasn't just me. It kept happening. This is the way life should be lived. You can't explain it. You just have to get people to come down here and experience it. If I couldn't get them down before, well, I can get them down now."
New Orleans mostly has been an escape for Cameron, more about friends and colleagues than work. Fagaly did, however, enlist him to curate the NOMA Triennial in 1995. Cameron also has lectured at UNO. He's brought the work of Louisiana artists like Douglas Bourgeois and Roy Ferdinand to New York shows.
Professionally, Cameron cut his teeth in the Northeast. He grew up in upstate New York in the Adirondacks, attended Bennington College, where he studied studio art, and within weeks of graduating in 1979 bought a Greyhound bus ticket and moved to New York City. He began working in art galleries and curating art shows as a freelance job. In 1984, he took a leap of faith and committed to curating full-time.
What followed was a dizzying whirlwind of activity encompassing dozens of exhibitions staged all over the world, including New Orleans as guest curator of the 1995 NOMA Triennial. A look back at the titles of some of the exhibitions he has staged offers some clues to his vision. If expos such as Art and Its Double, in Barcelona, 1986, What is Contemporary Art?, in Malmo, Sweden, in 1989 and Modern Detour, in Vienna, 1990 sound somewhat thought provoking, that was probably his intention. Because most curators work for institutions, their vision usually reflects institutional values in which hindsight may play a larger role than foresight. Even when independent curators are called for, they often are simply borrowed from other institutions. Professional independent curators such as Cameron are a recent, and still somewhat rare, phenomenon.
Prior to being hired by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995, he had developed a reputation as the "artists' curator" because his vision seemed to reflect real world developments as they happened in the streets and studios, rather than after the fact. For that reason, the New Museum may have been the only museum he could work for, according to a number of New York art world insiders. The most commonly cited reason for this simpatico relationship was that it was the only major New York museum founded by a cutting edge curator, the legendary Marcia Tucker, who launched it after being fired from her curatorial post at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1977. From the start, the New Museum championed the newest art world developments, staging challenging shows that helped transform critical terms such as "postmodern" into household words.
As a self-styled agent of change in the contemporary art world, Cameron seemed a perfect fit for the New Museum. For years, he'd shown an uncanny knack for being ahead of the curve and anticipating the future direction of contemporary art. When Expressionism became the dominant style in the early 1980s, he embraced postmodern conceptual art. When Postmodernism took over in the late '80s and into the '90s, he embraced what came to be called "world art," especially the new expressions that were developing in parts of Asia and Africa that had been off the curatorial radar until then. In that vein, he curated the eighth International Istanbul Biennial in 2003, and the Taipei Biennial last year, while continuing to create the kinds of exhibitions that have helped cement the New Museum's reputation as an important player in contemporary art circles. And now, all of those experiences may well prove useful as he prepares to be an agent of change in this city's relationship with America and the world.
As Cameron started planning Prospect1, he also started expanding his connections in the local art community. Arthur Roger introduced him to Jay Weigel, executive director of the CAC. Weigel thought that the biennial would naturally fit with the CAC's mission and volunteered the entire space. Then Weigel got another idea. The visual arts curator position had been vacant since David Ruben left for San Antonio. David Houston of the Ogden Museum, across the street, had been filling in as an interim curator. At first, Weigel thought it would be an outrageous proposition, so he called Arthur Roger to see what he thought and to put out a feeler.
"This guy is as strong a person as we could ever hope to get on the art scene. He's one of the top five on the international scene," Weigel says.
The offer did take Cameron by surprise, but they started talking. Over the course of a couple of months, they discussed the state of the CAC and what kind of commitment would work. Cameron still travels extensively and works out of New York. Being at the CAC for a week to 10 days every month made perfect sense for him while he is building relationships, getting to know more of the New Orleans community and organizing Prospect1.
Aside from his reputation and talents, Cameron fits New Orleans well, Weigel says.
"It takes a unique person who understands their artform but also appreciates what's here. He brings 20 years of hanging out here. He has friends here. He's not coming in here like some people who want to 'fix this place' when they really don't understand the culture," Weigel says.
Officially, Cameron started working at the CAC on May 1. He's bringing in a show titled Street Level: Mark Bradford, William Cordova and Robin Rhode from Duke University's Nasher Museum for the fall to complement a Willie Birch show already slated. The first shows he curates for the center will open in January, and the center may undergo some alterations to its space, reorienting the visual experience as visitors enter. Cameron also is excited about the site's multidisciplinary features.
"Increasingly over the past 10 years, I'm drawn to the nexus of performing and visual arts," he says.
For six years, Cameron has curated art at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and runs it's "Next Next Wave" series, looking at the work of emerging artists. He's not just a music fan; for several years in the early '80s, Cameron sang in a band that was part of the East Village scene. The group, Infradig, put out vinyl and played in bohemian clubs like the Limbo Lounge and 8 BC.
For his first show at the CAC, Cameron has planned "Something from Nothing." It's sort of a challenge to the invited artists. He's telling them to work without money.
"Come empty handed. Don't bring tools." Cameron says of his instructions. "So how do you make art? There are other ways to work. Borrow things or trade. It's not about money. It's about your community. Show your solidarity. See what the people here went through [after the storm]."
It's a unique way of working with artists, Cameron acknowledges, and one in which he gives artists the freedom to make decisions.
"If you get really involved in the minutia of how an artist works, you get into their worldview. You can try to project that outward into the world," he says. "You're like a producer."
His approach also grounds the art in the city's context.
"This is very much about getting people in New Orleans to feel comfortable with Prospect1 because there is going to be some wild stuff coming down the pike. I want people to say, 'Oh, that's Dan's show.'"
If any of that sounds like a nebulous concept of contemporary art, it's not without history or tradition. Many local art directors point to strong contemporary art movements in New Orleans' past. The Ogden Museum's executive director, Richard Gruber, lists the creation of Newcomb pottery and the John McGrady School of Art. Don Marshall, director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation (and the original director of the CAC), includes cooperative efforts like the Orleans Gallery, which attracted a young George Dureau and Ida Kohlmeyer. He also notes that NOMA has long had a progressive attitude about including contemporary art, folk art and African art in its collections. The CAC itself is indicative of the growth and viability of contemporary art in the city.
Gruber adds that the biennial is coming on the horizon at a good time for a next step in development. Institutions like the Ogden and National World War II Museum flourished in recent years after incubating slowly during the '90s. The three-month window of the biennial will be a great opportunity for local institutions and artists.
"By focusing on international art, this is making New Orleans an international city again. While this will bring visitors here, we have to show people what we can do, increase our exposure," Marshall says. "We as a community have to get behind this 200 percent. This is an opportunity karma has brought us. We have to anchor this in our community -- and I am referring to education -- you don't want something that comes and goes, comes and goes. You want this to have a year-round effect."
The city has a history with international art exhibitions. One of the first major art survey shows in the country was the "First Exhibition of Artists' Association of New Orleans" held in 1887. It quickly became an international art show held every couple of years in a continuum that became part of the New Orleans Museum of Art, which was founded in 1911 as the Delgado Museum. Impressionist Claude Monet was among the early overseas contributors. The international component predates what many art historians cite as the first international art show in America, New York City's Armory Show in 1913, Cameron says.
Because of Katrina, Prospect1 comes at the perfect time for New Orleans to reconnect with the world beyond the United States. Cameron has already received a very positive response from artists around the world who care about the city. Much in the way musicians found new opportunities to tour after the floodwalls failed, the international art community recognizes the city's cultural richness.
"The desire to help New Orleans is bubbling up to the surface," Cameron says. "Everyone thinks it's a great idea. Momentum is building. I have already heard from museum member boards."
Drawing tourists to the show is vital. The large-scale biennials bring in cultural tourists as well as art world professionals. Traveling museum groups, organized from museum memberships, frequently travel to biennials because of the concentration of high quality shows and the wealth of activities associated with them. The biennials have an overflow quality as satellite events accumulate. Cameron jokes that there is a salon des refuses or counter-biennial tradition in which artists not invited to participate, but who feel that they should have been, create even more shows in the city at the same time. Peripheral events typically include music, dance and theater performances -- rounding out the menu for cultural visitors.
Steve Perry of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau has been leading the charge to shore up the city's leading economic sector. He says Prospect1 "struck me as one of the most important potential events and marketing ideas in years. We always talk about music and food, but we have potential in art that has no limit. We've been aware of these kinds of things, but not immersed in it. This could be a whole new dimension to the city's brand."
As the state continues to market its culture as a resource, art fits right in with the message and market. International visitors are particularly desirable because they tend to be high-end travelers who stay longer and spend more while they're in town, Perry says. In recent international marketing efforts, the NOMCVB has stopped fielding questions about floodwater and is seeing a revived interest in booking tours. Prospect1 will be a major focus of its efforts targeted at the Fall 2008 season, he says.
Cameron and Perry have remarkably similar aims for visitors.
"The agenda is to come here. See a fabulous show, eat some food and hear some music. Have a good time," Cameron says.
Though he had curated shows in New Orleans before, Cameron hadn't seriously contemplated doing a major show in the city. The art scene always seemed to be doing great as it was, he says. With the new dimension of recovery and international interest, however, the time and circumstances seem right.
"New Orleans has a vibrant art community. It's not a high-roller scene. It's perhaps too regional for its own good. There aren't any world-class collectors here. But that's all irrelevant," he says. "The community is dynamic. People are invested in the community. You need a certain number of artists who are dedicated and believe and have each others' backs. New Orleans has all the ingredients, including superb artists, to make this work."