Can art save a city?" So began a glowing article on the Prospect.1 biennial in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's magazine, Preservation. Even if it sounds far-fetched, it may not really be much of a stretch. Prospect.1 is the most obvious example, but it's not the only ambitious art effort designed to reclaim New Orleans' greatness. Although our art scene has long been bigger and more vibrant than those of many other cities, we were often insulated from both the global cultural elite and the backstreet communities of the inner city. That began to change in 2008, as the art world's leaders visited en masse and artists increasingly focused attention on our most neglected neighborhoods.
"It's almost like being in some other city," says gallery owner Arthur Roger. "There's a fresh, new energy here now." Jonathan Ferrara, of the gallery that bears his name, agrees. "I was at Prospect.1's booth at the Art Basel art fair, and the people who were coming up and discussing their experiences here were some of the top names in the international art world. It was amazing." Of course, the Wall Street crash that preceded Prospect.1's opening undoubtedly hampered attendance and cash flow, yet it and other projects designed with socio-economic benefits in mind, have still been game changers as reflected in glowing stories in The New York Times, The New Yorker, London's The Guardian, Art Daily, Artforum and on NPR's All Things Considered, among others. Prospect.1 is the most visible part of a movement of America's brightest and most creative citizens to come to the city to help "make it right," as Brad Pitt so aptly put it.
Consequently, New Orleans is now the leading American city for "relational" or "community-based art," with many new projects building on old stalwarts such as the KID smART program for inner-city youth and the Arts Council's varied initiatives. One of the most ambitious is acclaimed conceptual artist Mel Chin's Fundred project for removing the lead from soil estimated to have poisoned 30 percent of New Orleans' at-risk youth, contributing to learning disabilities, crime and violence. Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research scientist Howard Mielke estimates the cleanup cost at $300 million, and Chin has already given countless hours and many thousands of dollars to the task. (Visit www.fundred.org for more information.)
Inspired community art efforts include the St. Claude Collective's art and healing center at 2372 St. Claude Ave., the Creative Alliance of New Orleans' Colton School project at 2300 St. Claude Ave., a Prospect.1 site that also provides free studio and exhibition space to more than 100 artists who agreed to create collaborative works with New Orleans high school students. The project Sculpture for New Orleans treats the city as one big exhibition space and has so far installed 21 major world-class sculptures to enhance its position as a global art capital. AORTA Projects uses grassroots art installations to enliven the post-disaster landscape so "crisis becomes an opportunity for positive growth" — a goal shared by Transforma Projects, which has the motto: "Every community needs the creative power of its people." What these and related groups share is a sense of New Orleans as an artwork unto itself, where the creative community is actively engaged in what Seventh Ward art activist Willie Birch calls "the practice of being here."
Finally, it should be noted that, due to some upcoming format changes, this will be the last edition of "Inside Art" as a weekly art review column. It has been an amazing 16-year run, and I am forever grateful to have been given the privilege of covering one of the world's great art communities in a great American weekly newspaper. It has truly been an honor and a joy. Thanks to all of you for making it such a profoundly gratifying experience.