Paul Villinski, Emergency Response Studio, 2008. Travel trailer, solar and wind power systems, and mixed media.

Can Sculpture Save New Orleans? Three Audacious Plans Make an Attempt at Recovery

In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, it was hard to imagine that the Crescent City art world would ever re-emerge as remembered. But the New Orleans art community has proved to be unexpectedly tenacious. Less than two months after Katrina, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art resurrected its series of Thursday night roots music concerts, providing a gathering spot for the artists and art lovers who remained in the dismal, dysfunctional city. The New Orleans Museum of Art and the Contemporary Arts Center overcame wind and water damage, scattered staffs, and reduced audiences to re-open as 2005 gave way to 2006. Art sales in the commercial galleries bounced back with unimaginable vigor—2006 was the best sales season ever for many galleries. And the struggle to rebuild provided artists with a powerful muse.

It was during this period, the long dawning of the city’s recovery, that three wholly unexpected projects took form. Ordinary citizens, concerned with the lack of affordable housing, the need to strengthen levees, and the chaotic school system, may have been surprised to hear that a few visionaries and philanthropists felt that New Orleans’ path to normalcy would be marked with audacious outdoor sculpture.

In January 2006, Dan Cameron, then chief curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, imagined a Venice-style biennial exhibition to attract tourist dollars to the city that he considered a second home. Cameron had made the hugely successful New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival an annual pilgrimage since the mid-1980s. Why couldn’t the Crescent City, long known for its welcoming nature, successfully host the grandest American contemporary art exhibition? His plan was daring but simple. He would count on his reputation as an international art maven to raise the necessary $3.5 million. The money would flow from sources mostly outside of the city. Artists from around the globe would, he was sure, answer his call to participate. Free to the public, the show would be, as Cameron put it, a gift to New Orleans. Jet-set art tourists—the people who fill the halls of Art Basel Miami Beach—would flock to the staggered city. Their money would be a balm. In April 2007, Cameron left the New Museum and devoted himself to the city-wide show, dubbed Prospect.1 New Orleans.