Prospect 3, the third edition of the art biennial founded in New Orleans in 2008, opened to the press Thursday afternoon with something of a late start. “In true New Orleans fashion,” Franklin Sirmans, the exhibition’s artistic director, said at the opening press conference at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, “I stayed out too late last night. I don’t have any notes.” (Sirmans proceeded to make an epic, Julia Roberts-accepting-the-Academy Award-level speech wherein he thanked all of his former employers, his wife and child, told a story about his father, identified all of the participating artists so everyone else could applaud them, teared up a little with a story about the late artist Terry Adkins, then took some questions from the crowd, which–considering that nobody in the crowd had seen any art yet, didn’t go so well. The first question was if “lefty liberal” art critics were destroying the “magic of art.” Sirmans could only shrug.)
There’s art spread out all over the city for Prospect, which opens to the public on Saturday and runs through January 25. Work by 58 artists is installed in 18 venues that range from the New Orleans Museum of Art to the Mississippi River itself. Thursday afternoon, I caught up with a sleepy-looking Sirmans at the Contemporary Art Center, where an excellent group show featuring artists like Theaster Gates, Glenn Kaino, Amalia Saban, and a truly remarkable local painter named Douglas Bourgeois, whose oil painting Del Rey and Womack features Lana Del Rey and Bobby Womack performing together on the surface of the moon and was alone worth the trip down here.
M.H. Miller: I wanted to start with your thoughts on what an American biennial should do–what its goals are and how those differ from any other biennial.
I think that what differentiates the conversation between these places that have these types of exhibitions–the only thing that differentiates them is where they are. It’s usually the same people doing them anyway, right? In order for them to be interesting–I know this is true for the founding of Prospect, and I think it’s true even for the Venice Biennale–that it’s about putting forward a view of the world that comes from that place. It comes directly out of commerce, and those expositions like the World’s Fairs. Venice being located where it’s located was very much about trade routes and travel. It probably was a great place to start a certain conversation. I mean, here, I was just talking to a barber and he was telling me how New Orleans is a really unique place. Everybody knows it. It’s a really distinct place, and I think it has a lot to show people. I think that it also is a real microcosm for this country–politically, socially, geographically. The founder of Prospect originated it here in the wake of something. Just like Documenta in Germany–after something big, something really, really big that needs to be made sense of. And art, and the ideas around art, are a way of doing that.
Is it important to you to stake a claim for New Orleans as an important art city?
Yeah, but I think it’s more pivotal for the site of an American biennial because of how unique it is. It was a major, major city 200 years ago. And it’s not anymore. It’s gone through many different phases. Part of the narrative is also that right down the road is Plessy v. Ferguson. You know? Right here. At the end of the 19th century you have people saying just because of the color of your skin, you guys shouldn’t be together, you shouldn’t talk to each other. You can’t even sit together. So it comes from that, too.
In the U.S. art world, where everything is either about New York or Los Angeles, this is obviously not the first place that comes to mind as a major art center.
At the press conference you were talking about The Moviegoer, which has been very influential in organizing this event, and you mentioned there were things that were true about America in 1961 when that book was published that are still basically true today.
One of the unique things about this city, because of its history and its nature as a musical place and a place of celebration–like, people come here just to celebrate alone–is that you put people in the same space. You walk down Bourbon Street at midnight on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, you see people from all over the world next to each other, sweating on each other, dancing with each other. Frenchman Street, same thing. But then what happens after that? I feel like here it’s the most stratified city. I don’t know how you came over here from Ashe, but if you go on Oretha Castle Haley for any distance, you can see it’s pretty tough. But if you take St. Charles, you’re in a completely different world. And that’s a very American concept. You look at all these poles that develop around so many different things. Like, should men be allowed to marry other men. And people are split up, like 50/50 about this! And it’s like, what the fuck is wrong? Really? This is a 50/50 situation? But I think that’s kind of how we are. It’s a great place to explore those kinds of things. It’s a progressive city on one hand, and in a lot of ways it’s not at all. There are so many different dichotomies that make it an interesting place to explore ideas that pertain to America, but also this one place in particular.
How do you go about organizing something of this size? How do you decide what goes where?
Some artists we said, this is going to work here, it’s perfect for you. Other artists, we sent down 10 or 15 artists down here and said, whatever. Take the tour for two days and see what you think. There are other artists, to be perfectly honest, that went through this same process and they found a venue they wanted and then for reasons of this being New Orleans: the building sold, or the place went bankrupt. Part of it is about improvising.