Initially postponed by Covid-19 and further delayed by Hurricane Ida, Prospect.5 New Orleans–a contemporary art triennial–has finally found its footing, spreading out over the city, bringing new art to an old place. In the process, it’s organizers, venues and artists have had to demonstrate, once more, a characteristic which has become cliché.
“I feel like the word ‘resilient’ is sort of banned in relation to New Orleans because it's so overused, but every time a crisis happens, you see the evidence of why that word applies to the city and you're seeing it again now,” Executive Director of Prospect New Orleans Nick Stillman told Forbes.com.
Instead of debuting the triennial’s projects en masse as had been planned prior to Hurricane Ida’s landfall in Louisiana on August 29, Prospect 5 transitioned to staggered openings over several weeks beginning in late October.
“Everything changed after the hurricane,” Stillman said. “We took something that had been solid for a year or more and recreated the visitor experience in like 10 days.”
Festivities originally scheduled for the event’s opening weekend including a gala and artists’ party along with talks and performances have been moved to closing weekend, January 22nd and 23rd, 2022.
“It was clearly impossible to open a show of 51 artists and something like 18 venues all at the same time on October 23 as originally planned and the reason is that we were at the point where we were dependent on framers and fabricators and electricians, and after the hurricane, those people were either evacuated, or if they didn't evacuate, they were without power for, in many cases, 10 days to two weeks,” Stillman said. “We couldn't ethically ask these people to transform their lives and take their focus away from their family, and whether or not their business still has a roof and ask them to worry about us.”
True to New Orleans’ spirit, Prospect.5 has found a silver lining in the disruption.
“(Staggered openings) gives us an opportunity to slow down and celebrate each individual venue, each individual artist in ways that are just not possible when we're opening everything simultaneously,” Stillman said.
Prospect.5’s final major project premieres in January.
Birthed from Katrina
Prospect New Orleans was born out of the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The local arts community asked itself what role it could play in rebuilding the city? The idea for a major, city-wide, international arts event on the scale of biennials and triennials held in Venice, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Taipei and Istanbul was adopted.
In New Orleans, where enduring environmental catastrophe comes with the lifestyle, you either move on or move out. They’ve found the best way to move on is to celebrate.
“There's a kind of freedom that comes when you know that (natural disasters) will happen; I think that freedom plays out in the way the city celebrates,” Stillman, who moved to New Orleans from New York 10 years ago, said. “I think the reason that New Orleans is so specifically and beautifully celebratory in the way that cultural traditions have been passed down and revered and really held on to here, all of that is at least related to the fact that things happen in New Orleans.”
Those “things” this time around included not only Hurricane Ida, but a severe first wave of Covid-19 and successive impacts from the Covid-19 Delta variant.
“The goal of Prospect.5 is to bring people joy–I don’t think it’s larger than that,” Stillman said. “Prospect.5 is about giving New Orleans something to celebrate when the city really needs that.”
He also aspires to have the event fill what he describes as “glaring holes” in the city’s cultural calendar.
“Jazz Fest has been canceled, French Quarter Festival has been canceled, BUKU (Music + Art Project) has been canceled, Voodoo (Music + Arts Experience) has been cancelled, these are huge cultural phenomena that are part of the rhythm of the city,” Stillman laments. “With all of that gone and with all that gone last year too, I think we feel a real sense of responsibility and determination to step up.”
P.5: “Yesterday, we said tomorrow”
Prospect New Orleans’ 5th edition takes its title and inspiration from local jazz musician Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s 2010 album “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow.”
Inherent in the moniker is the deferral of meaningful change. New Orleans and Louisiana have experienced more than their fair share of that.
America’s “Cancer Ally” can be found not far from The Big Easy, a death zone in largely Black communities created by the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries which dominate the area. Louisiana has long been the most heavily incarcerated place in the world. The world. Police violence runs rampant. Louisiana’s remarkable wetlands have been disappearing for decades as a result of numerous man-made factors.
Louisiana and New Orleans are ground zero for the disastrous impacts of climate change and systemic racism.
The artists and ideas that define Prospect.5 confront the delay, or avoidance, of changes favoring equality and sustainability, and the stark realities of history, while also suggesting a different future remains possible.
All of these conversations unfold throughout New Orleans, providing a perfect opportunity to experience the city beyond its touristy French Quarter. New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods and experiencing Prospect asks visitors to traverse the city’s network of neighborhoods with venues ranging from the traditional, like museums, to public spaces to non-art venues.
“Prospect is so at one with the architecture and the streets and the idiosyncratic nature of how this city exists and was built,” Stillman said. “A biennial or triennial that is spread throughout space in a city is a relatively distinct phenomenon and to also have one of those that exists in a city as beautifully strange as New Orleans is what makes us special.”
After experiencing New Orleans’ charms and delights outside of the French Quarter, the city becomes more authentic, less theme park. Richer. More compelling. A real place with real people. History and culture found no where else in the world. A foreign country on domestic soil.
Organizers recommend having a car and allowing two full days to see the entire exhibition. Prospect is free to the public except for the venues that regularly charge admission. Find full information on Prospect.5 venues here.
A spectacular catalogue is available for those unable to attend.
Elsewhere in New Orleans
Searching out the Prospect.5 venues will have visitors crossing Poydras Street where new artworks have been installed along the Poydras Corridor Sculpture Exhibition. Hurricane Ida’s damage extended to New Orleans’ considerable public art projects and the Poydras Corridor Sculpture Exhibition will be refreshed with a total of five new pieces this fall.