Few can deny the vitality and uniqueness of the New Orleans art scene. Yet recent happenings in the arts community have prompted a dialogue about the Contemporary Arts Center and the state of the arts in New Orleans.
Recent points of conversation include the resignation of Amy Mackie as Director of Visual Arts at the Contemporary Arts Center; artists withdrawing work from the Spaces: Antenna, The Front, Good Children Gallery exhibition in protest after it was closed for five days to earn revenue from renting CAC space to a movie crew; and discussions in the community about the purpose and path of the CAC.
In the comments sections of recent articles on nola.com about these issues, readers have expressed a desire for more information from Mackie about her resignation. When asked by NolaVie for a comment about the CAC and the current state of the arts in New Orleans, Mackie had the following to say:
I have recently re-located to Atlanta, where I am looking forward to connecting with local artists and will be working on independent curatorial and writing projects. My first priority is a book that focuses on the collectively organized, cooperatively run artist spaces in New Orleans. It will be an extension of what was to be the exhibition catalog for Spaces (February 25 – June 10, 2012), my final exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in New Orleans and will additionally include the collectives included in the EXPOSE series at the CAC. The artist-run spaces (Antenna, The Front, Good Children Gallery, Parse Gallery, Staple Goods Collective, T-LOT), alternative spaces (Barrister’s Gallery, HomeSpace, UNO Gallery), and other not-for-profit endeavors (Pelican Bomb and Constance) dominate the creative and intellectual discourse in New Orleans. I’m excited to spend time addressing this history in an attempt to bring greater exposure to the burgeoning art scene in the Crescent City.
After witnessing the vibrancy that Mackie’s oeuvre brought to the CAC for the 15 months she was there, her future projects are sure to contribute to the intellectual discourse about the CAC and art in New Orleans. Though her reasons for leaving remain unclear, one can hope that the center will replace Mackie with a Director of Visual Arts who will move the CAC forward and who will be a champion for New Orleans’ unique and distinctive art scene.
And yet, for now, artists in New Orleans with whom I talked say they are concerned about the CAC. After losing the ally they had in such an artist-centered and innovative curator as Mackie, they worry that the CAC will be unable to fulfill its vision of supporting “contemporary arts, artists, and emerging art forms.”
Throughout history, artists have rebelled against the “hallowed domain” of the museum space, yet have ultimately wanted and needed to enter that domain in order to succeed in sharing their visions with the public and in becoming “successful,” well-known artists. Though this friction between artists and institution has ebbed and waned to varying degrees over the past several decades, some division between artists and museums remains.
However, New Orleans artists are not taking issue with art institutions in general — indeed, many are enthusiastic about the direction in which contemporary arts curator Miranda Lash has led the New Orleans Museum of Art. Rather, some local artists are taking issue with what they perceive as a lack of support for artists and, more specifically, the direction of Executive/Artistic Director Jay Weigel. Under Weigel’s leadership, the CAC has fought an uphill battle for the past several years, through struggles to rebalance the finances of the institution, particularly since Hurricane Katrina; a series of four directors of visual arts over the past decade; and the effects of the financial crisis on fundraising.
The national economic crisis has resulted in a reduction in arts funding on a national basis, while the financial climate in the aftermath of Katrina has shifted funding priorities related to the city and has exacerbated financial issues for New Orelans, a small metropolititan city with only a limited number of financial resources and funders to support a thriving arts environment. The change in Directors of Visual Arts came about as the result of David Rubin leaving after Katrina, the intent of the CAC to have David Houston and Dan Cameron serve merely as short-term directors, and Mackie staying for 15 months.
In a recent conversation with Weigel, he stated that one does not sustain a career in the arts unless one is passionate about the arts and those who create art. He expressed genuine concern about the fate of the CAC and its ability to support its artists.
Weigel stressed that he is committed to the institution and its artists. With regard to Mackie’s recent departure, he has plans to include many of her ideas into the strategic plan, so that the continuation of her ideas will be driven by the institution rather than various directors or leaders. Weigel and the CAC will also proceed with Mackie’s Expose series by continuing to use the unique space of the St. Joseph Street windows to exhibit art, and they will continue the NOLA NOW online artist database, which will act as a tool to enable current and future audiences to access and learn about the CAC and New Orleans artists.
In addition, as noted in her comments above, Mackie will independently produce a book planned as the exhibition catalogue for the Spaces exhibition, while the CAC will produce a catalogue documenting the role the center has played in the development of art in New Orleans and in the Warehouse District. These plans will to some degree fulfill the CAC’s mission of presenting, producing, and promoting the art of our time.
Though some might call for a change in CAC leadership, few can deny that the institution has, for 35 years, helped propel New Orleans art forward. With a new Director of Visual Arts who will play an active role in promoting New Orleans art and artists as a significant part of the fabric of contemporary art, adherence to a new strategic plan that includes Mackie’s practices and visions, and shifts in leadership that will better support New Orleans artists, the CAC should continue to serve as a strong New Orleans art institution.
If you have want to be a part of the dialogue about the future of the CAC and art in New Orleans, join the conversation about its future, which will continue on Wednesday night (April 25, 2012) with Pelican Bomb’s “Future Forward: A Panel Discussion” at the Joan Mitchell Center.