The 51-year-old curator believes in the transformative power of art. He’s helping New Orleans get back on its feet by organizing Prospect 1, which, when it opens in November, will become the largest biennial exhibition ever staged in the United States. Cameron, who worked at New York’s New Museum for Contemporary Art from 1995 to 2005, also served as artistic director of the eighth Istanbul Biennial, in 2003, and curated the Taipei Biennial in 2006. He spoke with Sarah Douglas about his strategy for economic revitalization and why he loves the Big Easy.
Am I right to guess that you have a sentimental attachment to New Orleans?
I’ve been a New Orleans freak for 20 years. I was first lured there by the artist Peter Halley, who went to the University of New Orleans for his master’s degree. I love it in part because it has always been so isolated and has this extraordinary past, and music is one of my great passions.
How soon after Katrina did you get involved?
A week later, the New Orleans gallerist Arthur Roger, who showed Peter Halley 21 years ago, called me from Baton Rouge. He said, “We’re already talking about how we are going to rebuild culturally. And your name came up.”
How did the hurricane affect the city’s art world?
Fifty percent of New Orleans’s artists lost their homes, and dozens lost their life’s work. Many never came back. I became something of a zealot. The impetus for the biennial came during a January 2006 panel discussion I participated in.
[The historian] Doug Brinkley said something that annoyed me. He said—I’m paraphrasing—“When tourism returns to its prestorm levels, then the tourists will begin buying art again, and everything will be OK.” I thought, “That formula is not going to fly.” If you want to help artists in New Orleans and draw positive attention to the city, you have to get real collectors. Tourists buy souvenirs. Collectors buy art. And to get them here is going to take an art fair—which I think would be a major mistake—or a biennial.
Why would a fair have been a mistake?
Trying to compete with Art Basel Miami Beach would be very wrong. And I’m not interested in doing a fair. I’m a biennial curator.
Do you envision Prospect 1 becoming part of the international biennial circuit?
I’ve been adamant about that from the start. That’s one of the reasons there are a lot of household names among the participating artists. I want people to say, “This is really worth making the effort to go.” I think people want to be part of the city’s comeback.
You’ve got Fred Tomaselli and William Kentridge; how many local artists will be featured?
I tried for 10 percent New Orleans representation. I don’t want to show everyone the first time out and then be floundering. One is a Mardi Gras Indian named Victor Harris, who is the Big Chief of a group called Fi Yi Yi. He works in a very Afrocentric style. He’s an incredible figure.
Does the work to be shown respond to the situation in New Orleans?
Yes. This won’t be a quiet or soothing biennial. There will be some strong political statements, and not just about New Orleans but about the war in Iraq and other aspects of our plight in the United States.
How many do you think will attend?
Total attendance of 100,000 is achievable, with 50,000 out-of-state visitors. That would be a huge boost for the economy. It would translate to between $20 million and $30 million. I would like to see us get more than that, and I don’t think there’s a limit. For some weird reason, Americans have turned art savvy.
Art Basel Miami Beach is also a huge social scene. How about New Orleans?
I think the party New Orleans is going to throw to welcome people for Prospect 1 is going to blow the art world’s collective mind.
Prospect 1 sounds challenging, since you plan to stage eight projects in the still-devastated Lower Ninth Ward.
Yes, I am completely reliant on friends, supporters and the City Council. I would not have access by myself. But one thing New Orleanians get right away is when someone loves their city. If you love it and they get that, they give you a lot of rope. People are knocking themselves out to see that there are very few obstacles in my path.
"Conversation with Dan Cameron" originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's July 2008 Table of Contents.