Future Forward: A Document

The Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans was founded in 1976. How should it move forward in 2012?

Editor's Note

As many of our readers know, Pelican Bomb hosted a multidisciplinary panel about the future of the Contemporary Arts Center back in April. As the CAC prepares for its own open meeting on June 11 as part of the final stages of a strategic planning process, Pelican Bomb offers an edited transcription of the panel held at the Joan Mitchell Center. It was a difficult decision as to how to best deal with the nearly two hours of discussion. Here you’ll find an abridged, more reader-friendly document. For those of you more aurally inclined, you can link to the full recording.

Cameron Shaw, editor of Pelican Bomb: For the last year, Pelican Bomb has served as a place for criticism and public discourse on the web about the visual arts in New Orleans. In this spirit of open dialogue, we’re here to discuss the future of the Contemporary Arts Center at a time of institutional transition.

Like Pelican Bomb, I’m a relatively new addition to the visual arts landscape in New Orleans. In trying to assemble a diverse multidisciplinary panel, I talked to dozens of people—some I speak to regularly and some were completely new to me. One thing that surprised me in my many conversations was the number of people who had close ties to the CAC—now and in the past—people who had worked there, served on the board, put on a show, or taken part in a residency program. The sheer number of artists and administrators who have maintained relationships, however brief, with the institution is a measure of its presence in the city.

The panel tonight reflects the breadth of some of these relationships. I’ve called on this panel to think about the CAC’s history and to speak about its future potential. But we can’t ignore the present. Something on many people’s minds is the series of events following the resignation of Amy Mackie as Director of Visual Arts. Responding in part to Mackie’s untimely departure and the CAC’s decision to disrupt the “Spaces” show she curated with a movie rental, a number of artists in the show initiated protest actions.

Bob, both you and Dan removed your work from the CAC and reinstalled it at the Healing Center. Bob, you also created the wiki site, amalgamated.info, which has collected many of the open letters written by artists to Executive Director Jay Weigel [Weigel has since resigned] and the CAC board. Can you talk a little bit about the goal of that site?

Bob Snead, visual artist and board treasurer of Antenna/Press Street: The goal was mainly to give artists a voice. In talking to a lot of artists who have been involved in the community here, they have various issues with the CAC. I wanted to give the current issues a voice, so I started the site...just as simple as that.

CS: Jan, can you speak to the lessons learned from the protest actions from an institutional standpoint moving forward?

Jan Gilbert, visual artist and CAC Interim Director of Visual Arts: Since I’ve only been on board with the CAC formally as Interim Director for two or three weeks, I asked Jay if he could comment on this. [Begins reading a statement] “Whenever there are changes that affect current projects the CAC has always used two means of communicating information. First, the general public is made aware by the marketing department—e-blast or the CAC website are typical vehicles. Second, the individual department head is responsible for communicating with the artists involved, whether performing artists or visual artists. Moving forward, we will work harder to ensure that the communication is carried out thoroughly and properly so that everyone is aware of any changes to the CAC’s schedule as much in advanced as possible. We will continue to protect the artistic spaces as much as possible.”

CS: Clifton, as part of the group of artists who founded the CAC, can you speak to the climate that precipitated the need for a multidisciplinary arts center in the city and what parallels, if any, you see to today?

Clifton Webb, visual artist and co-founder of the CAC: Energy was in the air 36 years ago. There was vibrancy with people making things, but the scene was limited at that particular time mostly to galleries on Royal Street. Artists were, of course, producing as they always are, but it was Bob Tannen who decided to stretch out and do the kind of things he did in a space that he rented himself. And there were other artists doing things that were less traditional. They were producing things that were, let’s say, not so gallery-friendly. A few of us got together and started talking about this and how to make it feel real. We wanted to create a place for the kind of work that wouldn’t necessarily be seen in the galleries.

CS: Do you think the CAC is still functioning to serve this purpose?

CW: After seeing the Thornton Dial show at NOMA, that is the kind of exhibition that the CAC would have put on. The CAC is still doing some interesting things, however, it was at one time a space where things were a bit more unusual. They were stretching the point more than seems to be the case now.

Now you have new energy, although a lot of the new energy is doing the same thing that was being done 30 or 40 years ago. But it’s new energy nonetheless, and I see some parallels because the energy needs to be focused. It needs to be directed. The same kind of energy was in the air 36 years ago, but there’s so much more now. There are so many more artists. This could precipitate something interesting that includes the CAC, but for sure it goes beyond the CAC.

CS: Dan, thinking about the energy that is in the air in New Orleans, what’s the obligation of a contemporary arts center to exhibiting local visual artists and what’s the benefit to local artists when a center can bring in shows of national and international significance?

Dan Tague, visual artist and founding member of Good Children Gallery: I think it’s a good point to mention the idea of international and national artists. I would say before Prospect this was probably not a destination where artists would come to live. They would pass through grad schools and leave or come here then leave. Now, there’s just so much more energy—so many more artists—because it’s becoming a destination for art. Many of the newcomers though didn’t realize how potentially nepotistic and how disengaged from the rest of the world this place can be.

New Orleans seems like this place of intense energy where there are artists everywhere and there are co-ops and collectives and that’s how the CAC originally started. At some point, the CAC has to become an institution that can compare with other places because we have international attention. Otherwise, that attention could just fade away.

CS: Can you be more specific about the benefit for local artists when we have international shows here?

DT: Not to live in a vacuum, so that you see parallels between what happens in the rest of the world and what’s happening here. Because it is! And we’re all humans and for the most part in the art world we all go to schools and we’re trained the same way and then we have our takes on it. Whether our response is a “screw you” to that training or an embracing of that idea and carrying it on further, we need to have a dialogue with the bigger art world than we’re having now.

I don’t want to see New Orleans as a place where a lot of great artists come and they just leave or they’re from here and go. A great example is Rashaad Newsome—a great artist who just really blew up as soon as he left. I don’t want it to be that place because right now it just seems to have this momentum. I think New Orleans is right at the cusp. It can go straight down or it can just keep going up. I think we’re at a really pivotal point where we either decide things have to change or we accept the status quo and it is just the same five years from now as it was ten years ago.

CS: Maritza, this summer you'll work with Anne Bogart's SITI Company, which is known both for its commitment to international collaboration and its multidisciplinary approach to theater. How specifically can institutions like the CAC help foster international and interdisciplinary collaboration in New Orleans?

Maritza Mercado-Narcisse, dancer, choreographer, and teaching artist: One of the main things that dance artists in the city talk about is this lack of space for us to put on classes or present work. We’re alienated from the spaces themselves. Most of us are small, independent companies. We get together to do shows. We dance in each other’s shows and at times we are able to participate in multidisciplinary things. For example, I was able to be part of ArtSpot Production’s pieces, and that’s a very multidisciplinary, collaborative effort.

As independent choreographers we need space. If we’re gonna produce a show, we’ve gotta fundraise for it, we’ve gotta write grants for it, we’ve gotta beg for a couple of days, we’ve gotta fit in between whatever the major other productions are at these various spaces. Then what ends up happening is we do all of this fundraising and raise all this money and everyone else gets paid except the dancers. Part of it is because we have to pay so much for rental space.

It feels like either we need to get much more creative about work with the other disciplines or we need to get much more creative about figuring out how to present to these spaces what we’re doing. People hardly know that dance exists in New Orleans because it takes so much effort for us to get a damn show going! It’s so much work! I’m sure that’s the case for all disciplines but it seems particularly difficult for dancers. So I think before we can even think about multidisciplinary collaborations, I feel like we first have to figure out how to get people to understand it starts with space. We need residencies. We need space!

CS: Will, with the loss of dedicated space for the Southern Rep this year, and recent closures and suspensions elsewhere in the city affecting even established companies and organizations, what’s the level of access for newer companies and independent directors to professional stage space?

William Bowling, writer, performer, and co-founder of Goat in the Road Productions: Well, I think this echos Maritza’s points. It’s minimal, especially with the loss of Southern Rep’s dedicated space, before that the loss of Le Petite, the loss of Le Chat Noir. It leaves smaller independent companies with very few options as far as rentals are concerned. As far as dedicated professional theater space, there are a few remaining options on the table. For example, the Marigny Theatre or the Always Lounge Theater currently, the rental facility at NOCCA. There are always facilities within universities but those are difficult to acquire and require serious finances, which is a more systemic problem to the performing arts and theater community in New Orleans. So that has then shifted our spotlight and our focus on these smaller and emerging groups who are dedicated to transforming non-traditional theater spaces into theater spaces. For example, the work that the Fringe Festival is currently doing in the locations that they’re using, the new Mid-City theater, which is a smaller and non-traditional space.

And while this lack of dedicated rehearsal and performance space is one of the many systemic issues facing the larger performing arts community in New Orleans that I think the CAC can speak directly to and be involved in, they are on a larger scale citywide and national issues. That includes the lack of general operating support and a national climate of dwindling foundation, philanthropic, and arguably federal support for the performing arts, especially emerging groups dedicated to “risky,” experimental, ensemble-created work. There’s definitely a lack of institutional advocacy for emerging artists and new contemporary performance work that’s being done in the city, but also a lack of advocacy for that on a national and regional scale.

CS: Speaking about this issue of rental space, I can’t help but think of the CAC’s 200-person theater in addition to two rehearsal spaces, one of which is being currently rented out. It seems like you don’t feel that these spaces are accessible. Could you imagine a best-practices system by which smaller theater companies would feel like these spaces are accessible?

WB: I certainly can. I also understand some of the unique challenges that face the Center and much of this is related to the current conversation on the role of special event rentals and then operating the building in general. I can’t pretend to speak on behalf of the theater community at large, but I did poll several artistic directors of other companies in the city. There is a perception almost uniformly over the past few years that the CAC isn’t even on the radar for local experimental work because it isn’t being presented there on a national scale on a regular basis.

Many companies who tried to approach the space for use were disappointed to realize the limitations of it. Again much of that has to do with the fact that as theater producers and performing artists, dance included, our productions require longer runs and rentals of the facility. It’s not just load in, load out, or even a one-week engagement. Many times it’s two, three, four weeks at a time. So that’s a challenge in running any multidisciplinary space.

CS: Two things that have come up are money and the role that rentals play in the CAC. Bob, In examining the CAC's tax records you found that membership dues had steadily declined in the years since 2006, while NOMA had experienced an increase over a similar period. How do you see these numbers as significant to this conversation that we’re having about lack of funds?

BS: So I have a question for the audience first: how many of you guys are members of the CAC? Just raise your hand. [Hands are raised in the audience.] So that’s maybe—I don’t know, what would you guys say?

Audience: Half!

BS: That’s just an informal poll, but shouldn’t everyone in here be a member of the CAC? We’re all concerned about the CAC; we should all be members. The problem is that the lack of focus on programing has made it to where people don’t want to invest even at the base level of the organization. If you look at the numbers of the CAC membership—I haven’t seen their financial statement, but from the public tax records, since Katrina, it’s steadily declined. You could certainly blame the economy. I should say first that the CAC’s numbers have been under $200,000 raised in memberships. NOMA on the other hand had $600,000 in membership in 2009; then they doubled it in 2010. So $1.2 million in memberships alone! If you think about what’s going on at NOMA, you have this clear investment in programming, where the CAC doesn’t have that clear focus on programming. Even if it is 50 percent of this audience who are members of the CAC, that means 50 percent of the caring public is not willing to give $35 to the organization because they don’t see where it’s going to benefit.

CS: Jan, thinking about the programming that’s happening in the visual arts department, before Amy’s departure, she had a number of shows scheduled, including the traveling show “Where Do We Migrate To,” and shows by Shinique Smith, Jennie C. Jones, and Nicole Eisenmann. What’s the status of these exhibitions, and if they are not taking place, what are the plans for generating new exhibitions?

JG: I’m very happy to say that the “Where Do We Migrate To” exhibition, which is an international, multidisciplinary exhibition, is going to be opening during Art for Arts' Sake. It was previously scheduled for June but it’s going to be opening in October. At present, the Nicole Eisenmann and a couple of the shows that you mentioned are currently on hold pending the hiring of a new director. It will be his or her decision to continue that programming.

CS: Are you doing any focusing on programming at this point and generating new exhibitions?

JG: Yeah, we’re excited. Some of the ideas were already in place such as the Expose galleries in the St. Joseph Street windows. Another planned program is the Emerge Program, for which we were just awarded $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. That is a multidisciplinary program which will take place in the round gallery. Also theater programs, particularly children’s theater but not only children’s theater, as well as music performances, are moving forward. We’ve applied to a couple of large grants. We were invited to apply to the Rauschenberg Foundation this week.

CS: Dan, besides exhibitions what programming and resources can a contemporary arts center provide that would be valuable to local artists?

DT: What resources?

CS: Yeah, resources—programming, talks. I was talking to someone in Atlanta this weekend and she was saying that once a month the Contemporary Art Center in Atlanta hosts artists’ talks. I was thinking, "Wow, we don’t have a whole lot of artists talks."

DT: We used to!

CS: I know! And I’m asking what do you think are some of the other program initiatives like artists’ talks, or rather reinstating artists’ talks, that could be valuable.

DT: There was a lot of that taking place on a small budget before ArtSpeak even happened at the CAC. Louisiana ArtWorks also did some amazing panels with artists featuring local, national, and international directors, museum heads, writers, and other speakers. I mean anyone you can possibly think of. Those panels were phenomenal.

I just want to see better programming, to see money being put to better use. For example, I don’t see where $420,000 in marketing goes at the CAC to build revenue when the revenue is $120,000. Who spends four times more in marketing than you make? That’s alarming.

Woman in the audience: You said the purpose is to build revenue for...?

DT: That’s what it says, yes, and that figure doesn’t include advertising or the website. That’s a different $21,000 according to the tax statement. And $900,000 in salaries for an institution that size? Holy shit!

JG: I’d like to say first, going back to ArtSpeak and the idea of programs, there’s something I didn’t mention. ArtSpeak is going to resume as part of the Emerge Project with a multidisciplinary approach this time.

Regarding the CAC budgets, I did ask for a few financials because again, I’m new. Using the complete fiscal year of 2011, the CAC spent $489,221 on its visual arts program and $426,000 on the performing arts program. In the 14 months that Amy Mackie was director, while rebuilding local and national support for visual arts programming, general operating funds were used to fund exhibitions, visual arts staff, and visual arts overhead. The hospitality sales program generated $385,585 net revenue in the 2011 fiscal year.

Woman in the audience: What’s hospitality sales?

BS: That would be events, rentals, and that kind of stuff.

CS: Thinking about rentals, the fourth floor of the CAC is currently inhabited by a single tenant with complete use of the floor. Bob, how would you imagine this space put to better use to serve artists and the community and can you reconcile the CAC's demonstrated need for additional income with a better use of this space?

BS: I thought about this extensively when we were installing the “Spaces” show at the CAC. It seems there’s a tremendous lack of educational outreach at the CAC, which I’ve talked to Jan about and also a couple of the board members. That fourth floor could be used for educational programming and it would then fund itself.

The organization that I was a part of in Charleston, Redux, just did this massive expansion for their educational program. They have this whole new wing that’s just education and that funds a large portion of the institution. They may make $100,000 in people paying to actually take a class or whatever it is, but then there’s also the added benefits of grants that you can get for education that you can’t get if you don’t have that programming. You could use that floor for education or you could use it for a residency. Again, the residency program could be paid, so it could fund itself.

It’s not really a hard thing to focus on your mission and develop programming that folds into that mission and utilizes the space that you have. It’s a beautiful space that’s been given to the CAC. Of course I know it takes a lot to keep it going. Of course the facility costs are outrageous, but you can get those things through your audience base. Going back to the membership idea, you have to have people who are willing to invest. With education, people will take classes and you’ll sell memberships. The CAC needs to get back to this grassroots thing that happened 35 years ago. It’s gotten away from that. It’s no longer an organization that feels a part of the community.

CS: Clifton, to speak to that issue a little bit, how would you describe the original mission of the CAC and do you feel that the legacy of the original mission is being upheld?

CW: For all artists of whatever discipline and for any number of you here in the audience, you know what you have to do with regard to making things: you make it work. I think this is a time when the CAC is on the carpet,** **however, I think the issue is much bigger than this. It’s about the culture of New Orleans. We need to see what we can do to make this institution work.

At the same time, given the mission that was the case some years ago that was providing a space for things that didn’t have a place, that were too large, or quirky, or outrageous. It sounds like this is a time for this to happen again. The artists say, “let’s make this happen.” You don’t inquire about how much it costs. You get out there and you do it. Those Ninth Ward galleries, they just went out there and did it. Now our city—our arts community—is in need of taking a big step forward and looking at the unique nature of this city—a city that embraces its music and its African origins in particular. Its food? It’s thriving, not because anybody necessarily brought in any funds, it’s because people are doing it in their spaces, they’re doing it in their houses, they’re doing it at their churches, they’re doing it at their community spaces. The same thing could apply to the creative world—the art world. I think we’re at a crossroads where we need to step up. We need to think outside of the box.

This is a unique place, this is not a place like other places, and I’m sure its uniqueness is what attracted so many of you here. Now it’s time to stand up and act out in the spirit of New Orleans and some of that uniqueness to find new missions based on what we’re all about, what the nature of this city is all about—this pulsating, this rhythm that the city has. Just as if we’re trying to make our art make sense, we have to embrace the nature of this city. And the rest of the people who maybe could participate in regards to funds, they’re waiting on us. We’re the creative minds. They’re waiting on us to turn them on.

WB: I wanted to go back a little bit to the fourth floor issue and using that space for different program functions. Especially in a climate where arts organizations around the country are folding, it is certainly the right of every organization to develop an earned income revenue stream. And the CAC has surprisingly been in a somewhat healthy position in comparison to other institutions across the country. However, when an earned income revenue stream comes in perception to predominate instead of an art center’s mission, vision, values, and focus then we have a real problem. Whether or not it’s true, I think there’s a perception now that we have an institution who is building programming around an annual budget instead of an annual budget around programming.

CS: Let’s then talk a little bit about where we can look for models. This question is open to anyone, but Maritza, I’m specifically curious about what are some of the specific models that we can look to in the US that provide working examples for best practices in the relationship between institutions and dance companies and independent choreographers.

MMN: I’m gonna name two, one I’ve actually visited and one I just visit on the internet. I’ve never been to the Walker Art Center but I’m on their mailing list and I read their blog and I go to their website a lot. It’s in Minneapolis, which seems like the coolest place in the world. Ralph Lemon is there! I would go to Minneapolis to see Ralph Lemon. Bill T. Jones is there. All of these amazing companies—European and national companies. Stephen Petronio was there before he came to New Orleans and when he finally came to New Orleans he was at NOCCA not the CAC. The Walker has this amazing dance season where they not only have all of these national and international choreographers coming in to have residencies and create work and teach classes and do art talks and that kind of thing. They have that, but then they also have this whole series where the artists who live in and around that area also have a season of sorts. They seem to be able to get those national and international choreographers connected with the local performers in their area.

Then there’s Jacob’s Pillow, which I have had the pleasure of participating in a few times. They have their season, a huge summer festival which is, I think, the biggest one for dance. Then throughout the year they have a bunch of different internships.

I got to participate in a residency. I went up there for two weeks and got keys to the door of the theater. If you’re not a dancer or dance geek, it’s this amazing space. They said, "Here are the keys, here’s a place to live. Get yourself up here and pay for your food. Make work! You don’t have to have anything complete at the end of it but if you do we’ll come and take a look at it." That two weeks, post-Katrina, led to an opportunity to come back and perform on their stage. So it’s the seeds of something. You know, I got two weeks and was able come back with a group of students and perform. Those students in turn have gone back and are now in major companies. It spreads and that’s possible. I mean people are coming here all the time and dancers are showing up from all of these places. I think the CAC has the potential to grow and create and support in that way.

CS: Would anyone else like to speak to this issue of models, best practices?

WB: I can only speak to best practices in the performing arts, not to visual arts. There are a lot of organizations and certainly festivals on the performing arts side that use what’s called a “third model:” one third regional, one third national, one third international. The Wexner Center in Columbus is among them and certainly the Walker in Minnesota, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, and the MCA in Chicago, which are all institutions that are of a similar size organizationally to the CAC and are programming in a way that some of us would like to see our Center do as well.

The difference here, I think, and this is specific to the theater community, is these institutions have multiple points of curatorial authority, which is to say that the functions of an artistic director and an executive director are two different things. That doesn’t mean you can’t have someone fulfilling both rolls, because all of these institutions do. But under those positions they have multiple points of curatorial authority—associate curators—that are responsible for discipline-specific curation. Something I’ve found talking to theater artists around the city is that there seems to be a lack of performing arts expertise, other than music, happening in the CAC currently. As a result there’s a lack of transparency and accountability for who the single contact is and how things are accessed and approached.

While the Center could be providing local artists with rehearsal space and performance space and producing local theater, let’s not forget that the Center is not a community center. It is a national presenter and should be presenting in that way. So the role of a performing arts center in addition to seeking out works that are local is also to bring contemporary work here that we don’t normally get to see. There are very few institutions in New Orleans that are doing really provocative, edgy programming. With the exception of things like the Fringe Festival, we don’t get to see that kind of work on a regular basis. When it does come to town, it only propels the work that’s done and created here; it only makes it that much better, it only strengthens it. Performing arts curators can also act as advocates for local performing artists by commissioning works and offering residencies, which also fulfills other mission-related requirements such as education and outreach. They can also advocate for performing arts on a national level by leveraging resources, by establishing relationships with other national presenters, and making sure that work that is built here gets seen outside of New Orleans—gets seen regionally and nationally—because that’s what really is going to strengthen our community.

BS: I want to speak to that for the visual arts too. That was a big complaint in all of the letters that were written to the board. We want to see stuff that we would normally have to travel to New York to see. We want that here, so that we won’t have to pay for that plane ticket to Minneapolis or travel to Houston.

Locally, we have our own organizations—or at least the St. Claude people do—we see local people all the time. We see it all the time and we love every bit of it, but we want the CAC to show us things that we can’t see on St. Claude or anywhere in the city. I want to be able to say, “Hey, did you go see that Francis Alÿs show at the CAC? Holy shit, that’s awesome!” I want to do that but it’s not happening right now and from what I understand—I’m a transplant, I’m fairly new to the city—but it hasn’t happened in a long time.

CS: Bob, you mentioned Francis Alÿs, and I used to work with his gallery. A Francis Alÿs show is very expensive to bring to your town. In your experience as Founding Director of Redux, what were some of the creative methods that you used to help develop audiences and financial support for that burgeoning organization that could be applied to an organization like the CAC?

BS: Redux is more like the St. Claude galleries than the CAC in a lot of ways. It was a grassroots organization, and it’s changed a lot since I’ve been there. It’s now more on the level of the CAC and that’s because it has really focused on its base. The fundraising, for instance, of the organization: Every year there’s an art auction for Redux. Every year, every artist in the entire city gives something. It raises a huge chunk of their budget and everyone is more than willing to give to Redux for that because they have always made it their focus to really work with people on a local level. And I think that the CAC has alienated people in a lot of ways because of its lack of communication and transparency, which I know Jan has spoken to but the current leadership there has had 17 years to learn. They should really know how to communicate and be transparent.

I was looking at CAM Houston’s website before I came over. They have a couple of really ambitious shows up right now. And they have listed probably 100 people who have given to these shows. They list every single donor, even anonymous donors. They have this grassroots feel that everyone matters, even in their fundraising for the organization. That’s lacking at the CAC.

CW: I want to think about developing and perpetuating culture. Just like those involved with the CAC some years ago said, “I want to bring such and such person in,” then they do fundraising. You might go to the City or it might be the task of a new business or old business, but we don’t have to worry about waiting on anyone or anything but ourselves, our community.

We just so happen to have an institution that we can bash at this particular time but that’s not the issue. We need to make the Center better. All things need to work to advance and improve. We’re talking about making this a world class city and that would be our task. So, we go to the City, we go to the business people here as well as nationally and say, “Look, we got together a group of people that have spawned some ideas.” People come to New Orleans all the time. Go to the tourist bureau and say, “Look, we have this special thing that’s going on.” A good example of something that’s gone well is the Jazz and Heritage Foundation. They’ve had their ups and downs but they’ve done an exceptional job with the city, with our culture. We see any number of places that have done well and it could be us now.

[The floor is opened to questions and comments from the audience. An edited selection is included below.]

Angela Berry: I was Amy Mackie’s assistant this past year. I worked at the CAC for four years. I started working there for Prospect.1 in 2008. So just to give you guys a picture, in the visual arts department this past year there were three people working there at all times—part-time and full-time. Amy Mackie is the only one in that department who was making more than $15 an hour. So if you think about the CAC and who’s working there, there are a ton of people on staff who are working between $8.50 an hour and $15 an hour. So a lot of people are working there but the large part of the budget is going to the top.

When you have someone like Amy Mackie coming to town or anyone who has relationships to the contemporary centers in Houston, Miami, Minneapolis, or New York, you have someone who understands the need to talk to the right foundations, the right grants, the right artists, the right donors. You need people working at the CAC who have ties to the national and international art community. That’s not happening there right now and that’s part of the reason why you don’t have creative, effective solutions to supporting the mission. When you have to have a panel to educate and bring to the table that these are the issues, that is a problem. We have to educate the staff.

I would like to ask, how many board members are in this room? There’s one, two, three, four, five [counting raised hands]. So, who in this room can help change this situation? What have we learned from the past 15 years that makes us want to invest?

I would ask the panel: Why should we put any more faith in the CAC? Jan, one of the statements you made was that you’re going to try as best as possible to do something. We know that your best isn’t good enough. Why should we invest any more energy when it’s so clear that the problems are mismanagement? Things aren’t running well, the staff is not in the right positions doing the right jobs, there’s not the knowledge, there’s not the education. When you have a non-profit organization, that’s what carries it. Why should we trust that anything’s really going to change? I mean, there are two international shows that are pending but what does that mean?

JG: Well, one thing we haven’t addressed is that the CAC is currently embarking on a strategic plan. This is something that these institutions do as audits. This was planned, it’s currently happening right now. Allen Eskew, former president of the board, is leading this plan.

CS: Allen, would you like to come and say a few words about the status of the plan?

Allen Eskew: I’m an architect here in town. I’ve been a CAC board member for years. As Jan mentioned, there was a major strategic plan in February of 2002 that was very thorough. It was distributed to board members and I think it’s available to the community. Following healthy models, institutions tend to revisit their plans every three or four years. The CAC plan was revisited for the first time in February of 2007. In 2005 Katrina hit, so there were fundamental systemic changes that happened financially, physically, staffing, and all that. Last fall, the CAC applied for some grants for help in revisiting the strategic plan for the second time. That conversation with the executive staff started in the fall. I have volunteered to assist in the facilitation of it and we have just started the beginning of the conversations with a collection of focus groups.

I’ll read off the focus groups that we are structuring our process around: we’ve met with the board because the governance of the CAC starts with the board. We’ve had two conversations with the board. We are setting up to get a call for participants for discussions about visual arts, performing arts, and education. Then we hope to have some combined conversations with those three groups. There will be parallel conversations about the physical facilities because we do have a building that is four stories with the gift from Mr. Besthoff.

We have a building and two warehouses so we’ve got a lot of space. People have talked about how two of those floors which are 20,000 square feet each are under-utilized. There’s a flip side to that: it takes money to utilize it, it takes money to put it into activity. There’s the finance department, the development department, everything people talk about, the budget, the management of the staff. Then finally we want to have some open conversations with the community, for community voices from people who aren’t necessarily within the first couple rings of circles with the CAC but really getting out more in the broader-based community in the region.

We set out a calendar plan to have those eight or ten conversations and blend them back together, do the preliminary writing, then take it to the board for final approval, and we’re hoping to get that done during June. As Jan said, there’s been a lot of planning going into the start of it and we’re only two conversations into the actual revisiting of the plan.

CS: What is the timeline for finding a permanent visual arts director?

JG: The job description is in place and board president Robyn Dunn Schwarz has agreed to chair the search committee. Pending feedback from the board that is currently completing an organizational assessment as part of the strategic plan in process, the search will begin immediately.

Cherise Harrison-Nelson: I’m the curator of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame and I’m also the Maroon Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society. I don’t really understand a lot of the back story to what’s going on tonight. I’ll be very honest with you. But I have approached people with my elevator speech. Our organization is a volunteer organization, but we do annual programming, we do panels at universities and other venues throughout the city. I’ve always wanted to do something at the CAC with the Mardi Gras Indians that came from the community—not someone painting a picture about the Mardi Gras Indians, not an interpretation. There are many artists who have depicted Mardi Gras Indians but I think that the Contemporary Arts Center should be a place where we can embody that Kwanza principle of kujichagulia and define ourselves.

We’re not only a visual art form, we are also dance and music. And as a female Mardi Gras Indian, very few people know about what our contributions are to the tradition. You can be on the cutting edge of this and bring greater attention and understanding of the female role in this. The point I’m trying to say is it has been difficult because a lot of times my calls were never returned to me. Personally, I think that is the height of something not good: when people don’t return your calls.

So I would like to see, as you move forward, that people from indigenous cultural communities have an opportunity to define themselves, to be part of the process. We give to the community all of the time. All of our members are not maybe fluent in grant writing, but consider authentic, real partnership with us so that we can be those who define us—not someone looking at a picture of a Mardi Gras Indian but actually looking at a suit, the ritual attire, and understanding the story narrative. I’m not saying that someone who paints a picture of me doesn’t know what they’re doing, but that’s their story. That’s not my story.

Mary Jane Parker: I’m an artist in the community and I’m also a board member. I’ve been a board member since Katrina. I just wanted to address programming in general as the head of the visual arts committee. The head of the visual arts committee is someone who gets artists in the community together to help facilitate programming for the curator or the Director of Visual Arts. In the past it used to be more of a multidisciplinary committee but it became a visual arts committee sometime before my tenure. The visual arts committee was put together and I understood my role as to really facilitate programming for the curator with their guidance and their interest.

As curator, David Rubin did a lot of programming, and we helped with that, we helped get audiences there. ArtSpeak, which a lot of you talked about—the artist lectures—were all done by the visual arts committee, a voluntary organization that completely did that on their own with guidance of the director. After David left, there was a year-long hiatus when there was no director and the visual arts committee with the help of Marie Lamb and Johnny King put together a site-specific proposal program where artists could propose an installation to be put into the Circle Gallery. It was really successful and we have several artists here who had shows there and they were beautiful. It was a way of trying to make a transition and that link to the community continue without a curator or a director.

When Dan Cameron came, I met with him once or twice to talk to him about what the visual arts committee was, what could happen, the fact that we were there and available for putting programming together and helping to put lectures in place that went along with his shows. We had one large group meeting, but he basically never availed us of anything that we could do to put programming in place. I’m an educator, so I really wanted that to happen. It was a very frustrating experience, and I feel bad because a lot of the visual arts committee members are here now and they’re hanging in there and hoping that there is something they can do. We tried to have some ArtSpeaks but they were very poorly attended because by then we had lost the momentum. We did try to get something going with Amy but we only had one meeting with her and she really wasn’t here long enough to actually have something happen. I wanted to address that because everyone keeps talking about how leadership didn’t allow programming and that didn’t happen. There was always a place to put something in on the calendar. It was the leadership and the Visual Arts Director who was supposed to lead the programming and I can attest to the fact that it’s been a very frustrating five years trying to see that happen.

Man in the audience: Who’s on the visual arts committee?

MJP: Right now, the visual arts committee consists of me, Maxx Sizeler, Anastasia Pelias, Beth Lambert, Clifton Faust, Fran Koerner. These are people who have carried over from David Rubin’s tenure. I gave Dan Cameron the option of bringing in people that he wanted but he never pursued that. It’s usually the director who suggests people to be on the visual arts committee, to try to have a good, broad spectrum of artists in the community.

Robyn Dunn Schwarz:** **I’m the President of the Board of the Contemporary Arts Center. I’ve received so many emails from all of you, and I want you all to know your voice has been heard. It is being discussed daily. I think I’ve personally taken up residence at the CAC. Your letters were distributed to the board; letters that were received after our board commenced were distributed by email.

If there are other things you’d like to say, our board has formed a separate committee, an evaluation management assessment committee which was dovetailing with the strategic plan that was already in motion prior to Amy’s departure. This group is specifically looking at the corporate structure and how it functions and how it can be improved. What I will say to you is something I have said to so many of you I have spoken to personally or by email: Hang in there please, give us some time, give me six weeks, give me eight weeks...we are going to make it a better place. Thank you.

Morgan Sasser: I’m a photographer locally and I’m also on the board of directors for the New Orleans Photo Alliance. One of the things that I wanted to mention briefly is I think a lot of our dialogue has been about what has happened. We haven’t spent more than ten minutes on what we’re doing about the future of this institution and what I can be doing. We’re all here this evening to talk about how I, as an individual, or we, as our organizations that we represent and our neighborhoods, can be proactive. Let’s not linger on all this bullshit that happened for the past seven or seventeen years. That’s not why we’re here tonight. We’re here to move forward.

We’re at this moment where we really have the potential to fall flat on our faces for being a contemporary landmark for visual artists and performing artists in the city. If we don’t utilize this moment and take advantage of it then we’re going to have the CAC turn into another Louisiana ArtWorks and that would be really upsetting. So let’s see what we can do about moving in a positive direction.

Jeanne Nathan: I’m director of the Creative Alliance of New Orleans. And this is Bob Tannen.

Clifton, who was around at the beginning when we first started the CAC, remembers a lot of things well. The question was asked during the program what is the original mission of the CAC? When we first formed the CAC it came out of a show that Tannen did at what’s now called the Venusian Gardens. At the time, the building was a big, old, empty box factory. Tannen and James LaLande, a painter, came in and filled the entire building with art. It had never been done before in the city, and we did it in June, which is the off-season. I happened to get a hold of a mailing list that enabled us to invite a lot of people and a lot of people came in the heat. We had music. We had art all over the damn place. A critic at the time wrote an article that said, “You see, this is why we need a Contemporary Arts Center. Call Bob Tannen if you’re interested!” Guess how many people called? None. We called some meetings anyway and we started bringing people together to have the discussion about putting a CAC together. There was enough interest. A lot of people say artists started it, and yes it was in the sense that Tannen had a show, but it was a lot of different kinds of people. It wasn’t just artists. It was people who cared about the arts. It was artists, it was writers, it was critics, it was people who worked with newspapers, a lot of different kinds of people.

Why did we do it? What was the purpose? One purpose was to allow more and different kinds of art to be shown and not just pictures on the wall as was happening at the time. Quite frankly, my objective and why I put an enormous amount of my own personal time into it and worked on it was because I felt it was critical to foster an art scene in a city so that artists could actually live and work here, make some money, and stay here. Because what you’re worried about right now, we were worried about back then when it was a much smaller group of people. Maybe there were 20, 30 artists in the city who were trying to work and weren’t selling their work. There was no market for it. So our feeling was if we created an art center and you put that work in the art center and invite people from around the city and try to up the ante then more people would buy art and we’d have an art scene. That’s happened to some extent but as many of you on St. Claude Avenue know, not enough. People aren’t buying art in New Orleans. I think the bigger picture is how we can look to develop the art market and facilitate artists being able to make work and sell it.

Bob Tannen: We’ve taken a lot of time, just one more closing comment by me. This is a democratic process, and that’s more important than the specific issues being discussed. I think this openness and participation should become the basic ingredient of the Contemporary Arts Center going forward. Forums of this kind should be at the heart of the institution. When we started this institution that was our intent.

Cynthia Scott: I’m an artist in town. I’m currently installing a piece at the CAC. I’ve been on the fourth floor, which is currently made into a wardrobe department for the movies. It’s very functional as that. I think we all understand that money has to be raised. In our letters and our discussions a lot of people have said we don’t have these problems from NOMA and the Ogden. Well, every facility does have rentals. In that light, I went online and looked up some other institutions that are probably in cities of similar size. I take the point very strongly that we can’t compare ourselves with the Getty or the Guggenheim or even the Walker. I looked up other contemporary arts facilities in Buffalo, Denver, Baltimore, Newark. They all have rentals. How do they do it? They have very specific areas set aside within their facility where the rentals take place. It’s in an atrium, on a patio, in a warehouse. It is never, ever interfering with the exhibition.

They’re very specific. It says right on the website: If you have your event at our facility, your guests can go see the exhibitions for free but they’re not drinking in there, eating in there, bumping up against art. I don’t know how often that happens but I do know people have in their letters described that their work has been damaged by corporate parties and rentals. I know from staff members from the CAC over the years and they have tales to tell. So, I think one possible suggestion is the fourth floor that has had a lot of work done. It is air conditioned up there, that was paid for by a client. They have a whole room full of washers and driers right now, they have dressing rooms for the actors and actresses. It’s beautifully set up. If you have to rent to the movies—and let’s face it, they pay a lot of money—maybe the fourth floor is the answer. Because they can take the back elevator up and they don’t ever have to interfere with the artists or the art. It could be a continuous income stream now that we’re Hollywood South...just a suggestion.

Editor's Note

Thanks again to all who attended the meeting and shared their thoughts.

Category:

Essay