Q&A with Prospect.4 Artistic Director Trevor Schoonmaker

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Trevor Schoonmaker
Trevor Schoonmaker has been juggling his duties as curator at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University with being the artistic director of Prospect.4, which opens on November 18. (Photo: Sophie Lvoff)

Prospect, New Orleans’s city-wide contemporary art festival, debuted in 2008 after Hurricane Katrina and quickly established itself as a critical event on the national art circuit. This year’s iteration of the biennial-turned-triennial opens to the public on November 18, and is curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Titled The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, Prospect.4 will feature seventy-three artists from around the world, presented in seventeen venues across the city. Schoonmaker spoke with Lauren Ross about various aspects of envisioning and organizing “P.4” — from the value of Prospect to New Orleans to the artists selected, and the logistics of making it all happen.

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Lauren Ross: Let’s start with the poetic title “The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp.” Can you elaborate on its significance?

Trevor Schoonmaker: Prospect.4 finds inspiration in the lotus plant. The title is evocative of New Orleans’s natural environment, but even more importantly it symbolically references the state of the world today. The aquatic perennial takes root in the fetid but nutrient-rich mud of swamps, its beautiful bloom flourishing untainted above the murky water. The flower’s grace is inextricably connected to the oozing, noisome swamp, a visual reminder that redemption exists in ruin, and creativity in destruction. Viewed as a symbol of spiritual enlightenment in Buddhism and Hinduism, the lotus flower suggests the possibility of rising above trying circumstances and overcoming arduous challenges. I was further drawn to the metaphor after reading a quote from the politically engaged jazz saxophonist who in 1970 said: “Jazz is a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit, not its degradation. It is a lily in spite of the swamp.” The lotus reminds us that, from the depths of difficulty and desolation, art brings the invisible to light.

Prospect was first conceived in 2006 as a direct response to the devastation Hurricane Katrina inflicted upon New Orleans and the region. Now that more than a decade has passed, how has the urgency of that impulse changed or shifted, if at all?

Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst for the founding of Prospect, but both Prospect and the city of New Orleans have moved forward from that moment and narrative. I think the initial concrete impact of Prospect is that it has helped bring more attention from the national and international art worlds to New Orleans, which in turn has helped galvanize and build a stronger visual arts community in the city.

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You have stated that P.4 will put emphasis on both the Global South and the countries of origin of the people who have shaped New Orleans over its history. Could you elaborate on these themes? How does this relate to the notion among some theorists that America is increasingly resembling a Third World country because of the growing economic disparity and disappearance of the middle class?

The ecology, displacement, and racial and economic inequity are important issues in New Orleans that help connect it to the Global South. The most important element for me in exploring these themes has been the selection of the artists themselves. Where they are from and where they have been focusing their work is just a starting point. To help enhance historical and cultural connections to New Orleans, I’ve invited artists mostly from the Americas (including the Caribbean), Africa, and Europe. But even more so, I have looked for artists, regardless of cultural origin, whose work I feel will resonate within the city of New Orleans by way of their artistic process, subject matter or materials. New Orleans has such a unique cultural hybridity that is evidenced in its customs, food, music, architecture, language, and spirituality. I want the artists’ work to feel at home in that context and some artists have a sensibility that lends itself to that. Rina Banerjee, for example, makes work that resonates with numerous cultures across the Global South, and her maximalist use of materials is fitting for a city where carnival culture is so prevalent.

On the same day in May that Prospect held a press event in New Orleans, the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, delivered a remarkable speech on why four of the city’s Confederate monuments were being removed. How might some of the projects in Prospect respond to such controversial issues and their history?

Mayor Landrieu delivered a powerful speech that was very timely not only for Prospect.4 and the Tricentennial celebration of the founding of New Orleans but for our country as a whole. The conversation and tension surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments isn’t unique to New Orleans. Similar monuments were erected and stand all across the American South and beyond. Still, I don’t see it as a Southern issue, but a deeply American one. I am less concerned about this particular moment and the statues themselves than in how they are a reflection of the systemic racism in our country, from north to south, and coast to coast. Several artists in Prospect.4, such as Kara Walker and Hank Willis Thomas, make work that eloquently speaks to racism in our country and other parts of the world. Kiluanji Kia Henda responded to the Portuguese colonial monuments in his native Angola by asking young creative friends to perform on top of the empty pedestals where images of oppression once stood. That type of connection between the local and the global is what excites me.

Kiluanja Kila Henda, Redefining the Power
Kiluanji Kia Henda, Redefining the Power (with Didi Fernandes), 2011, photographic print mounted on aluminum, 59 by 39 inches

Prospect is the only U.S. biennial/triennial that is spread throughout a city rather than limited to arts institutions. But in many ways, New Orleans is an unlikely candidate for such an event. What benefit does this have for New Orleans?

New Orleans is seemingly an unlikely candidate for a contemporary art triennial because, between its rich music traditions and the Mardi Gras carnival season, much of the cultural funding for the arts, as well as the energy and attention of the public is already spoken for. Additionally, Prospect grew out of the vision of individuals rather than being a civic initiative, or even an institutional initiative, which is unusual for a biennial/triennial. It has no bricks and mortar, no home base, museum or gallery of its own, and so it collaborates with local institutions, organizations, individuals and spaces all across the city, which creates for a dynamic experience. Perhaps most importantly, New Orleans is like no other city in the world, and is completely unique as an American city. It is the most European and the most African city in the United States. It is frequently called the northernmost Caribbean city and is still distinctly of and in the American South. Being there is a visceral experience and its rich history and culture provide boundless inspiration for artists from all over the world. In turn, local, national and global artists can help bring attention to issues that are central to the progress of the city and its people.

Aside from the music and carnival cultures, I was also referring to the city’s economic challenges; it has a higher-than-national-average unemployment rate, and lower-than-national-average wages, so, it seems to be a more challenging location for a triennial than a place with a greater flow of money and resources. And yet, the city’s ongoing experiences with economic inequality perhaps make an event like this more urgent and relevant. Would you agree?

I do agree. It means that many of the critical issues that P.4 artists are addressing globally in their work—social justice, economic and racial inequality and so on—are issues that are also central to the wellbeing of the communities of New Orleans. So, holding a triennial in New Orleans is arguably more meaningful than it might be in many other cities. It also, as you noted, isn’t a particularly wealthy city compared to other cities where the visual arts thrive, so there is the real challenge of fundraising for a contemporary art triennial.

There have been several high-profile instances of artists entering communities as outsiders and making missteps, despite what I believe are good intentions to address local histories and conflicts. Sam Durant at the Walker is the latest example. How are you working with artists to ensure that doesn’t happen?

It is something that I have always been sensitive to, but you can never really ensure that this doesn’t happen to you. I think it starts with the artist selection – working with artists I feel already possess and have demonstrated a genuine cultural sensitivity. No one can become an expert in a place overnight so that should never be the expectation. But at the same time, neither I nor the P.4 artists are seeking to speak for the city and people of New Orleans. Nor would we be capable of doing so. It is more about drawing connections to other regions around the world and enabling people to see themselves in someone or someplace else. In this particular case, I have been coming to New Orleans since 1994, so I have some prior familiarity and experience that is helpful and perhaps even more importantly, my professional and personal interests happen to be well aligned with the city (music, marine ecology, African and African-American culture, social justice, etc.).

What about the audience for Prospect? It comprises locals and cultural tourists. How does Prospect reassure people who might be inclined to think that the works are “not for them” and make them feel welcome?

Both audiences are critical to the longevity of Prospect. Bringing art into public spaces and outside of museums and galleries is one way to engage new audiences or those who may feel art isn’t for them. Most of the P.4 artists make work that speaks to daily life, think about community, and make work that is socially conscious, if not directly socially engaged. Lastly, there is a great education and public programs team that works closely with the New Orleans communities.

How will you measure the success of P.4, besides attendance figures?

I don’t know the magic formula, but it has to be some combination of qualitative and quantitative — not just numbers and figures but also who experiences it and how they respond. Interest and attendance from both New Orleans residents and outside art world visitors is important, as is critical press from local, national, and international sources.

What is your ideal take-away for a visitor to Prospect?

The ideal take-away could vary, based on a visitor’s background and perspective. For art world professionals, I hope that there are discoveries, surprises, and deep engagement. For those who have not spent a lot of time with contemporary art, an ideal encounter would involve finding relevancy to their lives and issues that are important to them. Ultimately, I hope more people agree that contemporary art is not for a select few or the elite, but that the best work speaks to all of us on some level. My wish is that locals and visitors, newcomers and insiders, feel that Prospect.4 presents thought-provoking work that is relevant to the moment that we are living in, as well as meaningful to the city of New Orleans.

You have assembled an impressive advisory committee of artists and curators. Can you discuss their role?

They are a group of seven friends and colleagues whose work I admire and whose judgment I value. The primary reason for setting up the committee was to have trusted eyes and ears in other parts of the world who could recommend artists for me to look at and consider for potential inclusion in Prospect.4. They were also each asked to contribute in some way to the P.4 catalog and opening programming. Lastly, they are ambassadors for Prospect who help spread the word and encourage people to visit.

Let’s discuss the artists you have selected. The list appears to be a deliberate mix of celebrated names and quite a few who are lesser known, even to contemporary art-savvy audiences. Why was this mix important to you?

That’s the type of blend that I prefer and that I’m comfortable with. If you look at previous group shows of mine (Black President, The Record, Southern Accent, etc.), the artist mix of  Prospect.4 is close to the same combination I’ve always incorporated – ranging from highly celebrated names to those showing on a big stage for the first time. I am much more interested in artists’ work than their resume. I do happen to identify with the underdog and have an eye for those who have not yet received the attention I feel they deserve. I really enjoy helping shine the light on some lesser-known artists, but I still admire and like artists who are greatly accomplished. My interest has more to do with an artist’s sensibility than their level of fame or lack thereof.

For the artists in the exhibition who will be working in New Orleans for the first time, how did they respond to this challenge?

Way more artists than I could have imagined are working in New Orleans for the first time. That was one of my more surprising discoveries while researching artists. So many artists whose works seem ideally suited for New Orleans have never shown there or even visited the city before. Yet, when New Orleans was mentioned, across the board, they have been truly excited by the potential, by the city’s culture and history. It has a tremendous mystique. And it is still a destination, not a likely stopover on the way to someplace else.

Could you share an example of an artist who came to the city for the first time, and what impact it had? Any cases in which the artist shifted from initial thoughts, or experimented in a new way because of what he/she/they witnessed there?

Absolutely. We have brought a lot of artists to visit the city for inspiration, research, and touring potential sites. Part of the process has been taking artists to neighborhoods and places they likely would not have ventured to otherwise. For example, Kara Walker had only been to the city once a long time ago, and not in a professional capacity, so she was looking and listening from a different perspective. We took the ferry across the Mississippi from the French Quarter to the neighborhood of Algiers on the West Bank. There, in New Orleans’s second-oldest neighborhood, we discussed the dark history of how Algiers Point had been the place where African slaves were first quarantined before being sent across the river to be sold. While we walked around Kara heard the drifting sound of “Dixie” playing from the calliope of the Natchez Steamboat, a tourist boat that cruises along the river. She has responded by creating her own custom calliope, with a score of black resistance music created in partnership with jazz pianist Jason Moran, and housed in a metal covered wagon designed by Kara with her loaded antebellum imagery. We’re placing the work outdoors near the river.

Barkley L. Hendricks Photo Bloke, 2016 Oil and acrylic on linen 72 x 48 inches Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York ©Barkley L. Hendricks
Barkley L. Hendricks, Photo Bloke, 2016; oil and acrylic on linen, 72 by 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York ©Barkley L. Hendricks.

The extraordinary and unappreciated painter Barkley Hendricks passed away in April. He was a close friend of yours and an artist whose work you championed for many years. You were already working on his inclusion in Prospect when he passed, and you are organizing a tribute to him at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Can you talk about that?

Barkley’s passing was a real tragedy for the art community and a great loss for me personally. He was painting new work for P.4, which was unfortunately unrealized, but we had already begun seeking out other portraits that we were unable to include in his painting survey “Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool”. These are twelve extraordinary oil portraits from 1970 to 2016 that are largely unknown because most are coming from private collections. The selection will be installed at the New Orleans Museum of Art and will indeed function as a tribute to Barkley. I’m grateful for the opportunity to show so much of his work there.

I’m curious to hear about the logistics of organizing Prospect, and how it meshes with your other professional activities. How much time have you spent “on the ground” in NOLA since being appointed?

I have traveled to New Orleans quite a lot over the past two and a half years … roughly once a month for long stretches, staying for somewhere between three and eight days. Weekdays are ideal so that I can be home with my family on the weekend.

Your P.4 duties overlap with your fulltime position as chief curator at the Nasher. How do you juggle these two positions simultaneously? 

It is intense—a challenge even greater than I imagined—but I’m trying to do the very best that I can. The Nasher is my fulltime job in Durham, North Carolina, where I live with my wife and two young daughters, and I travel in and out of New Orleans and other cities regularly for Prospect work. Both my family and the museum where I have worked for the past eleven years have been very supportive, which makes my doing Prospect possible. I am indebted to Nasher director Sarah Schroth, who has been encouraging and has provided me with the flexibility necessary to take on another demanding role.

For the first two years of the process I was also working on a big show called “Southern Accent,” which opened at the Nasher last fall and is now on view at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. Once that show was realized I was able to shift more of my curatorial attention to Prospect.4. I am extremely grateful to the Nasher staff for their continued support and advice. Several colleagues have very generously been working with me on producing different aspects of Prospect.4. And, of course, Prospect has a talented and dedicated team on the ground in New Orleans. Still, my biggest, most important and most challenging job is as a father. Being away from my family so frequently has been the most difficult part. As much as I love the opportunity that Prospect presents, I could only entertain it because I know it’s a finite position. This level of juggling isn’t sustainable.

Lauren Ross is a curator and writer based in Richmond, Virginia.

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