The Next Phase: An Interview with Dan Cameron

Daily Serving. December 22, 2011

Commonly founders of organizations are so caught up in the building, growing, and running of the organization that questions of the sustainability after said founder leaves are left unanswered. This is far from the truth for Curator Dan Cameron, the founder of Prospect New Orleans, an international art biennial in its second iteration. He kindly sat down with me to discuss his imminent departure from Prospect to become Chief Curator at the Orange County Museum of Art.

Tori Bush: How does it feel to leave Prospect after over five years founding and cultivating the biennial? Have you accomplished what you wanted to in New Orleans?

Dan Cameron: I’m very happy with what I’ve accomplished in New Orleans. I think that the biennial has a strong future ahead of it, and New Orleans is well on its way to being the biennial capital of the U.S., with the far-reaching economic and cultural effects that this will bring with it. My goal was to contribute substantively to the city’s recovery after Katrina, and I think I’ve succeeded. That said, there’s a real sadness, or perhaps wistfulness, in bidding adieu to a city that’s been my home for the past years, and where I now own a beautiful house that I have every intention of moving back into once my work in California is complete. The other day I drew up the list of friends to invite to my going-away party, and was very happy to discover that I now have more people I consider friends in New Orleans than anywhere else in the world, including New York, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

TB: New Orleans certainly has a way of getting under your skin and making you come back. There has always had a vibrant arts scene here but Prospect has in many ways acted as a catalyst for alternative artist spaces. How would you like to see the local visual arts community grow and develop in the future?

DC: I truly hope that the City really gets involved in recognizing and supporting visual art in a meaningful way, instead of sitting on the sidelines or being petulant, which is what I’ve had to cope with for most of the past five years. From my perspective, the biggest problem is that New Orleans does almost nothing to support or even recognize its local visual artists, and yet they bring a tremendous economic and cultural benefit to the city, especially vis-a-vis the St. Claude district, which now constitutes the critical mass of artist-run spaces for the entire country. I also think that the sooner some local institutions and foundations begin trying to follow best practices in their fields, the better for all concerned, as I’ve encountered serious resistance to improvement in this area. When you look at how beneficial a turnover at the top has benefited institutions like NOMA and the African American Museum, it becomes clear that new blood is needed pretty much across the board. Finally, I hope that local supporters will begin coming out of the woodwork to embrace a phenomenon that most informed observers believe is very important to the city’s future as a cultural destination.

TB: Well, Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans has been a very vocal supporter of the arts. More financial support is needed though and Prospect has brought the attention to New Orleans that allows local artists a chance to show their work at another level. That being said, how do you see Prospect evolving in the future? What changes do you hope to see and what would you like to remain the same?

DC: We currently raise more than 90% of Prospect’s funds from out of state, which is not sustainable in the long run, and I’d like to see our fundraising and marketing on the ground locally become as effective as they are on the national and international fronts. Other than that, now that we’ve rotated to a system where’s a permanent Executive Director and rotating Artistic Directors — both of national stature –, I think we have a template that will work. I especially hope that the independent initiatives, such as the Satellites, will continue to grow, as this gives visitors a special insight into the city’s unique art scene.

TB: I’m looking forward to seeing what Franklin Sirmans does as the new artistic director for Prospect 3. You said at one point that you would stay at Prospect until Prospect 5. Why did that change? Will the rotating curators ensure that Prospect will not become myopic in scope?

DC: The plan had been to begin revolving Artistic Directors as soon as possible, & I hadn’t planned to personally curate Prospect past the second edition, so that’s not really a change. The real change is that both the Board and I began to understand over the past year that bringing in a strong Executive Director who knows and understands the visual arts community nationally, and who can guide the organization through the next editions, would be far more effective than having a curator — me — trying to fill the role of Executive Director at a time when a very different skill set is required.

TB: New Orleans and Orange County have pretty diametric cultures. Can you tell me a little about how you consider art in the context of culture when in New Orleans and Orange County?

DC: It’s a bit misleading when you say Orange County, since the museum’s mission has always focused on southern California, which I think people can identify more easily. In a nutshell, southern California is where the focus of new art has shifted in this country over the past ten years, and the region where I’ll be working has a strong history of vibrant collecting and groundbreaking exhibition practice, and that’s very exciting for me. Obviously, the vernacular culture that is so rich in New Orleans does not exist anywhere else in the U.S., and I don’t expect to be caught up in any local equivalent of second lines or Mardi Gras, because it’s pretty apparent they don’t exist where I’ll be. On the other hand, New Orleans and Los Angeles have a lot in common, in that they are probably the fastest growing art communities in the U.S., so getting to feel like I’m on the cusp of something truly new and vital will be consistent with what I’ve felt in developing Prospect. What I’m probably most excited about is being back in a museum setting, doing ambitious curatorial work that, when I did Prospect, was only visible three months out of every two years.

TB: You’ve worked with OCMA before too, right? You curated the Peter Saul exhibit there in 2008. How was that experience? What do you hope to bring to Orange County Art Museum, a museum that has lacked a deputy curator for three years?

DC: Yes. The Director of OCMA, Dennis Szakacs, and I worked together at the New Museum from 1996 to 2001, and together we guided that museum to the point where it could become what it is today. There are very ambitious building plans in the works for OCMA, which was the main attraction of the job, and since neither Dennis & I were around to see the New Museum reopen in 2007, I’m very gratified that this time we’ll be able to take a project to its completion.

TB: What are some of the highlights of OCMA’s collection? Can you discuss some of the contemporary trends going on in California right now?

DC: This is a question best asked once I’m settled, since I was not asked to become an expert in OCMA’s collection prior to moving there. As far as trends in southern California are concerned, I believe that the huge success of Pacific Standard Time, a series of contiguous museum exhibitions about the art of the region, will be felt nationally & internationally for a long time to come.

TB: In 1984 OCMA launched the California Biennial. The Hammer Museum and LAXART recently announced the Los Angeles Biennial will open in 2012. How will this be a challenge to OCMA and is there a need for two geographically and temporally similar biennials?

DC: I do think there’s room for two biennials, and since it looks like the Hammer’s initiative will be a purely local endeavor, there is a clearly a lot of room for revisiting the California Biennial’s mandate, and developing something innovative to demonstrate that it’s still the pre-eminent survey exhibition in the region. Because I’ve already done so much work in these areas, I can say that I’m quite struck by how miniscule a role Asian and Latin American art plays in the programs of the LA Big Three — LACMA, MOCA and the Hammer –, and that is something I’m very interested in addressing at OCMA.

TB: Sounds like you have a framework for some potential shows. Many of your exhibits often have a stance on social and political issues. How will you continue to spur public debates in your new position?

DC: That remains to be seen. My interest in social issues in art goes back to 1982, when I organized the first museum exhibition of gay and lesbian art in the U.S.A., and social justice formed a bit part of both my eleven years’ of programs at the New Museum, and the biennials I did in Istanbul and Taipei. In fact, those experiences were essential to my deciding to shape Prospect the way I did. That said, southern California has its own world and its own issues, and I wouldn’t presume to comment on how I’ll grapple with all that until I’ve been there for a minute.

TB: You’ve been based out of New York, New Orleans and now California. Do you feel that there is unity in the American art scene or does each part of the country represent wildly different trends? Can you discuss how the globalization of the art world has affected how and where artists can work?

DC: It’s not a simple binary. For most of the 1990s, it was believed that the global trends in art were wiping out the possibilities of what used to be labeled ‘regional art’ in this country. In the past ten years, however, I think we’ve witnessed more of a decentralization — sorry, but globalization is probably the most misused word in art jargon today — of the art world, in which one or two capitals have been replaced by multiple capitals, and with that, there is now a growing awareness that a lot of significant art doesn’t take place in capital cities at all. The timing of Prospect was meant, in large part, to capitalize in that change.

TB: Do you have a personal rubric of excellence you hope to achieve when curating a new show? If so, what is that rubric?

DC: In curating there is a long and hidden research phase that requires floating lots of trial balloons and shooting down most of them. What I can say is that I try to make exhibitions that will stay with people for years after they’ve seen it, and of course I want to showcase emerging of under-valued artists whose work will surprise and delight the viewer.

TB: Peter Schjeldahl recently said the artist/critic creates and affirms values to the degree of his or her individuality. Do you think this also could be said for a curator? If so, what are the values that you hope to affirm?

DC: I think Peter’s position is a very American one in that it raises the individual above all else, but my experience traveling the world has been very different than his, and I’ve gradually come around to the idea that my self-improvement also requires the betterment of the social environment in which I live. I don’t think that art belongs to the elite class that has historically has provided all of its patronage and most of its audience, but that it belongs to everybody, and bridging that gap between the insider/specialist and the outsider/layperson has been an ongoing effort of mine for many years now.

TB: Thanks Dan for taking the time to talk. I’m sure we will see some great show’s coming out of OCMA very soon.

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