Roving Eye: A Tale of Two Cities


Traveling from New Orleans to Marfa, Texas, as I did at the beginning of the week, offers one of the most dramatic studies in contrast that the art world currently offers. On the surface there is, in New Orleans, the obvious clash of pageantry—on display in abundance during Mardi Gras—and poverty, the factor that seems to prevent New Orleans’ art scene from developing traction. Despite its reputation as a hotbed of creativity, the city has no money for culture: most not-for-profits are hanging on for dear life, and the near-absence of serious collectors means that local artists have no way of gauging how they’re doing, except in the eyes of their peers.


Last Saturday afternoon, while I was getting ready to hit gallery and museum openings in three neighborhoods (an anomaly of synchronicity brought about this year because the tourist-attracting Carnival took over the first weekend in March), friends started calling me about Dave Greber’s new video installation at The Front, which I planned to visit at the end of my rounds. A seven-channel video that ponders mortality by way of predominantly Hindu iconography, Open Arms (2011) was a leap forward by a young artist who has already produced some of the strongest videos to come out of New Orleans in recent years.

Hours later, as a group of us sat rapt, watching and listening to Greber’s hypnotic images and sounds, it dawned on me that there wasn’t a single other curator, critic or collector present. In nearly any other city in the U.S., an artist of Greber’s talent, with a word-of-mouth following that other artists dream about, would enjoy a corresponding level of excitement on the part of those who collect, write about, and otherwise promote the growth of contemporary art in their communities. To lend some perspective, the preparatory drawings for this video were selling for $45 apiece. At the end of the evening all were still available.

Cut to Marfa, where I’m currently visiting as the curator of an exhibition of art from New Orleans for Ballroom Marfa. Since I first visited Marfa in the early 1990s, it has always seemed a place of great seriousness, hard work and dedication—where everybody seems to unconsciously emulate Donald Judd’s Spartan standard of living. The Chinati Foundation, home to what are arguably Judd’s greatest works, also hosts artists in residence and presents temporary exhibitions (albeit a year in length).

The current exhibition is a self-contained but potent selection of five Carl Andre sculptures and installations. It includes two remarkable works from the late 1960s, to help remind us how radical a step it was for him to place his works directly on the floor and invite us to tread on them. It’s not until I left Chinati that it occurs to me that, to the best of my knowledge, no works by Judd or Andre (or Flavin or Ryman, for that matter) have ever been seen in New Orleans.

In Marfa, they take art and arts patronage very seriously. The population is about one percent that of New Orleans, but everybody you meet has a vital connection to contemporary art. Local excitement about the Ballroom exhibition is palpable: strangers stop me in the street; all the hotels are booked for the weekend; and on Monday night the local restaurants even ran out of food! As we prepare for this weekend of opening festivities, I’m left with the irony that while the post-Katrina artistic renaissance in New Orleans is very real, it may be the only city in the country where there isn’t a single patron, collector or civic leader aware that Marfa, Texas, exists.