NEIL BARCLAY, THE NEW EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center, seems to have a pretty good idea of just what he’s gotten himself into.
“‘Scary’ is not the right word because nothing scares me; I’ve been in the business too long,” says Barclay. “But certainly there are a lot of challenges here that are well within the scope of the things that I’ve done in my career and that I know how to do.”
Barclay has plenty of experience with arts organizations, and he understands the ups and downs of running a multi-disciplinary arts center. Barclay studied theatre and voice at Loyola Marymount, then went to law school at Loyola Law in Los Angeles. He was an administrator at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at California State University, he served as the Associate Director of the University of Texas Performing Arts Center in Austin, and he was tapped as the founding president and CEO of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, which he helped develop from the ground up.
Barclay embodies the traits of both performer and lawyer, which maybe aren’t such different professions after all. He’s very much at ease when talking about his work and about his ideas for the CAC. His voice booms and swells when he’s excited, then drops low and quiet when he gets more contemplative. But mostly he speaks thoughtfully and seriously, never stalling or meandering, but talking at length and making each word count.
As he talks about the challenges of his new position, Barclay never refers to himself as “a fixer,” but he’s sharp enough to know that many people in New Orleans want to regard him as such.
Barclay replaces former CAC Executive Director Jay Weigel, who held the position for over 16 years. Weigel stepped down last year amid controversies and rumblings that the CAC had grown stagnant.
The controversy over Weigel’s directorship came to a head last spring when a group of artists from New Orleans’ St. Claude arts district pulled their work from Spaces, an exhibition at the CAC highlighting the city’s burgeoning new scene. They were calling for Weigel’s resignation, citing issues like the revolving door of Visual Arts Directors, the lack of top notch programming in recent years, and the priority given to private parties and special events--like the five day shut-down of Spaces for the filming of a Sylvester Stallone movie. For the artists, this closing of the gallery proved that Weigel, who also works composing scores for big-budget films, valued Hollywood dollars over art for art’s sake.
Barclay once served with Weigel on the NEA’s Advancement Program, a program that provided management consulting for arts organizations, so he was tuned in to the fireworks surrounding the CAC from the beginning. In fact, the controversy actually attracted him to the position.
“Reading about it, particularly in the press, and then knowing Jay and some of the personalities involved, I went ‘I know exactly what happened there!’” Barclay says with a big chuckle.
“This organization has been around a long time,” he explains. “So it means a lot of different things, depending on who you talk to—what it’s supposed to be about, who it’s supposed to be for, how it started, how true is it to that original mission, how does it make a go of it now. So, basically, what happens is everybody speaks about the organization from their perspective of what they think should be happening. But from the outside, of course you don’t know what should be happening. I just now know what everybody thinks should happen here, right? It’s the kind of situation where I am dying to figure out what’s the real deal here.”
And that’s the question that Barclay has been trying to address since landing at the CAC early this spring: What’s the real deal here?
For Barclay, it starts with the building. The turn-of-the-century warehouse was renovated in 1990 and features lots of glass, steel, and exposed brick. The building was donated to the CAC in 1999. Currently, only two of the building’s four floors are being used for exhibition and performance space. Barclay believes that by better utilizing all four floors and all 30,000 square feet of space, the CAC can expand their programming and attract more visitors and members.
“The real promise of a facility like this, artistically and aesthetically, they’ve got this incredible physical plant,” says Barclay. “So if you don’t start really using that physical plant in some exciting, innovating way, you’ve wasted one of your most obvious assets.”
There are plans to get air conditioning in the third floor gallery so that it can be used more extensively in the next programming cycle, and Barclay’s currently taking stock of the fourth floor to see what needs to be done to make it a usable space.
He’s also rethinking the first-floor theatre, which has always been used as a traditional proscenium theatre. Barclay wants to play around with the layout, reconfiguring the theatre in different ways to accommodate different kinds of performances. One idea is to transform the theatre into an impromptu jazz club, complete with table seating and candlelight, an idea that came to Barclay almost by accident.
“I came in one day and they were cleaning, and they had taken all the seats out. It was just this big open room. And I said ‘I love this! Why isn’t this a club? At least some of the time.’ And they said ‘Well, we can’t always take the seats out,’ and I said ‘Yeah, but you can plan to take the seats out, right?’”
It’s a great example of Barclay’s big-picture thinking. He doesn’t see limitations; he sees opportunities that might require a little more time and effort on the front end, but make a lot more sense from a long-term management perspective.
As for the CAC’s availability as a rental facility, Barclay understands that it’s necessary from a financial standpoint, but he says that a more intentional approach to scheduling can ensure that private parties never interfere with exhibitions.
“The Museum of Modern Art [in New York] has a huge amount of money that they make from parties and receptions, but you would never know it,” he adds. “You never see it, you never hear about it.”
Barclay wants the buzz around the CAC to be about the art, not about private events. He believes the center can do a better of job of curating high profile exhibitions and performances from local, national, and international artists. He refers to these shows as “blockbusters,” and he believes these are the shows that will get people into the building and keep them excited about the CAC’s offerings.
In October, the CAC will host Water, an exhibition of large-scale photographs by artist Edward Burtynsky. The show is a collaboration between the CAC and the New Orleans Museum of Art. It’s curated by Russell Lord, NOMA’s Curator of Photographs. The show will premiere in New Orleans, then tour the country.
Barclay has another blockbuster planned for the near future, but since he’s still working out the details, he’s reluctant to reveal too much. He did disclose that it’s a “huge exhibit,” one that’s been touring to critical acclaim, and he expects New Orleans audiences will be very surprised at the announcement.
Looking toward 2014, Barclay’s excited about Prospect.3 and re-establishing the relationship between the CAC and Prospect New Orleans, the city-wide biennial founded by Dan Cameron, who served as the CAC’s Director of Visual Arts in 2007-2010.
Barclay hopes to continue to collaborate with other institutions and guest curators for shows large and small. The center has multiple galleries of varying sizes that allow plenty of opportunities to work with other people. Barclay hopes the Burtynsky show can serve as a model.
“The collaboration with NOMA has been great. I think it’s a really smart thing for us all to be doing,” says Barclay. “NOMA has a great curatorial staff, they have designers, and that’s not a lot of—yet—where our strengths lie.”
Barclay knows that the instability of the CAC’s Director of Visual Arts position has been problematic. There have been five different directors since 2005. When Cameron’s contract wasn’t renewed in 2010, the CAC hired Amy Mackie. Mackie resigned after only 14 months, leading some to speculate on turmoil within the CAC’s ranks. Currently, Jan Gilbert serves as the interim Director of Visual Arts, and she’ll continue to serve while Barclay takes his time looking for a long-term replacement.
“What I’d like to do is to identify curators, guest curators, for projects in these individual spaces and allow us as a community, certainly as a staff, to look at all that work they curated a year or so from now and say ‘the person that did the most interesting work for what we’re trying to do was [this person or that person]’ and either go after that person or go after someone like that.”
More pressing to Barclay is the search for a new Director of Performing Arts, and he’s already receiving applications for the position.
“We’ve got to bring our ability to produce performances up to another level,” he says. “The technical requirements, sound requirements, floors, all these things need somebody like a producer. I want it to be more professionally produced because I think this is being done very well in other places around town.”
Barclay’s emphasis on programming stems from his belief that the CAC’s fiscal stability will increase as the CAC produces more income from within as opposed to relying on outside donors. Cities like Houston and Pittsburgh are home to greater populations of patrons that keep diverse art organizations afloat, even thriving. In New Orleans, with fewer philanthropic sources for large-scale funding, the economy is different, and the CAC has to work within their means.
“This organization generates a certain amount of money every year and has for 30 years,” says Barclay. “It’s more a question of ‘what do you want to do with that money?’ You’ve got this pot of money that you need to figure out every year what you’re going to do with it, and it should be focused around the art. And so whether we grow hugely or not, what I want is to at least focus that money on the art-making piece. From my experience, that tends to grow the pot.”
By raising the quality of ticketed events like performances and big exhibitions, Barclay says membership becomes more valuable, so more people are willing to commit to the long term success of the CAC. Even those unwilling to commit to a membership can be convinced that what the CAC has to offer is worth paying for.
“People pay ten bucks to go to the movies,” says Barclay, “so it’s a question of ‘what are you going to give me for my ten bucks?’”
Transforming the CAC to fit Barclay’s vision will take time, probably a year or more to upgrade the building and start a new program of next-level exhibitions. But that doesn’t mean the new director won’t have an immediate impact. A spate of recent openings drew big crowds, starting earlier this year with Beyond Beasts, which featured art from the makers of the Oscar-winning film Beasts of the Southern Wild. More recent openings included Chalmatia by New Orleans-based artists Daneeta Jackson and Patrick Jackson and Anthropomorphizer!! by New Orleans puppet-maker and musician Miss Pussycat. The success of these openings is the first step in Barclay’s ultimate goal: re-energizing and revitalizing the CAC.
“It’s hugely possible,” says Barclay. “I think we have a great staff, young in some cases, but very smart, very dedicated. And an amazing group of not just board members, but stakeholders, people who really want to see this organization work, and work on a big level. That’s exciting. To me, it’s all about possibilities. My expectations were to do something exciting and extraordinary. We just need it to really work for us a little better. I think we can do that. I really do.”
Last spring, I first covered the Spaces controversy in the article "Negative Space" for NOLA Defender. I talked to Dan Tague, the artist leading the charge against then-Executive Director Jay Weigel, and I spoke with Weigel, who acknowledged the protests, but downplayed their significance. The comments section on that article turned into a passionate discussion about the state of the CAC and the state of the arts in New Orleans, and it included comments from artists and former CAC staff members. Looking back, I think the story captures the flashpoint of the debate that ultimately led to a change in leadership at the CAC.