Building a New New Orleans: Press Street and Antenna Gallery on St. Claude
Born out of her tenure as Director of Visual Arts at the Contemporary Arts Center, Atlanta-based curator and writer Amy Mackie is currently working on a book that traces the evolution of artist-run spaces and alternative arts organizations and publications in New Orleans from 2005 to the present. For Pelican Bomb, Mackie has distilled her research on Press Street and Antenna Gallery into a brief history of the organization.
Over the last seven years, Press Street has played a crucial role in a number of cultural developments in New Orleans, contributing to the city’s rapidly expanding art community. With the opening of a new and improved, two-story space at 3718 St. Claude Avenue in the Upper Ninth Ward neighborhood last November (for which they have a ten year lease), this relatively young artist-run organization begins a new chapter.
Press Street/Antenna embraces a model that is familiar to those versed in the politics of creative communities worldwide. Press Street functions like an umbrella organization, which oversees several initiatives including Antenna Gallery, Draw-A-Thon, and Room 220, incorporating visual and performance artists, fiction writers, poets, filmmakers, curators, and educators. Its stable program, growing budget, and dedicated members are undoubtedly a large part of its success. Brad Benischek (Board Vice President), Ken Foster, Anne Gisleson (Board President), Susan Gisleson, and Case Miller, who founded the literary and visual arts collective Press Street in 2005, all remain on its board and are actively involved. Bob Snead, who joined Antenna in 2010, also now serves as Board Treasurer. Nathan C. Martin (who runs Press Street’s literary program/blog Room 220) has described Press Street as a “choose your own adventure organization” and in terms of their membership, Press Street/Antenna has collectively stated, “Typically new members are highly motivated and often get themselves involved with Press Street or Antenna in some way, like volunteering, prove to be trustworthy and simpatico, and are then brought into the fold. Consequently, the process for bringing on new members is very organic.”* Press Street/Antenna’s fervent sense of cooperation and adherence to a democratic process of decision making has proved successful for their internal dynamics as well as their relationships with numerous arts and educational initiatives throughout the city.
Local partnerships and community outreach have always been central priorities for Press Street. Prior to the founding of Antenna and the opening of their former gallery at 3161 Burgundy Street in 2008, Press Street’s artist and writer members organized readings, exhibitions, and events on and around St. Claude Avenue in places such as Saturn Bar, as well as at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter. Press Street/Antenna’s many collaborations over the years—perhaps more than any other similarly sized not-for-profit enterprise in the city—have resulted in film screenings, performances, panel discussions, and lectures as well as annual events. In December, they hosted their seventh annual Draw-A-Thon at the Marigny Opera House, which they describe as a “round the clock, 24-hour drawing extravaganza” where multiple forms of drawing are explored by artists and non-artists alike. Situated at The Green Project for its first several iterations, it moved to the Old Ironworks on Piety Street in 2011 to support the growing number of participants. In 2012, there were over 1,000 attendees. While the event attracts the usual creative crowd, it also encourages cross-pollination between various communities and is one of the most family friendly art events in the city, inspiring art makers and enthusiasts across many generations to participate.
Room 220, established in 2011, has quickly become an important source for bibliophiles in the city. Nathan C. Martin in collaboration with other writers and co-conspirators hosts and promotes forward thinking writing and challenging new ideas through online interviews and writing on their blog and through live events (both at Press Street/Antenna and elsewhere). Room 220 maintains an ongoing relationship with the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, hosting events in New Orleans during the program's "field trips" to the city for the past two years. Last fall, Room 220 hosted a reading with Khaled al-Berry, Lucy Fricke, and TJ Dema, along with New Orleans native T. Geronimo Johnson. Through partnerships with the Bard Early College Program and New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Room 220 also arranged for these international writers to conduct classroom visits with local high school students.
Press Street also self-publishes and has produced many books since it published INTERSECTION / NEWORLEANS, a blind collaboration between 25 artists and 25 writers, inspired by 25 specific street corners in the city, in April 2006. Other publications have highlighted grassroots initiatives and DIY urban planning or have juxtaposed poetry or prose with artwork. Press Street’s newest publication is a chapbook by Martin, entitled We're Pregnant, with photographic work by Sophie T. Lvoff, Akasha Rabut, and Grissel Giuliano. The book will be launched in an event on February 28th at Antenna Gallery. Also forthcoming, is a catalogue to accompany Antenna’s recent exhibition “End of Days (as seen on TV).” As funding permits, Press Street hopes to regularly produce catalogues for most, if not all of their future exhibitions in addition to their more literary inclined publications.
Press Street’s Art House Film Program, which is organized and hosted by the Charitable Film Network in collaboration with Jerald L. White, has hosted screenings at venues across the city including the New Orleans African American Museum, Mimi’s in the Marigny, The Green Project, Café Istanbul, Ashé Cultural Arts Center, the Contemporary Arts Center, the Louisiana Humanities Center, and others. Since 2009, they have presented an array of films from theme-based movie marathons to musical and environmental documentaries. On February 18th, Press Street continues their monthly Japanese film series hosted by the Japan Society of New Orleans with a screening of Shinsuke Sato’s Gantz II: Perfect Answer. By engaging diverse audiences with varying interests, Press Street/Antenna brings together many disparate pockets of the city’s population, thus serving as a not only an incubator of ideas, but a connective tissue between creative entities that might not otherwise interface.
Given Press Street/Antenna’s educational initiatives, it is not surprising that several of its members are educators who teach at local schools including Loyola University New Orleans, Metairie Park Country Day School, and New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and in the Jefferson Parish Public School System. In their new space on St. Claude, Press Street/Antenna is now located nearby two public schools, thus they are developing several after-school programs that cater to the neighborhood’s high school students. First and foremost, they are partnering with Big Class with whom they will run a literary educational initiative on the first floor of their space. They are also expanding their existing program NOLA MIX. Led by Antenna member Jerald L. White with local DJ Ben Epstein and with support from the Arts Council of New Orleans, the NOLA MIX DJ classes have already proven to be another great way of engaging area youth.
In addition to ambitious new programming and a larger space to host their exhibitions, Press Street/Antenna’s latest effort is the formation of a residency program. Their space on St. Claude Avenue boasts an efficiency apartment in the back of the gallery, which will enable them to host artists in residence beginning in the spring of 2013. Their first guest was Chicago-based artist David R. Harper whose work was selected through an open call and was presented in their inaugural exhibition on St. Claude in November. Though Press Street/Antenna continues to expand and grow, they remain ardently true to their mission “to promote art and literature in the community through events, publications, and arts education” and they do so with limited resources and volunteer labor.
As a 501(c)(3), Press Street/Antenna is at a particular advantage when it comes to funding from national foundations. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, for example, granted them $40,000 in 2010 for two years of support. They plan to apply for a Warhol grant once again in the 2014-15 grant cycle. Recently, Press Street/Antenna received a grant in the amount of $10,000 annually for three years from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. This past year, Press Street/Antenna has been working with several volunteers who have contributed to grant writing for the organization and are currently being assisted by Gracie Goodrich who worked with Space One Eleven in Birmingham. Additionally, this year’s Draw-A-Thon was funded through the support of a Kickstarter grant.
These sources of sustainable funding speak volumes for an artist-run venture with a current annual operating budget of just over $50,000, which covers every aspect of its programming, gallery maintenance, and rent. According to Press Street/Antenna, “Funding sometimes varies depending on outside grant awards and donations year to year, the financial ability of members to contribute, and our fundraising efforts. Every penny spent is on programming or facility costs since the organization is all volunteer. Fundraising is fairly new for us, and everything that we have developed aims to engage our audience, rather than just pleading for money.” Cupcake Throwdown, another fundraiser hosted its second annual event in 2012, which nearly doubled in size since its inaugural year. Press Street/Antenna’s most recent endeavor was the release of a member portfolio called “Stratosphere,” which consists of hand pulled prints from ten of Antenna's members and costs $600.
Press Street/Antenna, when queried about gentrification in the Upper Ninth Ward and their approach to diversified programming responded as follows: “Working with a large group of artists in a city that has the kind of racial and cultural issues that we have, there have always been discussions about inclusion, politics, and race. We've tried to address them directly with projects like “Out of the Same Pot.” We have also been doing community events like Draw-A-Thon, the Loving Festival, various film series, Room 220 literary readings, book projects, and NOLA MIX that reflect our interests and the diversity of our tastes—whether aesthetic or demographic.” Press Street/Antenna’s third annual New Orleans Loving Festival is currently seeking original artwork and films, with themes concerning race, racism, and the multiracial experience for a group exhibition in June 2013.
Many of the members of Press Street/Antenna live in the neighborhood and are very invested in positive and productive development that encourages sustainability and affordable housing. The city of New Orleans has proved itself over and over again to be a seedbed for creativity and the activities of Press Street/Antenna are strong evidence of this. In the aptly put words of Creighton Bernette (played by actor John Goodman and based on the life of New Orleans blogger Ashley Morris) in the first season of Treme, “Its frauds and farces represent some of America's worst excesses and fronts, but day by day, year by year, New Orleans conjures moments of artistic clarity and urban transcendence that are the best that Americans as a people can hope for.” Press Street/Antenna, in chorus with the myriad artist-run spaces and galleries throughout the city, continues to support the most cutting-edge art and ideas in New Orleans and without them its creative community would be greatly compromised.
Press Street/Antenna is located at 3718 St. Claude Avenue and is open Saturday and Sunday, 12-5 pm.
Unless otherwise specified, quotes in this text can be attributed to Press Street/Antenna as a whole. The artist members chose to respond collectively when queried for this article.