Changing Tides: Another Look at the New Orleans Art World

Amy Mackie follows up her 2013 essay focusing on New Orleans’ artist-run and alternative spaces with a look at some of the recent changes in the city’s art scene.

In 2015, the Joan Mitchell Center opened its new campus featuring top-of-the-line artist studios on New Orleans’ Bayou Road.

Change is inevitable, but when seismic shifts occur in a city’s cultural landscape they spawn questions and doubt, as much as new possibilities and hope. Pelican Bomb’s announcement that they will conclude operations on November 30, 2018, after an eight-year run, is one such change. Many are wondering who might be able and willing to provide a comparable platform in New Orleans. While local writers ponder where and how they might continue publishing about contemporary art, artists, especially those who are members of collectively run spaces, are, no doubt, considering the increased challenge for their exhibitions to have visibility outside of the city.

As a final contribution to the online arts publication, Pelican Bomb invited me to revisit my essay, “How to ‘Soak’ in New Orleans,” which appeared in a publication for the Hand-in-Glove Conference (now the Common Field Convening) and on Temporary Art Review in 2013, as a way to reflect on this time of flux. At that time, “How to ‘Soak’” was an attempt to survey the flurry of activities and the resurgence the visual arts community (most specifically the nonprofit and alternative spaces in the city) experienced post-Katrina and to give its development some context. Five years later, it is clear that much in the city has changed, though so many other things have remained the same. There are certainly more people and many new buildings alongside renovated ones, a new streetcar and more bicycle lanes, and additional necessities like grocery stores. The city’s refined landscape leaves a lot of questions about how this rapid growth will alter this place, while New Orleans’ traditions such as Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest continue to dictate the population’s communal calendar, as they always have. The city certainly has more resources than just a few years ago, though the small but active art community continues to operate—and thrive—despite little funding.

Major occurrences, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, and the ongoing problems of coastal erosion, levee failures, and regular flooding impact New Orleans’ residents in often invisible, but insidious and persistent ways. BP (formerly British Petroleum) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flooded money into the city following natural and man-made disasters, including the oil spill and Hurricane Katrina, and New Orleans has since experienced substantial growth and development. It is most evident in the city’s Central Business District and adjacent areas such as Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, in addition to the Faubourg Marigny and the Bywater.

Tourism has soared in the last several years and AirBNBs have come to dominate neighborhoods like the Tremé. This historically black neighborhood is now overrun with whole-house short-term rentals that have priced out residents and have drastically altered the socio-economic structure of this neighborhood. In step with more tourists, there have also been more visiting artists, curators, and writers facilitated through a handful of national and international residency programs such as A Studio in the Woods, St. Roch Community Church’s artist residency, PARSE NOLA (I am the director of this program), and Antenna’s Spillways residency. Prospect New Orleans also brings many artists to the city, especially in the months preceding an exhibition. (Prospect.5 is scheduled for 2020.) Additionally, the Arts Council New Orleans opened a new studio program this fall called Salon, located in the posh downtown shopping center Canal Place.

Dashboard, Antenna, and Southern Letter Press opened Paper Machine in 2017. The exterior of the building is painted with a mural by artist Carl Joe Williams.

The residency programs that now dot New Orleans are welcome additions to the art community—and though they are sometimes less visible than gallery spaces—their impact is significant. They bring in artists, curators, writers, and performers from all over the world, who are here for short to extended stays. Some produce exhibitions or events in the city and/or collaborate with local artists and organizations. This has brought a new influx of people and projects to New Orleans. The resulting exchange of ideas—and potential collaborations—with the local community has contributed to the visibility of the city’s artists and its art community on an international scale. This is particularly evidenced through large, financially sound organizations such as the Joan Mitchell Center, funded by the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New York. The program is sited on a beautiful historic property along Bayou Road with state-of-the-art studios—and they have hosted hundreds of artists in the city since 2013. Another smaller, but energized residency program is Deltaworkers. Founded in 2014 by Maaike Gouwenberg and Joris Lindhout and with the support of the Dutch Mondriaan Fund, Deltaworkers has brought nearly 30 international artists, writers, and creative practitioners to New Orleans. Funding, however, for programs that aren’t tied to major foundations outside the city, remains a challenge. As a result, many local organizations lean on the state’s oil and gas industries for support.

There are surprisingly few arts organizations in town with a hefty budget that don’t receive support from fossil-fuel companies. As Ann Hackett aptly notes in an essay published by Pelican Bomb earlier this year, many of New Orleans’ larger arts institutions “receive significant funding from companies making money from the Gulf’s oil and gas industry or from foundations funded by this wealth.” The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans Airlift, and Prospect New Orleans are currently or have previously been backed by the Helis Foundation, which is funded by the Helis Oil & Gas Company. This subject has become a hot-button topic in the arts community in recent months. The erosion of Louisiana’s wetlands and ongoing damage to the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico are results of drilling and spills caused by profit-driven oil companies. Meanwhile, the city is extremely dependent on financial support from the very fossil-fuel companies that are destroying this landscape. Additionally, most post-Katrina disaster resources have diminished, and several foundations have discontinued their funding of arts initiatives in New Orleans. While a lack of funding is the primary challenge in New Orleans’ art community, its people are its greatest asset—people who know what it takes to rebuild a city. New Orleans residents are both resourceful and capable and it is this resilience that gives the city its edge. It will be critical in the months and years ahead to observe how organizers work toward financial sustainability in light of several recent departures and shifts in institutions, large to small.

The city’s three largest museums, NOMA, founded in 1911; the Ogden, founded in 2003; and the CAC, founded in 1976, receive sizeable funding and produce the majority of the arts programming in the region. NOMA and the CAC have experienced several changes in senior staff in recent years, the impact of which is not yet fully felt. Miranda Lash, who was one of the city’s greatest contributors to the field of contemporary art over the last ten years, departed the Crescent City in 2014. When she was hired at NOMA in 2008, she was the century-old institution’s first dedicated contemporary curator and she made great strides in establishing a collection of contemporary art at the museum. She was replaced in 2015 by Katie Pfohl, who left the Louisiana State University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge to join the institution. Russell Lord, NOMA’s photography curator, has held this post since 2011. At the Ogden, Bradley Sumrall and Richard McCabe continue in curatorial positions at this institution focused on Southern art and artists. Across the street at the CAC, things are changing once again. Neil Barclay, the multi-disciplinary space’s executive director, announced his resignation this fall and M.K. Wegmann, National Performance Network’s (NPN) former Executive Director and also one-time director at the CAC has taken over in an interim capacity. Chief Curator of Visual Arts Andrea Andersson, who has been at the institution since January 2015, continues to oversee visual arts programming. Also at the CAC, The Stacks, the city’s only art and design bookstore, went out of business at the end of the summer. Run by Émilie Lamy in the building’s first floor café, it was an incredible resource for this community.

The cover of The Iron Lattice, vol. 3, features artwork by Douglas Bourgeois.

Another major shift occurred this fall when Gia Hamilton, who led the building and development of the Joan Mitchell Center, left after six years with the organization. Her exhaustive energy and deep ties to the local community were essential to this important residency program. Steffani Clemons, formerly of NPN, is now overseeing the Center while a search is being conducted for a new executive director. Other midsize institutions such as the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University, helmed by Executive Director Mónica Ramírez-Montagut since 2014, have gone through several curators in recent years. Laura Blereau, formerly at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, joined Newcomb in 2017. In the spring of 2018, Newcomb along with Pelican Bomb and A Studio in the Woods partnered to present EMPIRE, an exhibition and series of city-wide events with the Los Angeles-based duo Fallen Fruit (David Allen Burns and Austin Young). These types of collaborations, through which institutions share ideas, resources, and venues, are one way that New Orleans’ institutions are able to produce stellar programming with limited means.

Two of the city’s most visible entities, the Arts Council New Orleans and Prospect New Orleans, are also experiencing transitions. Kim Cook, who served as the CEO of the Arts Council from 2013 to 2015 was replaced in early 2016 by Nick Stillman as acting director. He soon after became President & CEO. In early 2018, it was announced that Stillman was hired as Prospect New Orleans’ Executive Director, with Heidi Schmalbach taking over at the Arts Council. Board member Christopher J. Alfieri became the President and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Prospect, a position formerly held by Susan Brennan. Most of the core team for Prospect.4 no longer work for the institution. It remains to be seen how these staff changes will impact the local art community. Both organizations certainly facilitate many activities that occur locally (and the Arts Council distributes limited grants), but their own programs and events are their priority. There are, however, other entities that assist in providing support to local artists. The Platforms Fund, a collaborative effort of Antenna, Ashé Cultural Arts Center, and Pelican Bomb, is a re-granting program funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts that “provides support for the development and presentation of self-organized artistic projects in and around New Orleans.”

As the city celebrates its 300th birthday, several organizations have also reached major milestones: Ashé Cultural Arts Center, a nonprofit organization that “creates and supports programs, activities and creative works emphasizing the contributions of people of African descent,” is celebrating their 20th anniversary, and The Front, one of the city’s oldest collectively run art spaces, located in the Bywater, is ten years old this month. Other established artist-run spaces in the neighborhood, like Antenna and Good Children Gallery, are at least a decade old and continue to present exhibitions and events every second Saturday of the month along with other nonprofit or alternative spaces on or in close proximity to St. Claude Avenue such at Barrister’s Gallery, New Orleans Community Printshop, New Orleans Art Center, the Aquarium Gallery, UNO St. Claude Gallery, and the Second Story Gallery. All of these spaces have vastly different politics, programming, and funding structures. Some are nonprofits, some are not. These artist-driven and nonprofit art programs continue to be the city’s life source, and without them this art community would be rather lackluster. There are a handful of commercial galleries, particularly on Julia and Magazine Streets, but it is the art spaces on St. Claude Avenue that attract young creative people from larger cities while continuously drawing an enthusiastic local crowd each month. Paper Machine, the brainchild of Dashboard in Atlanta, with help from Antenna and Southern Letterpress, is a new production space in the Lower Ninth Ward. The 5000-square-foot facility houses a range of traditional and cutting-edge print technologies and it has quickly become a much-needed resource. New Orleans Airlift has also grown exponentially in recent years. Their unique Music Box Village of houses-turned-instruments made of salvaged materials has become a sought-after venue for local and international musicians, performers, and artists.

This laundry list of departures, arrivals, and anniversaries in New Orleans might seem commonplace, but in a city of less than half a million people, each has a profound effect. As we now speculate about the uncertain future of arts criticism in this city, the one thing that remains clear is this community’s need for a platform where artists are addressed on egalitarian terms through critical writing about contemporary art. Culturalyst, a startup organization still in its beta phase, seems to have the potential to host such a thing. Launched by Sam Bowler, Culturalyst’s website states, “We’re starting with a directory for artists, creatives, and culture bearers in New Orleans, our home.” Many will be watching as they launch their new database in the months ahead. The Iron Lattice, a locally produced print publication and website, often publishes profiles on New Orleans’ artists. With some financial and editorial support, they could publish even more. Or perhaps, a completely new entity is needed. Unfortunately, the publications with the largest circulation in the city, the Times-Picayune, the Advocate, and the Gambit, provide limited space for writing about art and culture. Pelican Bomb, with their focus solely on contemporary art and life, adeptly brought together the voices of a multitude of writers and thinkers in New Orleans for eight incredible years. The void left is hard to fathom, but it is time to say goodbye. New Orleans misses you already.