Sunday, August 22, 2010

New Orleans Art After Katrina

Prospect.1: Paul Vilinski's Emergency Response Art Studio

Like much of this city in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, the most pressing questions facing the New Orleans art scene had to do with survival. With the population widely dispersed, how many artists and galleries would return? It had taken 200 years for the art community to attain the vital and cohesive level of activity that it enjoyed before the storm, so the burning question was, how much would remain? No one dared dream that the scene would be bigger and more dynamic than before. Yet, by 2008, the New Orleans art community had grown to a point where PRESERVATION, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, could pose the question: “Can art save a city?” It was quite a turnaround from the dark days after the storm when many urban planners urged rebuilding only on the higher ground along the river--an approach that would have eliminated much of the affordable housing preferred by artists.

 Sculpture for New Orleans: Eye Benches by Louise Bourgeois

New Orleanians reacted with fury to any attempt to limit the size or scope of the place they called home, reflecting the militant attitude that had emerged as residents trickled back after weeks of forced exile. Art galleries were among the first businesses to reopen. The Arthur Roger and Cole Pratt galleries sat on relatively high ground, but Barrister’s Gallery, then located in Central City, one of the most storm-ravaged neighborhoods, held its first post-storm opening on October 8th even before electricity had been restored. Also hitting the ground running was the late Cole Pratt, whose eponymous gallery reopened its doors around the same time. “The best way to recover is for everyone to get to work,” he said, but it seemed only a matter of time before the demographics of a smaller and less touristed city imposed a gallery shakeout. A few did close, but were quickly replaced by others, and by 2008 a new gallery district catering to younger and more experimental artists had emerged along St. Claude Avenue.

The resilient, fighting spirit exhibited by New Orleans arts activists was aided by volunteers and innovators from all over America who saw the city as an opportunity to test their vision and make a difference. A symposium at the Arthur Roger Gallery famously led to Dan Cameron’s proposal for the international art expo that became the Prospect.1 New Orleans International Biennial. Organizations with roots all over the country such as Transforma, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Creative Time, the Andy Warhol Foundation and Sculpture for New Orleans helped fund and implement a variety of art-based rebuilding projects. World-class artists such as Mel Chin, above right, (whose Operation Paydirt aims to remediate the lead in our underclass neighborhoods) and Paul Chan contributed much time and energy to art with a goal of social justice. All built on the work of existing local groups such as Ya Ya, KIDsmART and the Creative Alliance of New Orleans to place this city in the forefront of “Community Based Art”--a global movement that employs visual art as an agent of positive social change. The challenge for the future will be to maintain the momentum and fulfill the promise of so many auspicious new beginnings.  ~Bookhardt

Prospect.1: Leandro Erlich's Window and Ladder