Sunday, September 30, 2012

The St. Claude Arts District: A Brief History

by D. Eric Bookhardt

 Cai Guo-Qiang's Black Fireworks, Colton School, Prospect.1

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's massive deadly flooding, the advent of numerous artist run galleries along the St. Claude Avenue corridor was probably the last thing anyone might have expected. And yet, seven years after the storm, an ever-shifting total of over two dozen collectives, co-ops, pop-ups and collaborative organizations now comprise an almost entirely artist-run arts district that is unique to this city and without parallel in North America if not the world. Although collective, co-op and artist run organizations have at times played a prominent role in American art history, no arts district of this sort has existed on any scale since New York's famous 10th Street co-op galleries became the epicenter of that city's avant garde art scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And while no one can predict the future of St. Claude's new wave of art spaces, film and performance organizations, they appear to have already caught the attention a noteworthy segment of the American art and media establishment. The April, 15, 2012  edition of the Christian Science Monitor went so far as proclaim that, “Like Seattle in the 1990s, New Orleans is now the hot city. The new energy, stoked by outsiders and mixed with Katrina survivors’ resilience, is rejuvenating the arts scene, jump-starting it into a different rhythm.”    

How did this happen? Much of the initial national and international interest can be attributed in part to the critically acclaimed Prospect.1 International Biennial, which garnered rave reviews from visitors as well as from the national and global art media as they suddenly discovered New Orleans, seemingly for the first time. Part of the reason for its critical success was that its founder, Dan Cameron, deployed its high quality components in fascinating if still obscure parts of the city such as Treme and the Lower 9th Ward, immersing visitors in culturally rich neighborhoods that were, at the time, little known to most outsiders. Such places embody the oft stated local truism that this is a city where the culture bubbles up from the streets rather than being handed down from on high as is customary in Europe and America. Or as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote, “It proves that biennials can be just as effective when pulled off without bells, whistles or big bucks. Maybe even more effective, if the local cultural soil is spectacularly fertile." 

Indeed, this participatory, community based, often spontaneous quality of expression defines this city's creativity as Creole in the sense that it represents a rich Caribbean blend of African, European and indigenous AmerIndian traditions. This should come as no surprise considering that a majority of the city's population was of Caribbean origin when Louisiana became a state in 1812, hence it was the sensibility that originally set the tone and lives on today in its Mardi Gras Indians and Second Line parades. Yet rather than reflecting what the New York Times refers to as New Orleans' identity as a "cultural Galapogos," some pioneering research by Guadeloupe born, New Orleans based writer and curator Claire Tancons has revealed hitherto little known parallels between these Creole Caribbean creative traditions and a rich array of processional cultures found across many diverse regions of Africa and Asia, situating their centrality within a far broader, if as yet little understood, global dynamic. (Above left, Mardi Gras Indian suit by Big Chief Victor Harris of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi)  More>>