Sunday, December 25, 2016

New Orleans Art: The Year in Review

There is a line in the great 1932 Greta Garbo movie, Grand Hotel, when a jaded habitué off-handedly says, “People come, people go, nothing ever happens here.” The irony of his remark is soon obvious as dramatic events, long bubbling below the surface, unfold on the silver screen. For the New Orleans art scene, 2016 was that kind of year, a time when it was easy to take everything for granted, at least until some big anniversaries caused us to look back and see how far things have come.

The Contemporary Arts Center's 40th anniversary is an amazing milestone. Now in the midst of its most significant renovation since the 1980s, including the expansion of its ground floor exhibition spaces, the CAC under the leadership of Neil Barclay has the feel on an institution coming more fully into its own. Not only is it among the oldest American alternative arts centers, it is also one of the few housed in its own building. Forty years is such a long time that many people have no recollection of how the CAC came about. It originated with an art show organized by Robert Tannen and James Lalande in an old church—a multi-media expo that inspired interest in the idea of an experimental art space with a permanent location. Tannen and journalist Jeanne Nathan staged a series of meetings with assistance from Clifton Webb, Jeanette Hardy and Emery Clark. Ultimately, it was gallerist Luba Glade who enlisted Sidney Besthoff, the K&B drugstore mogul, to make available the old warehouse building that still houses the CAC today. Although dozens of us met and discussed the idea, it was primrily those four individuals--Tannen, Nathan, Luba Glade and Sidney Besthoff--who actually made it happen, and set the stage for much of what has happened since. Of late, certain parties who played no  formative role in its inception have bizarrely claimed to be "founders," but at this point it is especially important to give credit where credit is due and distinguish between actual "founders" and interested bystanders. After over 40 years, the history of the CAC is more important than ever because it was a crucible of experimentation that presaged collaborative approaches now more associated with the St. Claude Arts District. This year, CAC curator Andrea Andersson's ultra-eclectic, Gordon Matta-Clark inspired Anarchitecture show paid tribute to that pioneering collaborative spirit with works like Jebney Lewis, Rick Snow and Christopher Staudinger's large metal sound map depicting New Orleans as a vast resonator, top.  
Among other significant anniversaries, the Stella Jones Gallery--New Orleans  premier African-American art gallery—which turned 20 this year, deserves special commendation. Featuring the most historic names in black American and Caribbean art, it has long doubled as a low profile educational facility as much as a gallery and incubator of local talent, and for this we are indebted to Dr. Jones' longstanding and seemingly indefatigable dedication.

But the biggest anniversary might be what I think of as the “Recovery Arts District,” which refers not to any official district but to the activist post-Katrina art transformation that began in 2006, most famously in the St. Claude area, but which now covers much of the city. The New Orleans Photo Alliance began that year as an attempt to preserve the local photography community but now has its own gallery space and produces an important national event, PhotoNOLA, with some 60 gallery and museum exhibitions spread all over town. The St. Claude Arts District began when Jeffrey Holmes installed some pointed ad hoc assemblages on the median outside his flooded gallery, and Kirsha Kaechele staged pioneering exhibitions in her St. Roch former bakery, but now features numerous co-op and collaborative art spaces and more events than anyone can possibly follow. That ad hoc "just do it" spirit also animates Michael Manjarris' Sculpture for New Orleans project featuring a wide array of work by major  regional and world artists like Jim Surls, above left, in prominent locations about town. European curators like the Rotterdam-based Delta Workers group have also made significant, if low key, contributions to the cultural life of the city. But when it comes to low key activists who have had a significant impact, the Joan Mitchell Center, above, under the direction of Gia Hamilton has subtly yet profoundly influenced this city's increasingly diverse and inclusive visual arts culture. It is all part of a citywide arts expansionist trend that is evident even in historically  underserved neighborhoods like Central City, where O.C. Haley Blvd. now features exciting new developments like Pelican Bomb's Gallery X and the Creative Alliance of New Orleans' Myrtle Banks gallery as community based art expands into a pervasive if not omnipresent citywide phenomenon. ~Bookhardt