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 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)

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Prospect.1's St. Claude Avenue venues such as the Colton School, top, which had been converted to a vast hive of artist studios prior to its recent renovation, introduced visitors to that historically marginal area for the first time, and the existence of a network of co-op and collaborative arts spaces along the seedy and still storm ravaged corridor no doubt came as a surprise to anyone unaccustomed to seeing serious art in such unlikely surroundings. Prospect.1 even briefly extended the St. Claude art scene's momentum well into the Lower 9th Ward through venues like the L9 Center for the Arts, the Lower 9th Ward Village and the Battleground Baptist Church. Yet while it has been cited with some justification as a major inspiration for the emerging St. Claude art scene, it was certainly not the only one although it did serve as a catalyst for some currents that were already bubbling below the surface; by providing a focus and a deadline, it helped to galvanize what was to become, with surprisingly alacrity, America's largest and most cohesive alternative arts district.    

Watch Out for Prudence by Myrtle von Damitz

From the perspective of the present, it is now increasingly difficult to remember just how bleak New Orleans' future looked in 2006 and 2007. Written off by most of the world as dead or crippled, the city faced massive challenges to recovery that came to a head when governmental agencies released a map of how the city would be reborn under the direction of “experts” from the Urban Land Institute, with entire neighborhoods including much of Gentilly, Lakeview, the Lower 9th Ward and Broadmoor reduced to “green space.” Citizens of New Orleans, anarchic in the best of times, would have none of it and rose up in mass protest, quickly mobilizing into militant groups that successfully agitated for neighborhood self-determination. This was, in fact, the same DIY spirit that simultaneously propelled St. Claude area artists to create their own galleries and artist run organizations, which in short order brought new interest and vitality to the surrounding neighborhood. And while it may sound surprising that so much attention would be devoted to art at a time when the continued existence of the city was still a matter of conjecture, it should be noted that much of the population at all socioeconomic levels is unusually expressive by nature, and that art galleries were among the first businesses to reopen in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Barrister's Gallery, then located on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. and apparently unfazed by the lack of electricity (a sympathetic Entergy worker serendipitously turned the power on at the last minute), staged its first autumn season art opening right on schedule, on October 1, 2005, at a time when the city was still under martial law and only a relative few residents had been allowed to return. The Arthur Roger Gallery reopened soon after, and Jeffrey Holmes, whose L'Art Noir gallery (the first St. Claude Avenue art gallery) had been flooded out, responded by creating colorful installations on the neutral ground despite harassment from National Guardsmen who failed to understand their socio-aesthetic significance. The world noticed, and the December 5, 2005 edition of the New York Times carried a story headlined, “Art Captures a City's Tumult and Renewal.”  

Visiting in 2006, New York based artist-activist Paul Chan was struck by the devastation and the unresponsiveness of governmental agencies to the plight of the city and its people. Backed by New York's Creative Time arts organization with support from the Annenberg Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation, Chan undertook the effort that led to his production of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, co-produced by the Classical Theater of Harlem. While the play, performed in the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly, garnered local and national headlines, a less well known facet of Chan's work  took the form of a series of workshops with local artists at the University of New Orleans in which he encouraged community engagement and the same DIY approach to rebuilding the art community that was beginning to be seen in some of the city's more devastated neighborhoods.  Chan's activism was part of a diverse convergence of influences that helped set the stage for launching the leading St. Claude co-op galleries, some founding members of which had also been recipients of studio residency grants from New York's Lower Manhattan Cultural Council from November, 2005 to May, 2006, part of a wave of interest in local art and artists on the part of national foundations that continues to this day. Such experiences provided local artists with inspiring examples of how intelligently run non-profit arts institutions can make a significant difference through meaningful community engagement.

Video and sculpture installation by Dave Greber and Andrea Ferguson at the Front

By 2008, the three most high profile co-op or collective galleries (that in 2012 inspired the Spaces: Antenna, The Front and Good Children Gallery exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center), were all up and running.  All three are on St. Claude and all are broadly representative of the district. The first to open was the the Good Children Gallery, which was inspired by the original name for St. Claude Avenue--“Rue des Bons Enfants”--colloquially translated as “Good Children Street,” followed by the Antenna Gallery, part of the Press Street Literary and Visual Arts Collective, followed by The Front. While their constituent artists are increasingly represented in world art capitals and prestigious collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the galleries themselves are doggedly democratic and estuarine by nature, spawning grounds for ideas and processes where creative freedom trumps all else. The artists are all co-equal partners in each of their respective galleries, and all were included in the Spaces exhibition, which encompassed much of the audacious and resilient spirit of St. Claude, especially in the work of several European expatriate artists whose backgrounds in turbulent, war-torn lands such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia provided them with first hand experience of devastation and displacement, and a deep understanding of the importance of tenacity and resilience.

While Antenna, The Front and Good Children all quickly rose to prominence as the most visible leading edge of the St. Claude co-op gallery scene, many individuals working collaboratively with artists in all media laid the groundwork for what was to become a truly grass roots movement after the storm. The result was a unique urban enclave, or as New York Magazine put it: "Part alt-college town, part faerie-anarchist commune, (it) attracts both semiotics majors and gutter punks. In this faubourg, palm trees are lit with blazing sunshine, handmade costumes are as common as skimpy sundresses, and the vibe is always a little trippy." Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and in the latter decades of the 20th century much of the arts bohemia that had once been based in the French Quarter gradually relocated to the nearby Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, historic enclaves  that remain primarily residential while sharing the freewheeling laissez-faire spirit of the Vieux Carre. In addition to L'Art Noir, other St. Claude area art spaces that were active before Katrina include The Living Room pop up gallery and Waiting Room Gallery. Performance artists also flocked to the area, including troupes of alternative circus performers and experimental musicians, and 1998 also saw the premier of Quintron and Miss Pussycat's multidisciplinary 9th Ward Marching Band, a surreal visual and musical extravaganza based on high school bands, replete with majorettes and colorful uniforms.         

Mel Chin with Safe House at Life is Art Foundation

 One of the first arts impresarios to play an active role in the immediate wake of the storm in 2006 was Kirsha Kaechele, whose Life is Art Foundation started out as a gallery in an old bakery on N. Villere St. in the St. Roch neighborhood, and quickly expanded into a complex of five flood damaged houses that were used as adjunct exhibition spaces housing a variety of artists including such art world icons as Robert Rauschenberg and Mel Chin, to whom she provided a modified shotgun "Safe House" for use with his Fundred Dollar Bill project to remediate the lead from the soil of New Orleans' inner city neighborhoods. Although her large scale soirees featuring banquet tables stretching for much of the block down the middle of Villere Street were often criticized, with some justification, as tone deaf, the fact remains that her free art, music, yoga and herb gardening programs for 7th ward children were communitarian gestures that her more vocal critics never matched, and for which she is still missed. (Kachele has since re-launched her efforts in Tasmania.) Another early pioneering art space that opened in 2006 was the offbeat and multidisciplinary Side Arm Gallery on St. Roch Avenue, which in many ways set the stage for the local iteration of the Fringe Fest in 2008.

The grass roots expansion of the St. Claude arts organizations continued in 2007 with the launch of New Orleans Airlift. Founded by musician and impresario, Jay Pennington (aka Rusty Lazer), and Delaney Martin, a visual artist and curator, Airlift began by creating  programming that took New Orleans’ art and its artists to far flung parts of the globe, while hosting artists from major art capitals for creative collaborative projects in this city. Most recently, during the Prospect.2 Biennial, Airlift generated much national and international excitement, including a front page story on the New York Times website, with its Music Box performances of acoustic and electronic music, under the baton of Bywater performer-composer Martin Quintron, in shanty-like structures that doubled as musical instruments. Co-curated by Theo Eliezer in collaboration with Martin, Pennington and a small army of mega-talented sound artists such as Taylor Lee Shepherd and Philip Glass Ensemble co-founder Dickie Landry, The Music Box marks a departure from the usual Euro-American modalities of art making in that its collaborations, funded by Kickstarter campaigns and small grants, evoked the sorts of serendipitous anarcho-utopian approaches once idealized by Europe's Situationists, but which have always existed in the carnivalesque collaborative cultures of the Afro-Caribbean world, of which New Orleans' self-defined “culture of celebration” has always been a part.

Other notable additions to the St. Claude art scene in 2007 included the reopening of Barrister's Gallery at its St. Claude Avenue location (Left: Father Lenin by Jessica Goldfinch at Barrister's), as well as the Homespace Gallery, located in an expansive, high ceilinged corner storefront space on St. Roch Avenue. While not co-ops in the strict sense, both follow a collaborative model in which proprietors, curators and artists democratically stage exhibitions based on informal discussions and varying degrees of volunteer effort. It is a model that was pioneered  by Barrister's proprietor Andy Antippas, who has long championed the cause of emerging artists, an approach later employed by Emily Morrison, whose Trouser House Gallery on St. Claude featured a mix of art exhibitions and urban farming until zoning issues caused it to close in late 2011. Plans are proceeding apace to reopen at its new space, also on St, Claude, later this year.        

 Ivan Navarro Fence at UNO St. Claude, Prospect 2

Beyond the advent of its vaunted co-op galleries and arts collectives, St. Claude also unexpectedly became an outpost of the academic establishment in 2008 with the opening of the University of New Orleans St. Claude Gallery concurrent  with the opening of Prospect.1. Despite its academic imprimatur, UNO St. Claude maintains the typical area blend of work by experimental as well as established artists. But the co-op impetus only gathered steam in 2010 and 2011 with the emergence of the T-Lot and Staple Goods collectives on St. Claude and St. Roch Avenues, respectively, as well as a new collective art space at the Healing Center, also located on St. Claude. And while T-Lot is a  warren of warehouses that serve as artist studios and occasional exhibitions spaces,  Staple Goods has emerged as an important player in the St. Roch gallery scene with a full schedule of thoughtful and polished exhibitions in a modest but pristinely renovated former corner storefront space. It should also be noted that the co-op model also extends to the area's nascent film community as well, most notably the Court 13 collective, which after gaining international acclaim with works like their great short film, Glory at Sea, went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival with their full length feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, one of the most critically acclaimed feature length films of 2012. This follows on the heels of other acclaimed St. Claude area filmmakers such as Joseph Meissner and Helen Krieger whose widely lauded full length film, Flood Streets garnered a number of independent film festival awards in recent years.         

 Saturn Bar founder O'Neil Broyard with Mike Frolich ca. 1986

Adding to the overall mix are a number of less predictable spaces such as the Aquarium Gallery, the Louisa Street Digest, the Kawliga Gallery and various artist owned spaces such as the Allison Gordin Gallery and the Travis Linde Gallery that sometimes double as collaborative emerging artist exhibition spaces. And then there are hard to define spaces such as Byrdie's, a combination ceramics studio, coffee house and gallery that functions as a neighborhood center in the heart of the St. Claude-St. Roch nexus.  Add in all the bars, cafes and restaurants that show art and the numbers expand exponentially, building on a trend started by O'Neil Broyard after he founded the Saturn Bar on St. Claude Avenue in 1960 and encouraged his self-taught artist friend, Mike Frolich, to use it as an exhibition venue for his prolific inventory of colorful paintings. Like music in Treme, St. Claude is a neighborhood where art simply happens. Broyard, who died in late 2005 of a heart attack brought on by the strain of rebuilding after Katrina, could never never have anticipated that the trend he started over a half century ago would one day evolve into a nationally prominent alternative arts enclave based on the principles of participatory democracy in the service of creative urban community building.  +++