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New Orleans’ arts community showing significant signs of life

New Orleans’ arts community showing significant signs of life

Beth Bingham

NEW ORLEANS — Traditionally, the first Saturday night of October is when gallery owners here launch the fall arts season with the fashionable annual event, Art for Art’s Sake. It’s a night when thousands of locals and tourists invade the Crescent City’s numerous arts districts–from the French Quarter to Magazine Street–to check out the latest offerings from the city’s painters, sculptors and photographers. This October, however, the gallery doors remained closed, and for a battered city just beginning to surface from the ruins of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the yearly event was almost forgotten.

Almost.

“I don’t know if it was tenacity, stupidity or what … but we opened that day” laughs Andy Antippas, owner of Barrister’s Gallery. Located in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood, Barrister’s was the only gallery to host an opening for Art for Art’s Sake this year. Ironically, the group show planned for the event was called Spirit of Place, an intended collaboration of local artists expressing their connection to the city of New Orleans. In that last week of September, a new show had to be curated due to the evacuation of so many of these artists. “It is unfortunate that, at this time, it is the place that overtook the artists, and not the other way around,” says Antippas.

Since Barrister’s was still without electricity, and since the police and National Guard were enforcing a curfew at sundown, the opening (which Antippas referred to as “a fugitive event”) was scheduled from 11 a.m. to dusk. Despite the decimated population of the city, more than a hundred people showed up. “There was lots of hugging and sharing of stories,” he says. “I thought it may have been a pointless gesture, but there were so many grateful people that came. I have never been thanked so much.”

City’s Arts Organizations Step Up

Antippas wasn’t the only person who served as a beacon of hope for the city’s beleaguered artistic community in the desperate days and months following Katrina. Several New Orleans arts organizations also stepped up to the plate to do what they could to try and help and in some cases re-energize what remained of city’s shell-shocked arts community. It was just first step in what many see as one of the city’s most important revitalization efforts–the rebuilding of its arts scene, and its culture. “People don’t come to New Orleans to see the hotels,” says Scott Hutchenson, chief operating officer of the Arts Council of New Orleans. “They come to see the life.”

The Arts Council, an arts advocacy group, mobilized soon after Katrina to help address the needs of the city’s displaced artists, many of whom lost their homes, studios, and much of their artwork. Working in exile from a temporary office in Shreveport, LA, the Arts Council’s Scott Hutcheson immediately began compiling a list of displaced artists, where they were living, and what they required in order to facilitate their return to their calling–mainly tools, space and equipment. The Arts Council also teamed with the Louisiana Lieutenant Governor’s office to form Rebirth New Orleans, which is intended to rebuild the cultural infrastructure of the city.

Oddly enough, the path of destruction brought on by Katrina was also the catalyst for the creation of the Louisiana’s newest arts organization. Just after the hurricane, New Orleanian Matthew Goldman teamed up with the Acadian Arts Council in Lafayette, LA, to form Project HEAL (Helping Employ Artists Locally), which began placing evacuated artists and musicians into instructional positions at schools in places such as Lafayette, which were struggling to accommodate hundreds of displaced students from New Orleans.

Like most things in post-Katrina New Orleans, the future of the city’s galleries–which depend on tourism as well as a healthy local patronage–is uncertain. For returning artists, the arts scene seems particularly threatened, especially since the city seems to have few muses left to keep them inspired.

“You don’t really throw yourself into art when you’re in limbo,” says Adam Farrington, a Ninth Ward-based metal sculptor, who is unable to work due to the damage Katrina wrought on his studio. Still, he can’t imagine living or working anywhere else. “It is a really sympathetic city without a lot of hoops to jump through,” he says. “In New Orleans, you can just bump into someone and get something going.”

Beth Bingham ABN Contributing Editor

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