Mention the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts to the uninitiated, and they might think it’s a long-vanished vestige of New Orleans’ storied and cultured past, like the old French Opera House on Bourbon Street, the New Orleans Atheneum on St. Charles and Clio, or the Maison Blanche department store on Canal.
But the Academy not only is very much still alive; with a faculty that includes some of the most accomplished artists in the city and a vibrant exhibition schedule, it is an integral part of the artistic life of New Orleans.
Founded in 1978 by artist Auseklis Ozols, who still oversees the course of instruction today, NOAFA originally was conceived as a place for the study of painting and drawing along the traditional academic model once common in American and European art schools.
Other media, including sculpture and photography and classes in art history, also are part of the current curriculum.
While NOAFA’s facilities have grown over the years (it now occupies a suite of buildings on Magazine Street off Jefferson Avenue), its range of instruction remains essentially a conservative one: You won’t find anything by way of multimedia, video or performance art in its class offerings. Despite the rise of different forms of multimedia expression over the past four decades, NOAFA’s commitment to its original mission has held fast.
Many of NOAFA’s faculty and alumni have gone on to exhibit in museums and galleries all over the world. But there may still be no better place to view the results of NOAFA’s commitment to traditional artistic instruction than at the Academy Gallery, located in the main building of the academy at 5256 Magazine St.
Described as a “teaching adjunct” to the school, the gallery regularly displays work by NOAFA’s faculty, students and alumni, and is probably one of the more consistent under-the-radar exhibit venues in New Orleans.
Two current exhibitions, featuring work by former NOAFA students, showcase what the academy’s artistic focus is all about.
One room features work by New Orleans artist Garth Swanson, a former member of the NOAFA painting faculty whose series of large scale, almost abstracted nature scenes were painted on location in City Park.
“Garth’s work is unique,” Ozols said. “Not only is he one of the relatively few artists who continues to work in the plein air tradition, but the fact that his current landscape studies consist of reflections on water surfaces bring them to true personal abstractions of nature.”
In addition to the landscapes, several of Swanson’s earlier intimately scaled still-life paintings are on display. Many of them feature liquor bottles and lipstick-stained cocktail glasses, giving a clue about his other career as a popular bartender at Clancy’s.
Despite their diminutive size, the still-life objects have a distinct presence and almost monumental quality about them. A few are even more reminiscent of miniature cityscapes than random objects arranged on a bar.
Also on view at the academy is new work by NOAFA graduate Nancy Dawes, whose figure studies and delicate botanical studies play a complementary counterpoint to Swanson’s more robust paintings across the hall.
Some of them have an unfinished quality that emphasizes the artist’s linework and sense of color. But even those illustrate the focus on detailed observation and traditional draftsmanship that remain the cornerstones of the NOAFA curriculum.
Taken together, Swanson’s and Dawes’ work might seem a world away from the more insistently contemporary work on display elsewhere in New Orleans these days, especially with Prospect.3 on the horizon. But in their commitment to classical artistic instruction and techniques, they prove that certain kinds of art never go out of style.