When the public gets its first look at the Joan Mitchell Center Saturday, they will be visiting the only campus that Mitchell’s namesake foundation has created for artists-in-residence anywhere in the world.
According to Gia Hamilton, director of the center, the campus was a natural outgrowth of the foundation’s efforts to support New Orleans’ arts organizations and artists post-Katrina.
“The foundation came to the city in 2007 at the invitation of Scott Hutcheson, who then was at the state’s Division of Cultural Recreation and Tourism,” Hamilton said. “We gave funds to help keep arts organizations going and to help artists get back into their studios.”
The foundation was established in 1993 after Mitchell, a celebrated abstract expressionist painter, died and left behind a cache of valuable paintings. The foundation loans Mitchell’s paintings to museums, academic institutions and other nonprofit arts spaces and also houses archival materials related to Mitchell’s life and work at its New York headquarters.
The foundation also makes direct grants to artists and arts organizations. One program, Creating a Living Legacy, matches older artists with artists savvy in digital archiving to create comprehensive databases of the artists’ works.
“Joan Mitchell left the United States for France at one point, and often mentored younger artists at her home in Vétheuil. She would offer them a place to stay while they developed their art, which is why our artists-in-residence project honors her legacy so well,” Hamilton said.
The campus is a mix of old and new buildings on a plot of land that encompasses almost half of a city square. Located on Bayou Road at North Dorgenois Street, the center originally was limited to two parcels purchased in 2010: a former bed and breakfast (“House on Bayou Road,” at 2275 Bayou Road, built in the 1790s) and a one-time restaurant (Indigo, at 2285 Bayou Road). Gradually, additional properties were folded into the site, including 1430, 1448, 1462 and 1464 N. Rocheblave St., added in 2013.
A dazzling contemporary studio building has been completed recently after more than two years of construction.
“When you walk onto the site and look from Bayou Road through it toward the rear, the view was just too beautiful to disturb,” said Lee Ledbetter, of Lee Ledbetter and Associates, who designed the 8,000-square-foot, LEED Silver studio building. “So, we designed the building to be L-shaped so that it wraps around the rear corner and frames the site.”
The building houses ten studios of varying sizes, all illuminated by north light, which enters through “light monitors” on the roof.
The “House on Bayou Road” houses administrative offices, bedrooms for two short-term guests, and a kitchen where meals will be prepared for residents three times a day. The corner building is where artist talks and public events will take place.
“I worked on the conversion of the corner building and recognized the need to connect the inside better to the outside, so we created a raised terrace shaded by a canopy,” said architect Jonathan Tate. “The canopy that shades it is in a contemporary style that helps tie the building to others on campus.”
Tate also worked on artist living quarters, which occupy the buildings facing North Rocheblave Street.
The team worked with Joe Evans and Barney Lighter, of Evans + Lighter Landscape Architecture, to work out a water management plan for the entire site that depends on crushed stone walkways, permeable paving, a bio-swale and a cistern. The system aims to keep as much rain water as possible on-site to avoid sending it to the city’s overtaxed drainage system.
“Evans and Lighter reshaped the land elevation on the site so that there is now a bio-swale that surrounds the studio building. You have to cross a bridge over the bio-swale to reach it,” said Ledbetter.
Ledbetter, Tate and Hamilton agree that the landscape design serves as an important unifying factor for the sprawling complex. In addition to the esthetic and practical meandering paths and bio-swale, there are gardens filled with native and butterfly-attracting plants.
The goal of the unified campus is to provide a peaceful, calming environment for artists to live and work during their residencies.
Communal meals are designed to foster the free exchange of ideas among the 17 national artists and 3 local artists who will make up the inaugural cohort of artists-in-residence. Residencies last anywhere from one to five months and artists receive stipends while participating. The residency program begins this fall.