New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, which opened its doors 40 years ago, has evolved into New Orleans’ premier public arts training center for culinary arts, creative writing, dance, media arts, music, theatre and visual arts. This milestone year will be celebrated Sunday, when the NOCCA Institute presents a gala hosted by Terence Blanchard and Robin Burgess with performances by Blanchard, Pedrito Martinez, current students and alumni.

Reflecting back on the school’s modest beginnings, Shirley Trusty Corey, one of its founders, exclaimed: “When I’m at NOCCA, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry — it is just so wonderful.”

Now, boasting a nationally recognized arts training program and a long roster of illustrious alumni, including Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Gary Solomon Jr., Wendell Pierce and Brandan Odums, it may be difficult to recall NOCCA’s early struggles.

Corey, then Supervisor of Cultural Resources for New Orleans Public Schools and a former speech and drama teacher, had seen her students’ excitement attending theater productions. She was convinced school curricula must incorporate the arts as well as provide preprofessional training for those who wanted artistic careers.

Corey was a “force to be reckoned with,” said Richard Read, NOCCA marketing director.

In 1969, she secured a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Louisiana Council for Music and Performing Arts to fund a three-year pilot program for Jazz Artist-in-Residence Alvin Batiste. Jazz had never before been taught in schools. “It was not even considered legitimate,” Corey commented.

In 1973, the Orleans Parish School Board endorsed $1 million to open NOCCA. A half-day program admitted 137 Orleans Parish high school students by audition to study instrumental music, drama and visual arts. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the state of Louisiana funded four faculty salaries. Students attended partner schools in the mornings and arts classes at UNO and the New Orleans Museum of Art in the afternoons.

The following academic year, students moved to LaSalle Elementary School for an expanded program, including theater, music and visual arts. The concept of “artist-teacher” was born and Ellis Marsalis became the first jazz instructor. NOCCA remained there until 2000.

An eight-year, $10 million capital campaign began in 1994 to raise matching funds from the state of Louisiana’s capital outlay program for a new 5-acre, five-building campus in Marigny. The new facility would feature three performance stages, practice rooms, a recording studio, dance studios, visual arts studios, classrooms and digital media labs.

The new facility provided for further expansion of academic programming. The school’s “broad spectrum approach” to teaching theater arts, for example, would include lighting, costumes and stage management, as well as budgeting and writing contracts, Read said.

This year, NOCCA will graduate the first class to complete the Academic Studio, the four-year discipline including a full range of courses.

“For some students, traditional educational environments did not work for them,” said Kyle Wedberg, NOCCA president/CEO. Creating the Academic Studio allowed NOCCA to offer those students both world-class arts training and academics.

The administration invited consultants from Collective Invention in San Francisco to design classes using NOCCA’s endemic techniques of constructive criticism, collaboration and project-based learning, Read said.

“The kids we get are talented,” Wedberg said. But NOCCA allows them to achieve “the greatest version of themselves,” with multiple career paths to choose from and college scholarships that otherwise might not have been available.

“Kids don’t come here unless they want to come here. This is not the easy option. They come because they have a drive, a talent and a desire to pursue art as a career,” Read said.