Some years are marked by outsized personalities associated with epochal turnabouts or sweeping sea changes that challenge our imaginations. The year 2010 was like that. In the midst of the city's uncertain recovery from a devastating hurricane, further complicated by a global financial collapse, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. It was just a ball game, but it altered how the city was perceived locally and nationally. Suddenly, it seemed like we could do anything. Most years are made up of almost unnoticed bits and pieces that eventually facilitate later heroic victory or epic failure. Then there are the years when sweeping changes are more sensed than obvious. In the local art world, 2015 was such a year.
It was a time of long-developing maturations and quietly ambitious new beginnings. The most visible examples include the rebirth of Tulane University's Newcomb Art Gallery as the Newcomb Art Museum, a major new commitment at a time when many university art programs are on the chopping block. On Julia Street, the erstwhile LeMieux Gallery was sold by longtime owner Denise Berthiaume to longtime staffers Christy Wood and Jordan Blanton. By becoming a worker-owned enterprise, this conservative old gallery brings Julia Street closer to the co-op galleries that define the upstart, community-based St. Claude Arts District.
Community-based art efforts became subtly pervasive to an unprecedented extent in 2015. New Orleans Photo Alliance president Thom Bennett recently sounded almost awed by the way the annual PhotoNOLA photography festival has grown, attracting hundreds of art photographers from across the world to its workshops, exhibitions and events — an outcome far grander than anyone envisioned when the group was founded in 2006 to help preserve the city's photographic community. An all-volunteer labor of love, it is preparing to hire its first paid director.
Similarly, many of the artist-run co-op galleries along St. Claude Avenue have not only survived but become more polished and global in scope, and some traditional spaces embrace community goals. The Foundation Gallery on Royal Street shares 25 percent of its sales proceeds with activist organizations like Blights Out, which employs performance art in its affordable housing and blight remediation agenda. If this sounds different from the kind of creativity we usually associate with art galleries and museums, note that such volunteer approaches to creative collaboration have a longstanding local model in Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs.
Local multicultural performance art groups are becoming increasingly well-known institutions. New Orleans Airlift — which stages multimedia events involving eccentric, handmade structures, and which earlier this year attracted more than 10,000 visitors to performances in New Orleans City Park — is now negotiating to acquire a permanent home in a strategic, if rustic, location. Similarly, Port, an art space based in an Upper 9th Ward warehouse, made a name for itself with performances like
Splish, a surreal mermaid show featuring participation from many local subcultures. Under the direction of Gia Hamilton, the Joan Mitchell Center has used similar grassroots approaches to blend seamlessly into the fabric of local life. If all this sounds new and exciting, it is, but there are precedents, for instance, in the way Robert Tannen, Clifton Webb, Jeanne Nathan and Luba Glade founded the Contemporary Arts Center decades ago — an adaptive use approach still employed by Nathan's Creative Alliance of New Orleans. As with so much in this city, the local art world's past, present and future often appear inextricably interwoven.