Getting Artsy in New Orleans

As any New Orleans resident will tell you, there’s more to the city than Mardi Gras and go-cup daiquiris (though we do enjoy both very much). Indeed, New Orleans possesses a burgeoning and dynamic art scene, an urban center akin to Austin and Brooklyn that has drawn creative types from around the world. For artists and writers, New Orleans’ affordability and open, communitarian sensibility present a unique alternative to the expense and dissociating sprawl of these other urban art centers. The following will give you an idea of the New Orleans-based artists and artisans to watch out for, and where they’re showcasing their work, hanging out, selling and creating.

The Artists
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On his 2011-2012 exhibition, The Wreck, artist and Yale MFA grad, Bob Snead says of his work, “My introduction to the city was a wreck outside the windows of my soon to be home on Saint Claude Ave… settling down from a life on the road with traveling artist collective Transit Antenna, the wreck soon became a metaphor for the move, with my family’s crash into the Bywater driven only by our intoxicating love for the city.” This love and engagement with the city also shows up in the work of born and bred NOLA artist, Hannah Chalew, the founder of T-Lot, a studio/installation space in the St. Claude Arts District. Chalew’s floating pen and ink landscapes (like the one above) evoke “the post-Katrina landscape emptied of human life as time marches on and over it.” The list of working New Orleans artists goes on, and it’s perhaps best to head over to Constance New Orleans or Pelican Bomb to take note of coming art openings, commissioned art writing, interviews, images, videos, and more local art happenings.

The Neighborhoods
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The Bywater and Marigny neighborhoods in downtown New Orleans are the places to see fresh art by local artists. On Second Saturdays, many galleries around St. Claude Avenue such as 1239 Congress and the Antenna Gallery open their new exhibits to the public, showcasing risk-taking New Orleans solo and group exhibitions. Walking around the St. Claude Arts’ District, you might glimpse some of the neighborhoods’ public art displays, a Banksy or poetic declaration in paint on the side of a building questioning: “WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY?”

In order to assist you with navigating the many galleries and venues in these neighborhoods, the people of Constance New Orleans are assembling a printed guide for the St. Claude Main Street Neighborhood project, which will be available to pick up in a few short months.

The Venues
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Founded in 1853 by German Catholics, re-adorned in 1873 with wall and ceiling frescoes, and destroyed by Hurricane Betsy in the 1960s, the Marigny Opera House was purchased in 2011 in order to restore the historic building and share the space with the community. While the church is zoned for residential purposes, you can catch special performances by the Chard Gonzalez Dance Theatre or the 9th Ward Opera Company, the New Orleans Puppet Festival, or participate in the Draw-a-thon, a free 24-hour public art exercise.

While you’re in the neighborhood, it’s also worth checking out The ShadowBox, an intimate live performance space located inside the repurposed old Marquer Drugstore and the official home of the New Orleans Fringe Festival. The ShadowBox boasts more out-of-town shows than any other theatre space in town, but this is still an intimate neighborhood venue that features a variety of local theatre and events.

The Markets
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Tucked into an alley off of the bustling local music epicenter of Frenchmen Street, where on any particular night you can drift into a show by Kermit Ruffins or Luke Winslow King over 13 Monaghan‘s Tater Tachos and an Abita, the Frenchmen Art Market presents an impressive display of work from local artists and artisans. Whether you’re interested in jewelry (see: the talented jewelry ateliers ThoraFord and QueensMetalJewelry), or if you’re seeking an art piece with character for your wall (look no further than Vinsantos’ stunning Mixed Media Mini Worlds and Art Dolls at his Kreeture New Orleans booth), the Frenchmen Art Market is a necessary component to an evening on Frenchmen.

Or, if it’s the third Saturday afternoon of the month, head over to the Bywater, get yourself a Piety Street Sno-ball (with ice cream and condensed milk, please), and check out some vintage clothes or excellent Mardi Gras costuming, season-depending at the Piety Street Market. Located within the gates of the Old Ironworks, the Piety Street market offers live music, vintage goods, furniture makers, jewelers, food vendors and more. At the February market, I purchased a few strands of glass Mardi Gras beads from celebrations long past. It’s outside, across from the thin-crust perfection of Pizza Delicious and down the street from the newly renovated Markey Park, so if you go, you’re guaranteed to have a pleasant Bywater afternoon.

And twice a year, you must visit the Avant Garden, another project of Constance New Orleans, a curated arts market featuring the work of local “artists, designers, makers and taste-makers.” Avant Garden’s mission is “to provide an alternative to the usual local Arts Markets by a process of individually inviting vendors that represent emerging talent in the city, enriching our cultural economy as a whole.”

Events
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If you make a trip in August, catch White Linen Night, when the Warehouse Arts District closes its streets for a three-hour, white-frocked block party complete with gallery hopping, live music, and food and drink from top New Orleans restaurants; and then there’s Dirty Linen Night, when Royal Street gallerists and antique dealers place laundry baskets outside their shops, feed dirty martinis and dirty rice to visitors, and don the dirtied linens they wore at the giant block party the week before. Both events showcase two of the city’s prominent art neighborhoods and are worth checking out not only for the artwork, but also for a chance to admire the juxtaposition of CBD and French Quarter architecture.

On the first Saturday in October, more than 30,000 people gather in three New Orleans neighborhoods for “one of the most chic street parties ever,” also known as Arts for Arts’ Sake, an event that has traditionally served as the kick off for the New Orleans art season. From gallery hopping in the Warehouse Arts District and along Magazine Street, to the opening of new exhibits and live music at the Contemporary Arts Center (the CAC), the event is a packed celebration of local artists and the vibrant New Orleans art scene.

Public Art
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While it is certainly necessary to visit the Contemporary Arts Center or the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, you can just as easily see great work by local artists simply by walking through the city’s magnificent streets. Conceived by New Orleans native Michael Manjarris in 2008, Sculpture for New Orleans was created in order to help draw international recognition to New Orleans as an artistic center. The first seven sculptures by seven Southern artists were installed on the neutral ground of the city’s major corridors in time for the tens of thousands of visitors arriving for Super Bowl XLVII and Mardi Gras 2013.

Five years ago, as Hurricane Gustav neared the city, public art superstar Banksy left his internationally recognized images on various New Orleans buildings. His local renderings, including an image of a girl standing beneath an umbrella failing to combat the drizzle and a scene of National Guard members looting electronics, comment upon New Orleans’ ongoing recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. One of Bansky’s canvases is even on display in the New Orleans Museum of Art. NOMA — the city’s oldest fine arts institution (it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011), is often recognized as one of the top museums in the South.

Set among centuries-old oak trees and hundreds of acres of beautiful green space in City Park (the Canal Street Streetcar will take you there from downtown), NOMA boasts an impressive collection of French and American art, photography, glass, and African and Japanese works. Right outside NOMA’s doors you’ll find the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden — one of the most important sculpture installations in the United States — featuring five acres of beautifully manicured landscapes, footpaths, reflecting lagoons, and over 60 breathtaking works by some of the great master sculptors of the 20th century.

Main image by Regina Scully, courtesy of Octavia Art Gallery