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New Orleans's post-Katrina artistic revival is in full swing

Galleries are flourishing despite the market and indie movies are on a roll – jumpstarting the whole arts scenes, but to a slightly different rhythm.

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When asked how art can contribute to a city’s recovery, Mr. Bravo admitted, “I tend to be skeptical about art’s ability to effect much social change.” He also distrusts reliance on government, saying, “That whole Katrina experience solidified my belief you can’t depend on institutions or authorities at all. If you see a need, it’s us filling it, doing what needs to get done.” Bravo's wife, Jenny LeBlanc, he says, called transforming a flooded-out building into a venue to display art "the largest sculpture I ever made."

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The collectives’ members consider the communities they’ve formed as vital to urban well-being as the art shown in their galleries. Like artist Joseph Beuys’s concept of social sculpture, the collectives not only reclaim abandoned buildings, injecting new life into a physical setting, but disperse a dynamic, can-do ethos into a pretty laid-back place.

Comparing the collective galleries to public art, Susan Gisleson, member of Antenna Gallery, says, “It engenders a generous spirit. It’s literally art for the sake of art. It’s all about the process, not the product.”

The answer to the ubiquitous “Who dat?” posed by Saints football fans is trumpeted on a neighborhood sign proclaiming “We dat.”

The Front Gallery’s structure is based on volunteerism, artist Lee Deigaard explains: “a commitment to bring in the best art we can. You do everything. You clean the toilet, show your own work, curate others’ work, hang the show, repair the walls.”

One after another, these artists describe their efforts as egoless, altruistic. “We’re about the artist, not the sales,” says Tony Campbell. That keeps it "very pure," his fellow member of Good Children Stephen Collier says.

Sales of the cutting-edge work are minimal, and most of the artists work day jobs to support their art production. The experience of losing everything after the hurricane influenced this nonmaterialistic streak. Most of the pre-Katrina residents had extensive damage to their homes and studios – losing their tools and prior artwork – which oriented them differently after the storm. “Trauma bracketed the place for years,” Ms. Deigaard recalls. “If you still had belongings, you’d look at them and wonder, what’s the point?”

The life lesson Mr. Meissner learned was “you can lose everything in an instant,” and “the myth of progress in this country, the idea that things always get better, we always get richer, and if you play by the rules your turn will come, is just not true.” It was a wake-up call for him and his screenwriter wife, Helen Krieger. They emerged from an introspective period during evacuation vowing not to waste valuable time slaving at a job without personal meaning.

Newcomers, too, who came to gut houses as volunteers and stayed to rebuild or work for non-profits like Teach for America, share the communitarian ideals. Members of the filmmaking collective Court 13 (whose first feature film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) are “all friends on this adventure together making the movie,” according to coproducer Josh Penn. He describes the collective as “very much like a living organism – it sort of expands and contracts.”


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