From Squalor to Splendor, Arts District Rises in Big Easy

A once-decaying section of New Orleans now boasts tony art galleries and prestigious nickname 'SoHo of the South'

"I like things to have a sense of age, texture, and history," says woodworker Christopher Maier, owner and director of an eponymous gallery of sculptural furniture in New Orleans. He's referring to the cherry cabinets and gilded chairs he creates, infused with references to classical, Egyptian, and Gothic architecture. But he could also be talking about the Warehouse Arts District where his gallery is located.

This burgeoning cultural center - a 10-block stretch of Julia Street from Baronne Street to the Convention Center on the Mississippi River - is within walking distance of the French Quarter and business-district hotels. About a dozen galleries there exhibit the latest contemporary art and crafts in renovated mid-19th-century brick town houses and former warehouses redolent of the past.

"SoHo of the South" is how boosters bill this arts enclave. As in New York's bustling gallery scene, urban pioneers transformed a decrepit neighborhood, where rents were as low as the buildings were spacious, into a sophisticated outpost of culture. Yet the Southern version is unlike SoHo, in that New Orleans gallery owners eschew the haute-culture snobbery of their Northern counterparts. Instead of all-black attire, Big Easy gallery directors are more likely to wear shorts and tropical-print shirts. And - mirabile dictu - they are people-oriented, talking to even obvious tourists with enthusiasm and passion about the objects they display.

The arts area is of recent vintage. Before the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, the Warehouse District was a seedy section of skid-row hotels and abandoned warehouses. Spruced up to house overflow World's Fair exhibits, the area soon attracted condo developers and gallery owners in search of more space.

Donna Perret, director of Galerie Simonne Stern, was first to convert a row house to a sleekly elegant gallery in 1984. Although she hired security guards for her first season's openings and customers packed guns when they visited, the area is now completely safe for pedestrians.

Besides exhibiting mid-career artists like Judy Chicago, Perret shows well-known artists like Tapies, Elizabeth Frank, and Lynda Benglis. Marguerite Oestreicher Fine Arts is another gallery that shows internationally recognized figures like Balthus and Milton Avery, mixed with Louisiana artists like John Geldersma.

At Wyndy Morehead Fine Arts, the connecting link between works shown is vivid color. Gallery director Wyndy Morehead displays "Green Balcony," an acrylic by Canadian painter Grant Innes (a riot of sun-soaked foliage that echoes Matisse) for $1,600.

"People are amazed at the high quality of art on the street, without the inflated prices of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles," Ms. Morehead says. Prices at Julia Street galleries range from about $50 for crafts and handmade jewelry to tens of thousands for paintings and prints by well-known artists.

At Ariodante, prices for contemporary crafts start at $7 and go up to $9,200. Owner Larry Potts moved to New Orleans from Washington because, he says, "I love history, and New Orleans has more history per square inch than any city in the US." His exhibitions of exquisite glass and art furniture reflect an outlook he describes as "this William Morris philosophy that everybody should be able to afford something beautiful that's handmade."

Richard Nesbitt of d.o.c.s. studio/gallery is another extroverted director who says, "My art is selling." His gallery in a restored Georgian town house (formerly a flophouse) is opposite the 1839 Gothic Revival St. Patrick's Church. "I sit at my desk and have this beautiful view. I feel like I'm in Paris," he says.

Meandering along Julia Street, where ART banners wave beside lavender blossoms of crape myrtle, is like strolling a New World Montparnasse. Even eating can be a cultural as well as culinary experience. At Doug's Place restaurant, the brick walls of the 1840 Federal Style former warehouse are festooned with owner Doug Gitter's fine collection of "Southern Outsider" art. Framed 45-r.p.m. records by local lights like Aaron Neville ("Tell It Like It Is") and Fats Domino ("Walking to New Orleans") hang near a Jimmy Lee Sudduth painting, "His Dog Toto."

The dog's strong brown face is painted with Sudduth's trademark concoction of clay, grass, and Dr. Pepper.

The Warehouse Arts District becomes a vast outdoor street fair at regular intervals. The first Saturday of each month (except during summer), the galleries stage coordinated openings of new exhibits from 6 to 9 p.m. The first Saturday in October, 10,000 people mob the district for an "Art for Art's Sake" benefit organized by the neighboring Contemporary Arts Center. And earlier this month, Julia Street staged a block party where jazz bands, the symphony orchestra, and an opera company entertained.

A triumph of urban renewal and reuse of historic buildings, the area is on the National Register as a Historic District. It not only has history going for it, but it also has a vital present.

Painter Richard Johnson lives and works in a studio on Julia Street. Speaking of the brief winter freezes that turn wide-leafed banana trees a soggy brown during the winter, he says, "Everything is reborn in the spring. It all looks dead, but then it comes back, stronger than ever."

Julia Street, too - a dead, decaying, downtown area just a dozen years ago - has re-flowered in a burst of art and beauty.

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