When you arrive at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and hear Satchmo’s trumpet pour out soaring notes of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” your pulse revs up with a bubble of joy. Then you can’t help bouncing when Hank Williams’s twangy lyrics promise: “Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.” Music encapsulates the poles of the city’s culture: incandescent art and raucous celebration.
When the levees burst after hurricane Katrina in 2005, flooding 80 percent of the city and killing more than 1,700 residents, for a while there was neither art nor reason to celebrate. Now, however, a grass-roots artistic renaissance is marching in to lift spirits. It’s found in collective art galleries sprouting in a scruffy section of town and young, indie filmmakers telling big stories with small budgets.
Artistic revival? “It’s visible in the air, it’s on the ground, you see it in galleries opening, in people showing up for film screenings – it’s palpable,” says Glen Pitre, the dean of the New Orleans independent film scene. “Folks feel like they’re part of rebuilding the city, but it’s not just selfless. It’s also a desire to hop on a fun, fast-moving train going somewhere exciting.”
“What’s happened is an astonishing burgeoning of galleries every place on St. Claude Avenue,” says longtime New Orleans gallerist Andy Antippas, who’s organizing another collective. The movement started with a handful in 2008, and now there are arguably more galleries run by broke artists on this one-mile strip, per capita, than in any city of comparable size in the United States. Compared with the tepid art market and lack of institutional support for contemporary visual art here, “it’s totally out of whack,” says Jessica Bizer, a member of Good Children Gallery.
In contrast to fancy, blue-chip galleries in upscale areas, the upstarts are bare-bones endeavors, founded by emerging artists in their mid-20s to mid-40s, just as the independent movies are being created by 20-something self-starters. Joseph Meissner, who made an award-winning, low-budget feature film, "Flood Streets," with his wife, sold their house to finance production. “Collectives are the way to go,” he now says. “The old indie credo was do-it-yourself (DIY), but this new idea has emerged of DIWO – do it with others.”
The let’s-get-together-and-put-on-a-show, group-hug vibe is attracting idealistic, artsy young people to the city in droves. Like Seattle in the 1990s, New Orleans is now the hot city. The new energy, stoked by outsiders and mixed with Katrina survivors’ resilience, is rejuvenating the arts scene, jump-starting it into a different rhythm. Kyle Bravo, a founding member of The Front collective, explains: “It was partly the energy of rebuilding post-Katrina and to re-create the city in some way” that inspired him to start a co-op gallery after rehabbing his house and studio.
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."
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.”
As part of its mission to grow the grass-roots, indie film scene, Court 13 offered after-school classes to local children ages 7 to 11, Mr. Penn says, “helping them to find a story, develop it, and act in it so they could be the creative force.” The collective's hope, Penn adds, is “to foster a different kind of filmmaking community than in Los Angeles, with a DIY, adventurous spirit where anything is possible and you’re not limited by your small budget.”
All those who’ve been through the storm and those who came to rebuild afterward are shaped by the experience. “It’s impossible to say our work’s not influenced by Katrina,” says Ms. Gisleson. The art, the very existence of the St. Claude art district in the funky Bywater neighborhood where most artists live – this holistic emphasis “is never about us,” she maintains. “It’s about what we have and what could have been lost.”
The spotlight on the city after the storm highlighted its distinctive identity as a mélange of indigenous and imported cultures, music, cuisine, and festivities. For a few years after Katrina, artists of every stripe had to exorcise ghosts of tragedy in their work, but eyes have turned to the future. “Katrina still hangs over everything,” according to “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin. “But it’s more a force that drives people forward now, as opposed to something that holds you back.”
Meissner, a teacher of martial arts by day and actor/director at his core, talks about rebuilding his life along with the city. “Especially if you were here before the storm, you see that cultural [progression] of change and growth. It’s been a transformational process, which makes our work so much deeper, while the interaction between old and new makes it more interesting.”
Now that mourning for what was lost has subsided, New Orleanians are back to what they do best: throwing their creative energies into celebrating. Mr. Zeitlin pooh-poohed the idea that the constant panoply of parades and parties might distract from producing art. “Our films are about that. We thrive on that. That’s why I fell in love with the place.” The city’s charms, he says, balance his “cut-throat work ethic.”
Zeitlin praises the freedom and tolerance of eccentricity in his adopted city, saying, “People just accept who you are and appreciate it.” He hopes to attract more kindred spirits and to inspire youth, making the city a creative mecca: “If the kids here were picking up video cameras the way they pick up horns,” he says, “that could be a real way for the city to express itself.”
As young artists converge, drawn by the inexpensive cost of living, joie de vivre, and a chance to do something significant, New Orleans is the Tabasco-tinged flavor of the moment. Besides a commitment to communal endeavor and artistic expression, no philosophy binds the alt-art flock. It may not last when groups – as often happens – splinter. Perhaps circumstance will slow the director’s call to “action!” followed by “cut” and fade to black.
Yet even if the current, hip arts scene proves ephemeral, the stately magnolias will still lift their velvety, cupped petals to the sky; tinkling notes from a piano will still drift down Frenchmen Street; and lacy, wrought-iron balconies will harbor costumed crowds straining to catch beads from a Mardi Gras float. New Orleans – that fragile, precious place – like the Dude in "The Big Lebowski," abides.