Q&A with CANO President Jeanne Nathan

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The Studio at Colton's twice-extended, rent-free lease expired at the end of July, leaving the startup arts and education colony in limbo as the fall semester approaches. (Read Gambit's story about the colony's closing here.) Jeanne Nathan, president of the Creative Alliance of New Orleans (CANO), which founded the studio for Prospect.1 in November, spoke at length about her efforts to continue its partnership with the Recovery School District (RSD) while at the same time searching for a new creative home. (Full transcript after the jump.)

What’s the latest update on the studio's future?

We’re sort of operating on three levels. One, in-school locations. As far as that’s concerned, we’ve been meeting, I would say, almost biweekly with (RSD Superintendent Paul) Vallas personally, as well as top staff at RSD and people who are responsible for various schools, including principals. I’m trying to identify locations. I have to say that in the very beginning I was really not excited about having a scattering of spaces in various schools. And then, I kind of warmed up to it as I started to work on it, realizing that a few artists in a school can have a big impact.

What you lose in centralization …

You gain in systemwide impact. So I kind of realized that. Secondly, I discovered through calls that I got through community steering groups, through other people, that there were people who cared about this project and really did want it in their schools. So we have had actually some offers from schools to come in, and not just us going and looking for schools or RSD saying “How about this, how about that.” Which is how we kind of started out — with RSD suggesting certain schools they thought would work. We feel at this point pretty confident that we are going to be in several schools. I really cannot say which ones right now. Our preference is to be in a neighborhood where whatever we do has a value, as far as neighborhood development, beyond the value to the artists and to the students that are directly engaged.

Douglass has been mentioned in a couple of articles.

We’d love to be in that neighborhood.

Have you been briefed on the future of the school?

Colton, as I understand it, is destined to be two KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools. The reason why they were so anxious to get Colton back — and, quite frankly, why I didn’t put up a huge fight — from the day we moved in they were very clear that that school was destined to be an elementary school, because they needed, as [Vallas] calls them, “seats.” He needs them particularly at the elementary school level, and he needs them in that area. There’s just no argument. And many of the artists who are more sensitive to the community issues from the very beginning said they were not interested in challenging that. Artists are funny people. You have artists who are very socially oriented, and then you have artists who are extremely into their own little world, you know? You just have to balance all that.

But it seems every artist also understands the importance of Colton being reinstated as a school.

There was never any real debate. The contracts that the artists all signed, August 2008, were through January. They extended us through the end of May. But we were crystal clear, from the beginning, that they were loaning us the school, and [it] would revert to a school. You have a lot of artists who put a lot of time into their spaces, and they were just really excited — it was a denial thing, quite frankly. We all felt it; I felt it too. It was so perfect. But it was a fluke. The utility costs per month are over $20,000. And the operating costs, if we were actually operating it — plumbing and AC issues constantly — I can’t even estimate them. So we could never have afforded to stay in there in the long term. We were very happy squatters. It’s sad when you develop a community and you have relationships that evolved out of it. If the school system were not faced with such systemwide prerogatives that they had to deal with, then they might have been more able to comprehend the tremendous importance of doing that program going forward.

What surprised you most about your time in the colony?

One thing that I am really clear about with the artists is that I really thought their main objective coming into the building was studio space. But I have to say that by January, when we were sort of moving past the Prospect.1 phase and more into the education phase, I learned that a lot of those artists really cared about the educational element and wanted to be there. Now again, there are those artists who don’t want anything to do with the educational element, and don’t want to be in the schools. We’re not going to try to match up an artist with a school who doesn’t want to be in a school.

Who are some examples that would want to be in schools?

Monique Moss is a good example of somebody who wants to be in a school. Annie, the upholstery girl, she’s wonderful, she wants to be in a school. I’m sure Elizabeth Traina. I don’t know whether Elizabeth wants to go into a project again. Let me just say this also: We have a survey that we put out, a kind of exit survey, that has three purposes. One, it is to determine what people’s needs and wants are. Do they want to go forward with the program? Do they want to be in a school? Do they not want to be in a school? Then, secondly, to get documentation on their experience in the building and their recommendations for what they thought worked really well and what they thought needed work. Those surveys are going to be extremely useful, but they’re still kind of pouring in.

Some artists told me they feel the communication from RSD, or lack thereof, has been frustrating. Have you found that to be the case?

Quite honestly, the artists don’t know what our negotiations with RSD were like before we got into the school. They were very similar to the way they are now, which is, “Yeah, we’re hoping to do this, we’re hoping to do that.” But it was hard to pin things down, because that is a very moving target over there. They have so many balls in the air, and they’re bouncing them like crazy. So I’m very understanding of the ambiguity, let’s say, of working with them sometimes. They’ve got very, very big projects. In some instances they’ve gotten pushback from some people who are kind of critical of them for even entertaining artists. We stay on the case with them, but we do it in a very sort of understanding and patient way.

How has the communication been between you and the artists?

I’ve sent out emails at least every few weeks letting them know the latest. But every email has said the same thing: “We’re working on it.” It’s just one of those situations. I wish I could have had more in place. The hardest thing is the folks that have to leave right now, move their stuff some place, and I can’t yet tell them where they can go in the system. I’m still trying — before the end of this week, literally — to line up some of the spaces that I’ve been told are definite for us in one of the schools. I’m trying to get some of the people — especially the ones who I know have a lot of equipment to move out, and who I know want to be in a school — I’m still trying to get them to where they don’t have to make two moves. After this week they have to be out, so people are going to wind up having to put things in storage or in their homes or whatever. I’m not happy about it; there’s just not a whole lot I can do about it.

Can you elaborate on some of the spaces you’re exploring for future studios?

I’ve got a list around 12 items long for other properties in the city, both commercial, institutional and church properties, that we are trying to explore. Again, it’s not a quick process. We just found a building in the past week that we’re really crazy about — well, the guy’s out in Colorado, so I got to track him down and see if I can get a possible use of that building. That building would actually accommodate a lot of artists. We’re also still in negotiation for the space we’ve been using on Julia Street. My husband is at this moment talking with the owners and looking for possibilities for utilizing more of the space that’s available around there. We have put a proposal into the Archdiocese. What better use could there be for (closed) churches than to have cultural centers in them? You’re dealing with people’s spiritual and creative side. It would be a great use. We’re still hoping that might result in some spaces in more than one community in the city.

Almost every artist I spoke with mentioned their surprise at how important a shared space was to them, just for the networking and shared resources.

The ability to communicate, the collaboration potential. Quite frankly, that was something that I actually wrote into their contracts. I was so excited about the potential. Art in New Orleans, just like everything else in this city, we have tended to historically be a little isolated from the universe in general. It’s so hard to pursue a creative profession here, in terms of the size of the marketplace. My feeling is that one of the reasons a place like New York, or Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or Chicago, generates so much innovative artwork is because of the number of artists who are around and work together. So, for me, one of the big advantages of everybody being in the building was the collaboration and networking.

Now, having said that, we are still very much looking for a larger facility that can accommodate a critical mass of artists that would bring back that innovation and collaboration. The relationship between the schools, the way we’re envisioning tying rooms together in different schools — because you don’t control the exhibition and performance space, we’re going to have a pooled strategy for presentation. Let’s say there’s a commitment for the auditorium for the month of December, when they do a Christmas Carol show or something. If we have a show that one of our artists wants to do, we may go to a different school where we also have classes, and say, “Can we use the theater X weekend for a performance there?” It’s a little bit like the morning shakeup at a long shore. We’ll do a sort of scheduling process through the schools. And just bringing people together on a monthly basis, the way we did before — we had the discipline chairs, and [they] communicated with the artists. We’re looking at having a chair artist at each of the schools, an artist who’s basically responsible for that particular school. Everybody operated on a volunteer basis in the first year, and that was one of the real struggles: the lack of funding. Katharine Bray has come on to work with us, and another person for fundraising. We’re going to try and bolster our resources so we can actually pay an artist to coordinate a given school — not a salary, but kind of a stipend.

So you plan to pursue the education and studio options concurrently?

Studio, presentation and performance space. One of the options we’re looking at is a very large and exciting retail location. That will be a very different animal, more like studio/market. My bottom-line objective, always, is to generate income for artists. That is ultimately what this is all about. It’s about boosting the creative sector; it’s about helping artists be able to earn income from their creative products, and not from their day jobs at the Royal Sonesta. Anything I can do to increase the market aspect is one of my priorities. I like the retail model. I like the model of the building being in a community, where it has an impact on the community. I like the model — and we actually got this into the Master Plan — of having a cultural center as part of a civic/retail zone in a neighborhood where it can provide business, career and professional training for creatives. That’s a model I was actually working on before Prospect.1 and before the storm, a community center for the creative professions in the Treme neighborhood. I’m still working on that — one of the two church properties I’m trying to get. Economic development at the neighborhood level through the creative sector. These 20-year-olds that are coming from everywhere around America to be in New Orleans, I’d say at least 50 percent of them are cultural, in one way or another. They’re here for film, or video, or photography, writing. They’re creatives. The creative sector is growing by the second.

What are the short and long term goals for the studios?

Short term: Get into the schools, do a good job, keep presenting, make sure that the artists and students are engaged, presenting and/or selling their products successfully, also looking for nonschool locations as well. Longer term is building up our funding base and looking for more ambitious models that would bring us back together in larger facilities.

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