It is still the elephant in the room. After two years, most of us would prefer to never see another Katrina related art show again, yet we probably will for the simple reason that many artists here and elsewhere are still trying to come to grips with the full implications of something that, despite our heartfelt desire to move on, was an epochal event in American history with profound implications for the future. At least, that was how Arthur Roger explained why he's starting 2008 with photographic art star Robert Polidori's large documentary Katrina photographs. When they were exhibited at the Met, 'attendance was the third highest in the museum's history," Roger says, suggesting that the storm and the botched response to it were such defining moments for the city and the nation that both are still finding their way in a world that has profoundly changed. Recently, most of the rare positive news headlines out of New Orleans are due to the efforts of artists " actors, musicians and visual artists. Earlier this month, national news media such as the New York Times ran stories touting topics ranging from the Musicians' Village and Paul Chan and the Classical Theatre of Harlem's productions of Godot to Brad Pitt's 'Make it Right" project for affordable green housing in the Lower Ninth Ward. Ordinarily, this column examines whether it was a good year or not for the area's artists, galleries and museums, and in retrospect we can say that last year's trend of older, established galleries prospering, or at least holding their own, while newer galleries have to work harder to just to get by, appears to have continued through 2007. But now a larger story is developing about a new breed of art-world activists who see the city as a grand experiment in the way art can make a difference in people's lives at the ground level. While Pitt's green architecture, and Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr.'s Musicians' Village, provide concrete benefits in the form of housing, a number of other efforts offer subtler, if perhaps no less important, benefits.
Many are the result of an influx of art activists who, along with our indigenous visionaries, are exploring the uses of art as a tool of urban renewal. Of them, noted curator Dan Cameron's New Orleans International Biennial, Prospect.1, promises to 'redefine the city," taking it to the next level as an international cultural destination. Others who have assumed a vital role in expanding the scope of art as a tool for change include Joy Glidden, founder of Brooklyn's Dumbo Arts Center, now director of the Louisiana Artworks, and Texan Michael Manjarris, whose Sculpture for New Orleans exhibition will feature 25 national and international artists. Art In Action founder Elizabeth Underwood saw in post-K New Orleans a raw canvas that seemed ripe for the community-oriented catalyst that street-based art represents. A recent installation of Sean Derry's 35 inflatable Ford Escorts (pictured) cobbled from bed sheets in the parking lot of an abandoned grocery at Bienville and Broad streets brought new interest and energy to a derelict intersection. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects' DesCours installations of new art in formerly abandoned or obscure places offered similar benefits.
Even before the storm, arts activists such as California native Kirsha Kaechele of KK Projects, and Texas transplants Kyle Bravo and Jenny LeBlanc of Hot Iron Press, were pioneering the redevelopment of the St. Roch neighborhood, an effort augmented by the new St. Claude Avenue gallery district and a host of artist-sponsored efforts for local renewal such as The Porch Seventh Ward Center and a soon to be announced new project by Sallie Ann Glassman. If all this sounds ambitious, it is. Not content with playing a simply ornamental role as others do the heavy lifting, artists are now attempting, in their own way, to play a proactive role in the city's recovery.
- Sean Derry's Interlude to Stillness installation of 35 inflatable Ford Escorts focused community attention on a derelict intersection in Mid-City.