In September 2005, a flood-ravaged New Orleans lay silent, dark and empty. The last remaining residents had been made to leave, some at gunpoint, and those who somehow escaped expulsion wandered the streets like zombies, often armed and under cover of darkness, avoiding both the law and the lawless. By the end of the month, drinking water and electricity were still scarce and access was still restricted by the National Guard. The Art for Arts' Sake-coordinated gallery openings slated to kick off the art season on Oct. 1 were all but forgotten. An empty city under martial law was clearly no place for art shows or festive openings, but on that very day, on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City, that is exactly what happened.
"We didn't think we'd have lights, and there was a curfew anyway, so we held it in the afternoon," said Barrister's Gallery director, Andy Antippas, of the opening reception for Sallie Ann Glassman's paintings. "We weren't expecting anything -- if anyone thought I was crazy, here was the proof -- but lo and behold, over 100 people showed up and none of them were National Guards. I have no idea where they came from."
Serendipitously, Entergy had hooked up the electricity the day before. Barrister's was soon followed by the Arthur Roger, LeMieux and Cole Pratt galleries, which all opened their doors in early October and even made some occasional sales. Soon others followed suit, as did the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and now all but two of the Arts District galleries, as well as the Contemporary Arts Center, are scheduled to be open by January. The New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden has also reopened, as will the museum itself come April. And that in a nutshell is how a major art scene, written off for dead in September, came roaring back to life over the following months.
As gallery dealer Cole Pratt put it, "The way to bring New Orleans back is for people to come home and do their job."
But that may be easier said than done. Some artists, like so many Orleanians, no longer have homes or jobs to come back to. Some haven't returned because they were traumatized, while others are nomadic by nature. An artist of elemental discord in her own right, Katrina was a catalyst for mixed emotions. But she sometimes brought out something else: a dogged determination to keep on keeping on. Even during the dark days after the storm when it looked like we were down for the count, artists kept working with whatever they had at hand. Shows of local art were organized in other cities, while here at home artworks appeared spontaneously in the streets like mushrooms after a rain. They included a "robot" on the Elysian Fields Avenue median with a barbecue grill for a head, a microwave oven for a face and an adding machine keyboard for a chest.
Then there was Jeffrey Holmes and Andrea Garland's controversial RIP Lower 9 trash-art installation on St. Claude Avenue with its "Field of Silent Screams," rows of dark Styrofoam heads on stakes meant as reminders of the Lower Ninth Ward residents left stranded on their roofs. (Some National Guardsmen found it offensive and took it upon themselves to dismantle it.) Another holdout, Jonathan Traviesa, plied the floodwaters photographing helicopter rescues from his Mid-City neighborhood near Bayou St. John. He later had the images transformed into plastic signs like those ads that now blanket the neutral grounds, and in November each sign was placed at the site it documented as part of his Deliverance on Bayou St. John conceptual project. While some dithered from a distance, artists and others pursued their own vision in a kind of urban guerrilla activism, a sensibility reflected in Jac Currie's gothic "Defend New Orleans" T-shirts about town.
Considering the erratic nature of Mayor Nagin's leadership, and President Bush's unspoken, yet obvious, policy of demolition by neglect where New Orleans is concerned, citizen activism is more important than ever. More than a city, New Orleans is regarded by many as an artwork in itself and, as with any art form, people are either passionate about it or not. Those who are not now mostly live elsewhere. Those who are here have a chance to create a new landscape much bigger than any canvas.
- Designer Jac Currie's "Defend New Orleans" T-shirts, originally created to protest gentrification, assumed a profound new significance after Katrina.