At this time last year, many of this city's artists were still elsewhere. The handful of galleries that were open were on life support, and the only functioning arts institution of any size was Ogden Museum, which survived Katrina unscathed. As 2006 loomed like a huge question mark on the horizon, one of the biggest whispered questions was -- not if, but how many -- galleries would be forced to close in this devastated and much smaller city. Clearly, with so many residents forced out and with tourism basically nonexistent, something had to give. And why would anyone even care about art when fundamental issues such as housing and employment were still very much on everyone's mind?
In 2006, the Contemporary Arts Center and New Orleans Museum of Art reopened with reduced hours, and NOMA has just installed its repaired Virlane Tower by Kenneth Snelson, completing the restoration of its superb sculpture garden. By now, many artists are back, most galleries are open, and the New Orleans art scene appears far healthier than anyone expected a year ago. That much said, French Quarter galleries and businesses face hard times in a city with too few tourists, and any galleries that opened anywhere in the city in the months before Katrina face a wide range of uncertainties. Both the New Orleans Museum of Art and Contemporary Arts Center are engaged in national searches for contemporary art curators, a task CAC director Jay Weigel finds complicated by the lingering negative media images of a city in chaos. "I end up having to sell potential candidates on the city as well as the job," he says, echoing a common concern expressed throughout the city as a whole. While some officials such as Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and convention and visitors bureau president Steve Perry are widely credited with helping to jumpstart the recovery of the city and state, other high profile leaders seem to be missing in action. On top of all that, many artists, musicians and others who make this city what it is have been unable to return due to the shortage of affordable housing, despite what increasingly looks like a glut of overpriced apartments languishing empty for long periods on the rental market, gathering dust and hampering the city's recovery.
And yet, despite lingering storm clouds, there are also occasional rainbows as well as silver linings that sometimes glow gold. The heavily damaged but now repaired CAC has major research and development funding for the first time, thanks to grants that formerly eluded them. And many echo KIDsmART founder Allison Stewart's view that, despite all the damage, "Katrina has provided opportunities to improve the city in ways that were never possible before." But the biggest surprise has been the resilience of the more established galleries about town, most of which have seen sales ranging from fairly decent to downright spectacular. If the dreaded gallery shakeout does finally happen, it will probably be on a much smaller scale than first thought. Lately, there may actually be more galleries opening than closing. How is that possible?
"There seems to have been a shift in priorities," said Arthur Roger, noting that his local and regional artists with established followings have been selling better than ever, even at the upper price ranges. "People seem to have a deeper appreciation," he says, a change he attributes more to a deepening sensitivity to our regional culture than to simply restocking collections damaged by the storm. It's a sentiment echoed by Christy Wood at LeMieux Galleries, who notes that "while there are always ups and downs, our better known artists seem to be more appreciated than ever." Jeanne Cimino at Heriard-Cimino says, "This year has been such a surprise -- much better than we'd ever imagined." On Magazine Street, Erika Olinger at the Cole Pratt Gallery reported a similarly positive outcome, even as newer spaces around town, including Moxy Studios, Jenkins-Connelly and the visually stunning Gallery Bienvenu, must deal with the added challenges of getting established in a time of lingering uncertainty --Êchallenges that reflect the uneven business climate in the city as a whole. Still, the startling strength shown by some of our older galleries was an unexpected yet very welcome sign. Let's hope that 2007 continues the progress across the board.
- The recent return of the repaired Virlane Tower by Kenneth Snelson completes the restoration of the New Orleans Museum of Art's superb Sydney and Walda Besthoff Scuplture Garden.