Some visitors recently asked if there were any local art shows they should see. I mentioned Prospect.4, with an international collection of 73 artists at various venues, and the PhotoNOLA international photography expo including more than 60 exhibitions around town. Other must-sees include big museum shows like the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's Solidary & Solitary expo of black abstract art from the Joyner/Giuffrida collection, the pioneering Unfamiliar Again exhibit of contemporary women abstractionists at the Newcomb Art Museum, and the New Orleans Museum of Art's (NOMA) vast East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography exhibit featuring more than 150 vintage images including some of the oldest ones made in America — enough to keep anyone busy for weeks.
On top of all those mostly locally originated events, NOMA just announced it is doubling the size of its acclaimed sculpture garden, and the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) just completed a major renovation, so it has been a strikingly busy time for the arts here in America's 50th biggest city.
All this has not gone unnoticed. New Orleans native-turned-New York art star Wayne Gonzales routinely returned to visit his parents, but he only recently got to participate close up in the local scene as a Prospect.4 artist.
"The creative energy of New Orleans is as exciting and diverse as I've ever seen it," Gonzales says. "There is a strong sense of community that crosses generations and disciplines, and there are opportunities to experiment in ways that just don't exist in bigger centers."
Similarly, Prospect.4 creative director Trevor Schoonmaker noted a "sense of shared community among the artists and visitors," adding that there is something about this city's "way of bringing people together" that he views as "important at this particular moment."
The big story of 2017 is not just that New Orleans has emerged as an increasingly high-profile global art center, but has done so in a way characterized by widespread community involvement — a trend that dates to the wave of activism in response to the challenges posed by Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Not only did artists create a new arts district along St. Claude Avenue, but organizations including The Music Box Village, the New Orleans Community Print Shop & Darkroom and the newer Art Klub, all have pointedly engaged under-served segments of society. More established institutions like NOMA, the Ogden and the CAC have developed extensive community programming. This often involves a special kind of focus. As PhotoNOLA Director Amy Dailey Williams notes, "The national photography community got involved early on, but we place a high priority on local communities, so we expanded our outreach into schools and institutions like Kingsley House."
One highly influential institution that, under the direction of New Orleans native Gia Hamilton, has had enviable success balancing mainstream visual arts and local community concerns is the Joan Mitchell Center, where accessible programs and a major artist residency center have enabled a new wave of artists from a variety of backgrounds to make their presence felt locally and nationally. A longtime advocate for art as a tool for social healing and personal growth, Hamilton acts on her belief that, "all humans deserve the right to be creative, and need time, space and resources to help solve our society's issues. What would happen if humans had more time to be creative — imagine what problems we could solve together."