This city's resilience, and its determination in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, have attained legendary status over the past decade, and New Orleans' art community is a case in point. For instance, before the storm, no one ever would have dreamed it would be home to America's only large-scale international art biennial, Prospect New Orleans, or that St. Claude Avenue would ever be known as much for art galleries as it was for dive bars. Or that the Joan Mitchell Center — the multi-million-dollar visual arts complex that grew out of the New York-based Joan Mitchell Foundation's efforts on behalf of local artists after the storm — would take root here as the the foundation's only satellite facility outside of New York City. Just as there are more local restaurants than before, there are also more artists and a bigger, more diverse and experimental art scene despite the city's smaller population.
But the changes may go deeper than the numbers suggest. There has long been a utopian yet rarely acknowledged undercurrent to life here, and its transformation would not have been nearly as dramatic if not for the way ordinary folks and artists alike came to understand that community is more than just hanging out with friends, and that creativity is more than just making something that looks cool. Those things are important, but Katrina taught us that a crisis can serve as a catalyst for the innovation needed to take things to the next level.
One of the post-storm visitors who encouraged such transformational changes was the New York-based artist-activist Paul Chan. Known for his adaptation of Samuel Beckett's play, Waiting For Godot, in the Lower 9th Ward, Chan also conducted community-oriented workshops that helped inspire the creation of co-op galleries like The Front. As Chan wrote in an essay for the art journal e-flux: "The emergence of The Front and other groups is a testament to the will of the people to self-organize against the wake of a disaster slowly turning into a societal tragedy already precipitated by political inertia, poverty and racism. What matters here is not how directly these groups confront or try to bring about an end to the wrongs, though this is a vital concern. Rather, it is significant that they choose to risk interrupting the entropic drift of things by organizing against the current."
We have had a "culture of celebration" for eons, but celebration can be mindless. Today this city is much better known for its creativity than it was in the past. Mayor Mitch Landrieu's speeches hint at utopian ideals with lines like, "We are not just rebuilding the city that we once were, but are creating the city that we always should have been." In a recent New York Times article, former Time magazine editor and native New Orleanian Walter Isaacson quoted novelist Walker Percy regarding how hurricanes sometimes temporarily alleviate the tedious "malaise" of everyday life. Ordinarily, life soon returns to normal, but Katrina was no ordinary hurricane. According to Isaacson, "It jolted New Orleans so brutally that even a decade after the waters receded, the malaise has not crept back. Instead ... something better continues to keep people engaged and connected."
While New Orleans is still very much New Orleans, something seems different — perhaps because, as Isaacson put it, "there's an edgy creativity that comes from the shared aftertaste of danger." — D. Eric Bookhardt