There is a line in the great 1932 Greta Garbo movie Grand Hotel when a jaded habitue offhandedly says, "People come, people go, nothing ever happens here." The irony of his remark soon becomes apparent as dramatic events, long bubbling below the surface, unfold on the silver screen. For the New Orleans art scene, 2016 was that kind of year, a time in which it was easy to take everything for granted, at least until some significant anniversaries caused us to look back and realize how far we have come.
The Contemporary Arts Center's 40th anniversary is an amazing milestone. Now in the midst of its most significant renovation since the 1980s, including the expansion of its ground floor exhibition spaces, the CAC under the leadership of Executive Director Neil Barclay has the feel of an institution coming more fully into its own. Not only is it among the oldest American alternative arts centers, it also is one of the few housed in its own building. Forty years is such a long time that many people have no memory of how the CAC came into being. It began as an art show organized by Robert Tannen, Clifton Webb and James Lalande in an old church — a multi-media expo that inspired interest in a permanent experimental art space. Tannen and journalist Jeanne Nathan staged a series of meetings, but it was gallerist Luba Glade who enlisted Sidney Besthoff, the K&B drugstore mogul, to donate the use of the old warehouse building that has since housed the CAC. Lately, some revisionist histories of the CAC's founding have surfaced, but it was those four individuals who made it happen and set the stage for much that followed. Current CAC curator Andrea Andersson's recent uber-eclectic Anarchitecture show paid tribute to that freewheeling spirit with works like Jebney Lewis, Rick Snow and Christopher Staudinger's large metal sound map depicting New Orleans as a vast resonator.
Among other significant anniversaries, the Stella Jones Gallery — New Orleans' premier African-American art gallery — turned 20 this year and deserves special commendation. Featuring the most historic names in black American and Caribbean art, it has long doubled as a low-profile educational facility as much as a gallery and incubator of local talent, and for this we are indebted to Jones' longstanding and seemingly indefatigable dedication.
The biggest anniversary might be what I think of as the "Recovery Arts District," which refers not to any official district but to the post-Hurricane Katrina art community transformations that began in 2006, most famously in the St. Claude Avenue corridor, and now cover much of the city. The New Orleans Photo Alliance was founded that year as an attempt to preserve the local photography community and now has its own gallery space and produces a leading national event, PhotoNOLA, with about 60 photo exhibitions spread across town. The St. Claude Arts District began when Jeffrey Holmes made some installations on the neutral ground outside his flooded gallery, and Kirsha Kaechele staged pioneering exhibitions in her former bakery in St. Roch, but the district now features more events than anyone can follow. Thanks to the sterling contributions of the Joan Mitchell Center in Faubourg St. John, and new developments on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard such as Pelican Bomb Gallery X and the Creative Alliance of New Orleans' gallery in the Myrtle Banks building, community-based art is a citywide phenomenon.