Like much of the city in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, the most pressing questions facing the New Orleans art scene had to do with survival. With the population widely scattered, how many artists and galleries would return? It had taken 200 years for the art community to attain the vital and cohesive level of activity it enjoyed before the storm, so the burning question was: How much would remain? No one dared dream the scene would be bigger and more dynamic than before. Yet by 2008, the New Orleans art community had grown to a point where Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, could pose the question: Can art save a city? It was quite a turnaround from the dark days after the storm, when many urban planners urged rebuilding only on higher ground along the river — an approach that would have eliminated much of the affordable housing preferred by artists.
New Orleanians reacted with fury to any attempt to limit the size or scope of the place they called home, reflecting the militant attitude that emerged as residents trickled back after weeks of forced exile. Art galleries were among the first businesses to reopen. The Arthur Roger and Cole Pratt galleries sat on relatively high ground, but Barrister's Gallery, then located in storm-ravaged Central City, held its first post-storm opening on Oct. 8, 2005, even before electricity had been restored. Also hitting the ground running was the late Cole Pratt, whose eponymous gallery reopened around the same time. "The best way to recover is for everyone to get to work," he said, but it seemed only a matter of time before the demographics of a smaller and less touristed city imposed a gallery shakeout. A few did close but were quickly replaced by others, and by 2008, a new gallery district catering to younger and more experimental artists emerged along St. Claude Avenue.
The resilient, fighting spirit exhibited by New Orleans arts activists was aided by volunteers and innovators from all over America who saw an opportunity to test their vision and make a difference. A symposium at Arthur Roger Gallery famously led to Dan Cameron's proposal for an international art expo that became the Prospect.1 New Orleans International Biennial. (Pictured: Paul Villinsky's Prospect.1 installation Emergency Response Art Studio.)
Organizations with roots all over the country such as Transforma, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Creative Time, the Andy Warhol Foundation, Sculpture for New Orleans and others helped fund and implement a variety of art-based rebuilding projects. World-class artists such as Mel Chin (whose Operation Paydirt aims to remediate the lead in our poorer neighborhoods) and Paul Chan contributed time and energy to art with a goal of social justice, and all of them built on the work of existing local groups such as YA/YA, KIDsmART and the Creative Alliance of New Orleans to place this city in the forefront of "community based art," a global movement that employs visual art as an agent of social change. The challenge for the future will be to maintain the momentum and fulfill the promise of so many auspicious new beginnings. — D. Eric Bookhardt