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Drawing a Crowd 

White Linen Night is a wall-to-wall party on Julia Street and in the art galleries.

The New Orleans calendar operates a bit differently from those in other locales, where the passage of time is described in terms of days, months and years. Here, we often tell time in relation to Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and various other holidays unique to our culture. In the year since Katrina, each of those moments in time has marked a milestone as well. This February, Carnival ushered in a huge spike in repopulation. This spring, a successful Jazz Fest showed a city in bloom.

This Saturday evening marks the first big event for the local arts community with the annual White Linen Night. Organizers and local gallery owners expect an event on par with those of previous years, while also pointing to a critical need for improved arts patronage in order for the Arts District to continue to flourish as one of the city's key cultural attractions.

"This event has a life of its own," says Amy Smallwood, associate director of the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), which executes the event for the New Orleans Arts District Association (NOADA) and is the beneficiary of its fundraising efforts. "We found a formula that works, and we stick with it each year. The exhibitions, the people, the food and music all work to make for a beautiful evening."

Smallwood says organizers expect to have 15,000 people in the streets this White Linen Night, the same number that attended last year's event. The same number of bars and food stations will be set up to accommodate the festive, white-clad crowd, and Arts District officials point out that the area boasts even more galleries open than at this time last year.

"We all deserve a night like this," Smallwood says.

White Linen Night generally begins at 6 p.m., when the galleries open doors to new exhibitions. In the 300 block of Julia Street, the Marc Dobriner Ensemble performs swing-style music from 6 p.m. to 8:40 p.m., while the New Orleans Jazz Vipers play in the 600 block from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. In between all the music and art, cash bars and cuisine prepared by popular local restaurants -- including Wolfe's in the Warehouse, Zoe Bistrot, The Bombay Club, Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Sun Ray Grill -- will be set up in the street to complete the block-party feel. The CAC, which debuts the Southern Tales exhibit by Gina Phillips, will host the official after-party, starting at 9 p.m. and featuring swing-dance lessons, live music by Leif Pedersen's 1944 Big Band and catering by Nirvana.

What Smallwood says adds up "to a big night" has area gallery owners enthused for an event that not only will highlight art, but also will show where the local arts community stands nearly one year post Katrina.

"I think [White Linen Night] is very much representative of the city's arts community," says Jeanne Cimino, who owns Heriard-Cimino Gallery along with partner Bob Heriard and is one of the event's organizers. "Everybody seems optimistic and very much committed to this, even if it may be difficult, because it's great for the community, and it's great for us. It's a validation of our staying power and shows the strength of the street, the district and the galleries."

Cimino says she's very happy about the exhibition her gallery will show, citing the provocative nature of new mixed-media drawings of Monica Zeringue. The gallery will also present box assemblages by Audra Kohout, who Cimino says "has a huge following around town, and her shoes always have a buzz."

Sarah David, gallery director for Palma Gallery, also is looking forward to the evening's art offerings. Palma will showcase Iconic Anomalies, the works of Jessica Goldfinch from New Orleans and Baton Rouge-based artist Demond.

"They both deal a lot with the interpretation of religious imagery," David says. "It's a never-before-seen pairing of the two, and it's going to be really nice to see the two of them together."

In addition to the art, David is eager for what White Linen Night will bring to the Arts District as a whole. She explains that the growth and success of the area over the last decade is directly linked with its connection to, and exposure through, White Linen Night.

"We're very hopeful this year," she says. "White Linen always marks the official opening of the arts season in New Orleans, and it's a gauge for how the rest of the season is going to go. Summer has been slow, slower than normal -- a crawl. We're waiting, holding our breath, but generally the impression I'm getting from everyone is positive."

When Palma Gallery reopened last November, David says the vibe was upbeat, with artists and patrons simply glad to be back doing what they love. But, like the road to recovery in all facets of local life, the steps taken by the arts community are often difficult but crucial to moving forward.

"People need to understand that it's been really hard for us art dealers," David says. "People in the city are just not buying art right now. Sales have been really sluggish. But White Linen Night is important for a lot of people. People like to be able to support things together; it feels good. Events like this really make people feel at home again."

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