While Julia Street and the local galleries don't totally depend on sales from tourists, they do make a difference, and discretionary visitor spending is off by all accounts. As Mark Bercier of the Marguerite Oestreicher Gallery put it, "That part of the local art economy is way down. Now, even the conventions are smaller and more concentrated, allowing visitors less free time to explore galleries or anything else." So how bad is it? "It's bad, but not terminal," says Bercier, noting that Julia Street is surviving if not exactly thriving.
Well, most of Julia Street. The big story of 2002 is, of course, Galerie Simonne Stern, the city's oldest contemporary art gallery, and one of its most prestigious, slated to close doors on the 31st. Founded by Ms. Stern in 1967, it had been run by Donna Perret since 1982. A farewell press release quotes Perret as saying that she had been "spending less time in the gallery" and more in New York, where she is engaged to marry native New Orleanian and Compaq Computer founder Ben Rosen. Rather than "diminishing its reputation" by her absence, she said she had "decided to close this wonderful chapter in my life." End of story? The artists who show there certainly hope not, and indeed, current director Carroll Case hints that something may be in the works. Everyone agrees that the Stern was a flagship institution, and the local art scene won't be the same without it.
On the up side, there seem to be more galleries now than ever, including newcomers such as Space, and many alternative venues keeping the spirit of fresh new art alive. Even the Contemporary Arts Center returned to it roots with 1822: A Project of Stephen Paul Day and Sibylle Peretti, which featured a degree of experimentalism not seen since the big environmental art expos of the CAC's early days. And the trio of alternative art impresarios that goes by the name 3 Ring Circus will soon have their own exhibition space at 1638 Clio St. Spokesperson Adele Borie said that 2002 "was a great year for the alternative scene," noting that there were "more big group art shows like Art in the Dark at the Pickery." And indeed, Art in the Dark was spectacular, everything you could have hoped for in a big, freewheeling alternative art expo.
But this also touches on a sore point now that the Pickery is slated for demolition. The idea of demolishing well-renovated historic buildings like the Pickery or the TwiRoPa building to make way for a parking lot for conventioneers smacks of arrogance or ignorance, but that is what will happen if the city gets its way in court next month. Which touches on a bigger problem: the suburbanization of old neighborhoods. A quarter century ago, New Orleans adopted policies that consciously opted not to emulate vast sprawling eyesores like Houston, or Metairie, in the name of false "progress." Now we have big box mall stores planned for the lower Garden District. What gives? These are the kinds of issues that should have been put behind us long ago. While Portland, Ore., gets high marks for its "smart growth" approach, here the leadership opts to take us back to the 1950s and '60s, when grand historic buildings -- and the Canal Streetcar (now being rebuilt) -- were destroyed to make way for what opportunists called "progress." We should know better.
What does this have to do with art? I for one happen to believe that this city is a living work of art in its own right, a collaboration of time, nature and diverse peoples with some of the most creative urban instincts anywhere, a city that has done its own thing and refused to become part of the generic sameness that blights so much of America. That is what we do well, and to grow the city we need to build on those strengths. In that sense, putting a Wal-Mart in the lower Garden District is an act of sabotage, a return to the opportunistic, pseudo-suburban idiocy of the past. Let's hope the new year brings some better news on these and other fronts.