Experiencing New Orleans' wealth of visual art is easy to do for free, as long as patrons can juggle their schedules. The city's major art museums offer free admission on some days and for some events, and some online sources offer special deals.
The best deal in town is the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art (1 Collins C. Diboll Circle, City Park, 658-4100; www.noma.org). It's open daily, including early evening hours on Friday, and admission to the beautifully manicured five-acre park is always free (except during occasional special events). Gambit art critic D. Eric Bookhardt rates the garden among the nation's top five public sculpture gardens for its diverse yet cohesive collection, with 57 works by recent and contemporary sculptors, including Louise Bourgeois, Alison Saar and George Segal. A free audio tour is available by cellphone.
Admission to NOMA is free on Wednesdays courtesy of the Helis Foundation. Students from many area universities (Loyola, Tulane, Delgado, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Our Lady of Holy Cross, SUNO, UNO and Xavier) get in free with a school ID. The museum's current highlights include the exhibition Ancestors of Congo Square (through July 17), featuring pieces from its holdings of African art, and the installation Thalassa in the Great Hall by New York-based artist Swoon, whose mural-like paper cutouts were posted on walls in the Bywater in 2008.
The Helis Foundation also sponsors free admission to the Smithsonian-affiliated Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp St., 539-9600; www.ogdenmuseum.org) on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The museum closes at 5 p.m. and reopens for its Ogden After Hours concert series, which charges regular museum admission. There are, however, weekly opportunities to get free admission to the concerts. Ogden's Twitter followers can watch for the "free word" on Thursday mornings, and the first 10 people to say the password at the door that night get in free. The museum also offers free admission deals via the Arts Council of New Orleans' Art Savers email blast (see below). Ogden also issues special offers via Yelp.com. The museum's current exhibits include a show juxtaposing the works of John Alexander and Walter Anderson, as well as Birney Imes' photos of juke joints, Julie Dermansky's photos of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and art and artifacts commemorating Preservation Hall's 50th anniversary.
The Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp St., 528-3800; www.cacno.org) opens its galleries for free on art walk nights on the first Saturday of the month. Regular admission is only $5 for adults and $3 for seniors. The CAC frequently presents free workshops with visiting visual and performing artists. Check the website for such special events. Three new exhibits open this week, including paintings and drawings by Brooke Pickett, Tina Girouard and Robert Gordy, and a sound installation involving water and music.
The Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University (Woldenberg Art Center, 865-5328; www.tulane.edu/~newcomb/artindex.html) features changing exhibitions and is always free. It's open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday in the summer, and the current expo features photographs of life along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Commercial art galleries throughout the city always allow free perusing of their offerings. There are, however, monthly events that sweeten the deal, including free wine and other refreshments during opening receptions. Galleries in the Warehouse District, French Quarter and Uptown generally open from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. for such events on the first Saturday of the month. The galleries along the St. Claude Avenue corridor and in Bywater host their opening receptions on the second Saturday of the month.
One way to get updates about openings and special deals is to visit the Arts Council of New Orleans' website (www.artsneworleans.org) and sign up for its electronic newsletter, sent out every Thursday. Its Art Savers feature offers many half-price ticket deals, and there frequently are free deals as well, including everything from visual and performing art to film, literary and culinary events.