The economy is a simple one: Artists pay about $25 to $50 monthly for the chance to market their work directly to consumers. For this fee, they enjoy the chance to work outside the constraints of galleries. It often keeps prices lower -- and many good artists don't fit into galleries in the first place. "The markets are like having your own gallery once a month," says artist Philip C. Thompson. "But with little capital investment."
Thompson is the kind of artist who can benefit from the markets. A Metairie resident, he began studying drawing under Dell Weller at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts in the mid-1980s. He's since grown into painting exclusively oils on canvas, but he didn't truly begin to show and sell his work until local art conservator Blake Vonder Haar established the Bywater Art Market in May 2002. Thompson, 59, still sells his work -- cityscapes, landscapes, nudes and still lifes -- every third Saturday of the month at the Bywater Art Market. Since May 2004, Thompson has also sold his work every last Saturday of the month at the Mid City Art Market.
Bywater is the largest market in town. Mid City is the second largest.
"Every month, I do both markets, and I enjoy them both," says Thompson, who displays original paintings priced typically between $250 and $500. "It's a tremendous opportunity to sell directly to buyers and collectors -- talk to them, get to know them personally, and develop a following of people interested in your work." Now, he says, people stop by just to get their picture taken with him.
Thompson's glowing portrayal of art markets is not unusual. Yet despite the many success stories -- or perhaps because of them -- all is not rosy in this burgeoning scene. Scratch a bit under the gilded portraits and you'll find a world in which markets are at fierce battle -- mostly with each other.
Here's a not-atypical comment from Vonder Haar: "I've been told the difference between the Bywater Art Market and the Mid City Art Market is the difference between Commander's Palace and McDonald's."
And here's Wendy Laker, who helped found the Mid City Art Market in 2004: "I've heard the terrible things she's saying about us. It's sad, because she's just making it difficult for all the artists that work with both us. We've never been in a competition with Bywater. I'm fighting a battle I don't even understand."
With success often comes fighting over the spoils. As the Bywater and Mid City markets grow in popularity -- and as art markets spring up across the city, on the Northshore and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast -- can the ideal image of a friendly, creative and open-air venue grow and thrive?
THIS TALE OF TWO ART MARKETS is set in New Orleans, so naturally it includes a colorful cast of characters -- in this case, artists, doctors and tennis instructors.
Ten years ago, Vonder Haar moved to New Orleans from St. Louis. Bywater is the place for her, she says. The funky downriver locale is where she lives, works and holds her monthly art market. She's an artist herself, working with pottery and mosaics as well as painting.
Her business, The New Orleans Conservation Guild Inc., includes an antique frame gallery on Chartres Street. Aimed at serious collectors, it employs 15 workers and is unique in the region, she says. In May, she plans to open the New Orleans Art Supply at the intersection of Royal and Independence streets in the Bywater and plans to move her other businesses there. She says the new store will cater to professional artists.
"I love it," Vonder Haar says of the Bywater Art Market. "Well, I love it on those Saturdays after 9 a.m."
Up until that opening time, Vonder Haar says, her work is 60 hours a month of dealing -- with artists' registrations, with the city for use of its space, with jurying the art for what goes in and what gets cut. "It's like herding cats," she says.
The first Bywater Art Market was held in the grassy back lot of Vonder Haar's business, on a property owned by the Buras family. "It was a lot of fun," Vonder Haar says of the initial effort, an idea encouraged by her landlord, Robert Buras, and the Ninth Ward artist Dr. Bob, best known for his colorful paintings that state "Be Nice or Leave." Eleven artists, mostly painters, were in the first market. It enjoyed a successful turnout, and the move was made to hold it every month.
The Bywater Art Market enjoyed a steady, sustained growth at that location until three days prior to the October 2003 market, when Vonder Haar says she was served a cease-and-desist order courtesy of her new neighbor -- a man she now calls "the evil Dr. Lesser."
Dr. Steve Lesser had purchased a rusted, crumbling warehouse space on Chartres Street. In addition to being a physician, Lesser is an artist, an active supporter of the local arts community, and the original proprietor of the club TwiRoPa. This past Mardi Gras, he held a party at his Chartres Street property with fire-breathers, trapeze artists and rock bands that raged until dawn.
Vonder Haar says that Lesser took control over space on the corner lot that they share. She maintains that the space isn't legally his. "She says there's a property-line dispute?" Lesser asks in response to query about Vonder Haar's statement. "Well, I don't think there's a dispute.
"Ms. Vonder Haar was holding the art market under the building which I own," Lesser says. "I couldn't accept the liability for her activities, the cost of which an insurance agent told me would be astronomical."
Vonder Haar has since conducted what Lesser describes as a slur campaign. "She tells everybody I hate art, that I'm anti-art," he says. "It hurts my feelings."
Both Lesser and the Buras family declined comment on the specifics of the case, citing pending litigation. Vonder Haar complied with the order to shut down the market at the original location, moving a few blocks to its current location in Markey Park, which is bordered by Royal, Piety and Dauphine streets. "Having to move to Markey Park was the best thing that could have happened to us," Vonder Haar says. "It's more space, better space."
Markey Park is a shaded, grassy and expansive lot, enclosed by a fence that artists use to hang their works. The entrance is marked by a table of food catered by Elizabeth's Restaurant; from there, rows of tents are aligned side by side. The careful pattern feels open and inviting, and it's easy to view the art. The market now averages 80 artists, a major increase from the initial showing of 11.
"I want to focus on fine art," Vonder Haar says. "It's not a crafts fair, I don't want any candle-making or supposed jewelry artists that are just stringing beads. It has to be all original, no prints. We have a very selective, juried process for what art we include."
Vonder Haar ultimately aims to create a market for collectors from all over -- and who are prepared to spend thousands of dollars. Still, she says, she also wants to provide a space for artists that may not belong in a gallery. The Bywater Art Market has been featured recently in Art News and AAA Travel magazines, and Vonder Haar says the city has responded well to the venture.
"We'll keep growing," she says. "We might open a market on the first Saturday of the month, the open date before those other markets rear their ugly heads."
"IF THERE IS A THEMATIC DIFFERENCE, in terms of the art, between the Bywater Art Market and the Mid City Art Market, I'd say Bywater is more demanding," artist Philip C. Thompson says.
"Creating these markets isn't easy," he continues. "It's difficult in terms of a steep learning curve: How to get people booked as vendors, how to attract buyers, advertising, finding the right buttons to push. Blake has found those buttons, and now Mid City has followed that exact same learning curve."
Vonder Haar has a lot to say about Bywater's younger rival. Here's one: "They didn't even have bathrooms for the artists to use until last month." (A Mid City Art Market board member says artists had use of the bathrooms at nearby Juan's Flying Burrito before the market set up a portable toilet.) Vonder Haar also accuses organizers of the Mid City Art Market of soliciting Bywater Art Market artists for their market. She adds that Mid City stole her registration forms. "They didn't even change the font," Vonder Haar says.
A scan of the current forms reveals that they don't appear similar in format. Laker denies stealing anything from the Bywater Art Market.
Laker goes on to call Vonder Haar "mean." Laker then points to one difference in the markets: Mid City is set up as a 501c3 nonprofit organization, with all the money made being re-invested in the market. Vonder Haar says Bywater isn't nonprofit -- it's set up as a retail operation within her business. But she stresses that she's not making any money, either. She's reinvesting any revenue back into the market.
There's a lot of this back-and-forth between the two markets. Mid City claims that Bywater lacks the proper permits, and Bywater says the same about Mid City. Still, they both insist it's all about the art and the artists. Several times during interviews, Laker seems to extend the olive branch. "We're big fans of the Bywater market," she says. "We're no threat to her at all. We'd be happy to work with her."
TEN YEARS AGO, SUNDANCE MORGAN, former chairman and president of the Mid City Neighborhood Organization (MCNO), first conceptualized the idea for an art market in Mid-City. A towering man with an always-booming voice, Morgan is equally famous for the tennis camp he runs at City Park as for his fierce opinions and frequent pontifications. His current pet project is to place the largest American flag in Orleans Parish on a flagpole existing on the Jefferson Davis Parkway neutral ground.
Morgan is also synonymous with the MCNO, which he basically ran for a decade until January, when the leadership was handed over to the two major forces of the Mid City Art Market, Wendy Laker and Jim Taylor. All sides talk of Morgan's move to a newly created, paid position as MCNO's executive director as amicable. But Morgan says that change within MCNO's leadership started at a more rancorous neighborhood meeting last October. The Mid City Art Market had become a monthly success. Morgan had just returned from a summer in Thailand.
"I was just back from getting my feet rubbed by 20-year-old Asian women, so I was in a great f--king mood," Morgan says. "And I was met with all this anger and dispute. I didn't understand what was going on."
Mid-City, like Bywater, has undergone much change in recent years. Both neighborhoods were homes to working-class whites until white flight and economic depression changed the demographics. More recently, they've rapidly regentrified as hipsters, young professionals and others flee suburban congestion and 8-foot ceilings. Impressive renovations and home values have skyrocketed in both neighborhoods.
"Both Wendy and I joke that we can no longer afford the houses we live in," Morgan says.
A West Bank native and current court reporter, Laker bought a home in Mid-City seven years ago, next door to her sister. An artist specializing in metalwork, she owns a cheerful home where sunlight pours in through tall windows. "Mid-City has changed a lot," she says. "There's a lot of new people around here. It seems to me that for a long time, MCNO was exclusive -- basically, it was Sundance, and he was a true visionary for the organization. It was time for new blood."
The Mid City Art Market began in 2003, when MCNO sought ways to provide attractions for the big Memorial Day weekend return of the streetcars to Canal Street and Carrollton Avenue. The neighborhood wanted to put its best foot forward. Morgan's long-standing idea for an art market was proposed, and Laker agreed to steer the project. "From there, it was simply, OK, who wants to help Wendy?'" Laker recalls. A five-member board of directors now guides the Mid City Art Market.
Laker says the initial struggle was with quality control. Morgan insisted there be no jurying process; any artist that wants in, gets in. Laker objected and ultimately exercised the authority to reject area residents coming to her with stuff like paper plates painted with sky scenes.
Like in Bywater, the initial market was a stunning success, and the move was made to continue the market every month. The market now takes place at the heavily trafficked corner of Canal Street and Carrollton Avenue, symbolically under a statue created by artist Madeline Faust, a work commissioned through funds appropriated by state Rep. Peppi Bruneau. Faust's weather vane-inspired work is crowned with a heart, representing Mid-City as "the heart" of New Orleans.
"None of us anticipated the growth, we had no idea it was going to become as big as it's become," Laker says. "It's been pretty impressive, watching it."
The first Mid City Art Market featured 30 artists. The largest to date has held 106 artists, coming from three different states, with new artists featured every month. Laker also plans to continue with an eye toward featuring higher-quality art. "To this point, we've had a pretty laid-back juried system for what art gets in," Laker says. "We've created the good atmosphere, which is important. But now we're looking further."
With such growth comes change. In April, the Mid City Art Market -- which has grown well beyond its space -- will move to City Park. The new location will be near the tennis courts, with plenty of room and a pleasant setting. Laker and others contend that the market has grown to the point where it no longer needs its highly trafficked location. City Park is in the midst of significant change, with a recently unveiled master plan that seeks to bring in a diverse array of attractions, and thus, visitors. In the park, the Mid City market will offer more artists' demonstrations, a children's art activities area, potential partnerships with the New Orleans Museum of Art, outreach programs and more.
Laker is thrilled with the prospect of a bigger, permanent home in City Park. Morgan is not. "I'm very wary of the move to City Park, just like I'm wary of everything in dealing with City Park -- hell, I've been working there for 30 years.
"What City Park is doing is consensus building for their new plans. They just want to bring everybody in. They have plans for a skateboard park, for all kinds of crap. The only things they left out are hang-gliding and bungee-jumping."
"Sundance doesn't like change," says Laker, who's now MCNO chairman.
Morgan agrees. "If you're used to being the bus driver, and then you switch to being the passenger, then sometimes you're not going to like the direction you're driving," he says. "But you can't change the direction. You're not driving anymore."
THERE IS NO DOUBTING THE SUCCESS of both the Mid City and Bywater art markets. "It's an event," Laker says of art market shopping. "It's not like going to a gallery. You get to talk to the artists; it feels more like you're experiencing the art. And these seem unique to New Orleans, almost like going to a festival with the music, the food. It's great."
In recent months, a new market has been held the second Saturday of the month. New York resident Esther Dyer bought the former American Beauty warehouse -- an expansive space tucked under the Broad Avenue overpass near I-10 -- and created Art Egg studios. She originally used the building only for artists' studios, but since October has envisioned a monthly market "to sell affordable art, to give my artists a venue and further my goal of creating an arts community (surrounding the building)." At the market entrance, Joseph Pearson plays songs by bands like Radiohead on acoustic guitar. The market has the feel of Bywater and Mid City, though it's not as established.
"People like to shop," Dyer says. "That's why these markets work."
Other art markets popping up around town include one at the First Unitarian Church in Uptown. The church held the first one in February as a one-weekend-only fundraiser, with plans to make it an annual event.
But for the here and now, Bywater and Mid City are the primary art markets in the city. Despite the bickering, both have enjoyed rapid growth and success -- which might just be ample evidence that there's room for two big markets in town.
"I've had a number of discussions over the years with both [Vonder Haar and Laker] about what I think could improve and who should be there," says Philip C. Thompson. "It's difficult to win my arguments, but the truth is they're both doing fine. "I remember when Blake came out and said, 'Let's try and do a monthly market.' And we responded: 'Who's going to pull that off?' 'Who's going to support it?' Boy, were we wrong. Blake was right. It's been a huge success. Just look what's she's started."