Jules Lagarde wanted to give some answers to the small group of artists who cordially crashed his meeting about the future of Charles J. Colton Jr. School. He just didn't have any.
"It's being funded by federal government FEMA dollars," explained Lagarde, a project manager with Jacobs/CSRS, the engineering firm hired by the Recovery School District (RSD) to helm New Orleans' post-Katrina public school repairs. "First of all, it has to be a school. But I don't discount what you all are doing."
The mid-July meeting, held at the St. Roch Community Church, was intended to solicit input from Faubourg Marigny residents on the exterior aspects of the St. Claude Avenue middle school's impending renovation: the positioning of student drop-off points, Dumpsters, etc. The "inside the box" renovation, Lagarde reiterated, was mandated by RSD's School Facilities Master Plan and was not on the night's agenda.
That didn't stop Elizabeth Traina and two others from the Studio at Colton — a startup arts and education colony founded by the Creative Alliance of New Orleans (CANO) that has occupied the vacant campus for the past nine months — from trying. Traina, a painter, had attended the meeting to advocate for the preservation of a 13-panel mural she recently installed in the Colton vestibule, a collaborative work by students and artists from Xavier Community Arts, Bottletree Productions, YA/YA, G.W. Carver High School and the New York 2 New Orleans Coalition. But she found herself advocating for the preservation of the colony itself.
"There's been a tremendous project that's taken place inside that building," Traina said. "I think it would be interesting to consider in what ways can artists continue to support that building. To let that go, it's doing a disservice to everybody. Kids were served in that building; kids who went to school there came back and had a different, alternative experience in that building. It would be interesting to see some continuum."
After the exchange, Lagarde thanked them for coming. "I would suggest you fill out the sign-in sheet if you haven't done it," he said, and moved on to other matters.
Standing inside Colton the following week, staring at the mural, Traina sighs. "The meeting, I found to be informative but also frustrating," she says. "There's been such a small amount of communication that's made its way to the artists about what's really happening here."
Word came in early May that RSD was ending the studio's rent-free lease, which had twice been extended, from January to June and, finally, through July. The plan for Colton is a complete restoration as a public school, potentially to house two Knowledge Is Power Programs (KIPP) serving 600 students from kindergarten through eighth grade — a need enhanced, RSD officials say, by fall enrollment that surpassed expectations.
In the months since, CANO president Jeanne Nathan has met with RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas "almost biweekly," as well as officials at schools, to secure a working agreement that allows for some continuation of the studio's primary benefits: a centralized presentation space for New Orleans artists and alternative arts education for its students. With funding for Louisiana arts programs carrying a legislative bull's-eye, the coursework, originally a quid pro quo, has grown into a raison d'etre, Nathan says.
"I really thought [the artists'] main objective coming into the building was studio space, but I have to say that by January, when we were sort of moving past the Prospect.1 phase and more into the education phase, I learned that a lot of those artists really cared about the educational element and wanted to be there."
A former Prospect.1 exhibition site, the campus earlier this year became a creative home to more than 100 artists in residence, who in turn built multidisciplinary curricula for bussed-in RSD students. Spring classes numbered around 60 and covered visual arts, design, writing, theater, film, radio, music and dance.
The arrangement, Nathan acknowledges now, was almost too good to be true. "You have a lot of artists who put a lot of time into their spaces, and they were just really excited. But it was a fluke. The utility costs per month are over $20,000. ... We could never have afforded to stay in there long term. We were very happy squatters."
Traina's mural is just one example of the investments artists made in Colton. Dance instructor Monique Moss installed flooring in her third-floor studio, and filmmaker John Richie spent more than $4,000 building a professional-quality green room on the second floor. "I'm going to RSD tomorrow to see if I can still use it (past July 31)," Richie says. "I don't know, but it's worth asking."
"It's sad when you develop a community and you have relationships that evolved out of it," Nathan acknowledges. "If the school system were not faced with such system-wide prerogatives that they had to deal with, then they might have been more able to comprehend the tremendous importance of doing that program going forward."
Those prerogatives, according to RSD, can be reduced to one priority: having enough seats for children as fall approaches. After a year of fruitful, if slow-going, negotiations, Nathan says she is "very understanding of the ambiguity" in dealings with the district. But recent developments, including overtures from interested administrations, give her hope that Studios in the Schools, a working title for the fluid program, will continue uninterrupted in the coming semester.
"We feel at this point pretty confident that we are going to be in several schools," Nathan says. "I'm trying to identify locations. I have to say that in the very beginning I was really not excited about having a scattering of spaces in various schools. And then, I kind of warmed up to it as I started to work on it, realizing that a few artists in a school can have a big impact."
What that arrangement loses in centralization, she argues, it gains in systemic impact. To preserve the studio's other epiphany — the communication and collaboration potential that comes with shared resources — Nathan and husband Robert Tannen — an urban planner, architect and artist — also are pursuing up to a dozen facilities that can accommodate "a critical mass of artists." These include closed Catholic churches to larger retail properties.
Two fitting events closed Studio at Colton the last week of July: a dedication ceremony for the students and artists who collaborated on the vestibule mural; and the final two performances of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth by the Cripple Creek Theatre Company. At the Wednesday ceremony, a gathering of two dozen artists danced to live music, ate and drank wine, and shared stories about the mural collaboration.
"The project was so much fun," says Jerald White of the Charitable Film Network. "There were a lot of kids that came through here, and they put a lot of thought into it. They had a little envisioning process of what they wanted Colton to be. You can see it in each of the panels — all the kinds of things the studio represented and where they wanted it to go. It's kind of sad."
Traina says she will keep lobbying for its preservation, but her tone was resigned. "It's been an incredible opportunity. As somebody new to the city, it's given me the opportunity to network and collaborate with lots of artists. The disappointment is in the lack of knowing how to continue, and the lack of clarity from RSD of what that looks like before we leave. As artists in the building, we don't know what the next step is."
Nathan's long-term goal is to advance the studios on all fronts: commercial, communal and educational. "I like the retail model," she says. "I like the model of the building being in a community, where it has an impact on the community. I like the model — and we actually got this into the Master Plan — of having a cultural center as part of a civic/retail zone in a neighborhood where it can provide business, career and professional training for creatives."
As for those creatives, Nathan says studio exit surveys are still coming in, and updates about the program's future have gone out every few weeks. "But every email has said the same thing," she admits. "'We're working on it.'"