In 2011, an array of local performers and institutions marked milestones, but often arts and entertainment news was about location, location, location.
As the year draws to a close, the Joy Theater opens, bringing headlining entertainment back to the big marquees on Canal Street. New music clubs opened and other young ones blossomed. Several institutions had landmark anniversaries, and the international art biennial Prospect.2 and related exhibitions opened around the city.
On Thursday, Irma Thomas headlines an opening night concert heralding the reopening of the Joy Theater. Its reopening restores some of the boulevard's activity absent since Hurricane Katrina, when downtown lost the use of the Orpheum, Saenger Theatre, Municipal Auditorium and Mahalia Jackson Theater (which reopened in 2009). The much anticipated reopening of the Saenger has been pushed back to 2013.
The landmark Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre struggled with financial woes and differences between its board of directors and supporters' guild. The board opted to sell part of the theater's space to the Dickie Brennan Restaurant Group, and the theater is expected to stage productions in fall 2012. Proprietor Barbara Motley closed her cabaret Le Chat Noir and put the building up for sale. Shows that might have run at Le Chat in the past were presented at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), the new Mid-City Theatre and in spaces in the burgeoning St. Claude arts district.
New music clubs opening downtown included Irvin Mayfield's IClub in the JW Marriott, and the array of entertainment available in the CBD expanded with the reopening of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, a property including new restaurants, a music venue and sports bar. Champions Square opened outside the renamed Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and it's right on time for the city to host a BCS bowl game and college football's national championship between LSU and the University of Alabama.
A handful of local institutions marked major anniversaries. The New Orleans Museum of Art turned its first century on Dec. 16. The anniversary weekend featured a full schedule of arts events and concerts. With weekly events like Where Y'Art, the museum launched a much busier regular schedule, and some of the highlights included a trio of theatrical productions by the NOLA Project, including a spirited couple of runs of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Following up on a show and residency at NOMA, Quintron and Miss Pussycat released Sucre du Sauvage, an album recorded at the museum. The Contemporary Arts Center marked its 35th anniversary, and it celebrated with programming that featured juxtapositions of recent and old works by contemporary artists who were active at the space in its first year.
Preservation Hall marked its 50th anniversary, and it continues to grow. Plans are underway for a Preservation Hall West in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to explore new types of collaborations. One such endeavor resulted in a performance with the modern dance company Trey McIntyre Project, featuring works commissioned by the New Orleans Ballet Association. The groups went on a short tour with the pair of pieces and reprised them at the Voodoo Music Experience.
Voodoo altered its configuration, downsizing from dueling mainstages to a single main stage, which hosted Soundgarden and Snoop Dogg. Some of the major acts were booked for more "intimate" shows on smaller stages, and fans of X, Ray Davies and Gordon Gano and the Lost Bayou Ramblers were rewarded with great live shows. On the digital side, Girl Talk packed the festival's increasingly popular dance and electronica stage.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival continues to book ever-bigger acts while maintaining a strong lineup from top to bottom. Some of the more legendary musicians on the bill included Tom Jones, Robert Plant and Sonny Rollins. Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and Orleans Avenue played the Gentilly Stage, but few local musicians had as big a year as Andrews, who put in guest appearances during the sets of Kid Rock, Jeff Beck, 5th Ward Weebie and many others.
The city's wealth of festivals and concert events included a visit by Kanye West at the Essence Music Festival and a return appearance with Jay-Z in December. Nicki Minaj also came through twice, once with Lil Wayne and then with Katy Perry. Other visiting headliners included Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Blondie, Sade and Brazilian jazz virtuoso Carlos Malta. On a smaller scale, the local club Siberia blossomed in its first full year, hosting a gritty slate of predominantly punk and metal bands.
On a sad note, the city lost Frenchmen Street's beloved spiritual leader Coco Robicheaux, and legendary composer/arranger Wardell Quezergue died in September. The city also lost renowned bar owner Yvonne "Miss Dixie" Fasnacht.
After a year postponement, the art biennial Prospect.2 opened at venues around town (open through Jan. 29, 2012), and along with satellite shows it demonstrated continued development in the city's contemporary art scene. One of the year's best surprises was the creation of New Orleans Airlift's Music Box, or Dithyrambalina project. Uniting the talents of visual artists and musicians, the remains of a blighted home were salvaged and recycled into a whimsical and bohemian array of musically equipped cottages and structures. It was a uniquely inspired celebration of the city's old charms and new creative energies.