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Art is Everywhere 

Once upon a time, there was a unique but sleepy town nestled along the banks of the Mississippi River, where a few art galleries were scattered among many restaurants, bars and antique stores. Most, though not all, were located in an old neighborhood called the French Quarter. That was the New Orleans I grew up in, and it was great, but if you were really serious about, well, almost anything, you probably went to some other place where the scene was bigger and more dynamic. Not that we didn't have serious artists here, including some who became internationally famous without ever leaving home, but it was a small scene, nonetheless.

Then, when nobody was looking, something happened and suddenly the scene was no longer small. It didn't happen overnight, but at some point artists and galleries seemed to be everywhere. More than you could count. By the time the new millennium rolled around, nobody even knew how many there were, since it all seemed to change on an almost daily basis. It's hard to say exactly when the turning point was, but the timing of Gambit's inception a quarter-century ago was certainly auspicious. A successor to two earlier alternative weeklies, Gambit built on a colorful legacy and was well positioned to cover the brave new world of New Orleans art.

Be that as it may, I still can't remember the exact date of this column's inception, though it must have been at some point in the early 1990s, a time when the scene was approaching something like critical mass. As a veteran of local weeklies and monthlies and a regional editor of a national art magazine, I'd been following New Orleans culture all along, but Gambit proved to be a grand venue for observing the evolution of a great art community. Which brings us back to our original question: how did we get to where we are today?

If there was any single event that served as the catalyst for transforming an arts backwater into one of the most cohesive and dynamic art scenes in America today, it had to have been the founding of the Contemporary Arts Center back in 1976. The way this came about is one of those classically New Orleans stories of something that just grew out of whimsy compounded by a mixture of celebration and serendipity. In other words, somebody threw a party and one thing led to another. It wasn't planned; it just sort of happened, and while there were many ripples along the way, it began when artist/urban planner Robert Tannen, among others, put up an art show in an old church. The opening featured some very cool live music, and the synergy was more than just copasetic, it bordered on the bodacious, and the ensuing buzz went something like, Wow, wouldn't it be ever so groovy if we had a place where such enlivening stuff could happen all the time? And lo and behold, it turned out that a longtime local art writer and one-time gallery dealer named Luba Glade happened to know someone who had a mammoth old warehouse that might be available.

Long story short, Sidney Besthoff, president of the venerable K&B drugstore chain before it was absorbed into RiteAid, allowed his old K&B warehouse to be used for that very purpose, and it's been known as the Contemporary Arts Center ever since. But at the outset, it was very different from what it is today. Physically funky and somewhat derelict, it started out as a kind of romper room for artists, a place where experiments of all sorts could simply happen without the pressure of having to generate a profit. It sounds like a small thing, but it brought together for the first time folks who had formerly been limited to producing safe and saleable art for galleries that had functioned like tribal fiefdoms. Some of the early shows were amazing, while others were not quite ready for prime time, but beyond all that, the early CAC knew how to energize the masses and pack 'em into opening receptions that turned into big, festive parties that paved the way for the coordinated gallery openings that we have today.

The heady, laissez-faire atmosphere of those early years attracted some unique personalities, and Denise Vallon was a case in point. Between her flair for a certain sardonic brand of perverse populism and then-director Don Marshall's gift for making things happen, the CAC became reliably and entertainingly unpredictable. Although Vallon moved away a long time ago, her best-known legacy was the CAC's satiric Mardi Gras marching society, the Krewe of Clones, which in the 1980s split off to become the independent parade we all know and love today as the Krewe du Vieux. And, as we recently came to realize, in our time of need, Krewe du Vieux was there for us. So were most of the other parade krewes of course, but only Krewe du Vieux succinctly summed up what we were thinking and feeling. Thank you Denise Vallon, your legacy lives on!

More than a footnote, this populist sensibility is a fact of creative life here, reflecting Ellis Marsalis' maxim that, unlike most places where art is defined from on high, in this city it bubbles up from the streets. Eventually, the CAC was sanitized and joined the elite, but its cross-cultural mission remains intact. The next big, formative thing after that was the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, a chaotic world's fair that was a bust financially, but which transformed our old warehouse district from skid row into gallery row as art dealers moved in and set up shop. Featuring the participation of quite a few local artists, the 1984 expo left a surreal legacy that included postmodern architect Charles Moore's weirdly spectacular Piazza d'Italia, among other intriguing anomalies.

Organized around the serpentine armature of Moore's Wonder Wall, a visual jabberwocky of surreal elements based on Louisiana cultural icons, the 1984 expo, perhaps unconsciously, paid tribute to a local aesthetic that celebrated not just grand themes but also those small and homely wonders that sometimes seem to appear out of the blue when least expected, places ranging from the handmade, carved-stone facades of Botinelli Plaza down by the Canal Street cemeteries to the inexplicable juxtapositions of unlikely art and artifacts that adorn the walls of the Saturn bar. And while the magnificent New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art have established themselves as grand additions to this city's cultural milieu in recent years, the importance of the Saturn Bar cannot be underestimated.

Dark and silent now, following the death of owner O'Neil Broyard, whose heart tragically gave out while cleaning up after Katrina, the Saturn was a portal into other worlds and a subtle transmitter that signaled a kind of secret code to members of a tribe so lost that even most of its own members didn't know they belonged to it. And when those people, wherever they were from, entered the Saturn they suddenly, after a few bewildered moments realized, perhaps for the first time in their lives, that they were home, in that place and in this city. And while the Saturn wasn't the only source of such epiphanies, it really was emblematic. Its evolution from an obscure neighborhood bar to an obscure New Orleans landmark with a global cult following paralleled this city's rise as what New York author Pete Hamill called America's "last bohemia." His point was that Manhattan and San Francisco and other such places had become so corporate, so gentrified, that there wasn't much room for spontaneous creative whimsy anymore. And now, ironically, in the wake of Katrina, this city's viability as a place where creativity happens as spontaneously as mushrooms after a rain, may be at a crossroads as well.

Gentrification may be useful in limited doses, but when whole cities become gentrified they lose their indigenous culture and their soul. Mardi Gras Indians and Saturn Bars don't happen in high-rent districts, and squeezing this city into the kind of "smaller footprint" that we have today on a permanent basis would be a recipe for eternally high housing costs. Hopefully, it will be the people of this city, all of us, who make those decisions. The heart -- and the art -- of New Orleans depend on it, but whatever the future holds, Gambit will be here with the scoop on how it all happened.

click to enlarge The Contemporary Arts Center played a formative role in - this city's emergence as one of the most cohesive and - dynamic art scenes in America. - D. ERIC BOOKHARDT
  • D. Eric Bookhardt
  • The Contemporary Arts Center played a formative role in this city's emergence as one of the most cohesive and dynamic art scenes in America.


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