The New Orleans Museum of Art hosted a luncheon today for members of arts community that amounted to something much more than the usual meet and greet. Instead of delivering a regurgitated press release, the dialogue that unfolded about New Orleans and the transformative power of art meandered, taking anecdotal twists and turns, that you’d expect to have on a front porch, not in a conference room. This was due in large part to the participation of NOMA’s artist ambassadors — Swoon, Terence Blanchard, Mel Chin and Katie Holten. Their inclusion seemed true to NOMA’s mission to be more than just a fine arts institution, but to serve as the cultural locus of New Orleans.
Because the Big Easy is only just beginning to get back on its feet, it’s nice to see even a premiere arts organization like NOMA engaged in something like a grassroots campaign. Unlike the Met’s latest effort, getting actual New Yorkers to visit their museum, the NOMA is looking to reestablish its identity in the art world specifically. Part of this turn is found in the museum’s new focus on contemporary art and support for artists like Swoon, who has a boots-on-the-ground mentality that makes her more than just an artist, but a leader. Evidence of this is found in Swoon’s latest public arts project that got its legs on Kickstarter. Although still in the planning stages, she’s gained the community’s vested interest in the work, and garnered the Internet’s attention. Looking at NOMA’s Twitter following, it seems like they also understand the benefits of going viral.
And yet, the info for @NOMA1910 reads:
“I am where you go in New Orleans to encounter 4,000 years of art history.”
While NOMA is certainly looking to the future, beyond survival or mere recovery, the true strength of a city like New Orleans is found in its historical significance, a cultural heritage intrinsically linked to the American identity. New Orleans has always been unlike any other city, but as NOMA’s curator of contemporary art, Miranda Lash, explains it, “[New Orlean’s] best and worst qualities” has made it like a microcosm for the problems facing many places throughout the country.
Lack of funding combined with government neglect is the typical recession story, but New Orleans has experienced this on a major scale — Katrina and the B.P. Oil Spill. Despite all of this, New Orleans has rebounded, and thanks goes to NOMA for serving as a launching pad for cultural recovery. While the Met struggles to shake its tourist trap identity, the NOMA is now showing itself to be more than just an art museum, but as a beacon of hope, because only art can find meaning in the worst things. In the wake of Katrina and the Gulf spill, is what NOMA’s director calls “a nexus of opportunity and creativity.” As a jaded Williamsburger in need of something new, I found it hard to not be inspired by her call for creative types to go to New Orleans and find themselves at home.
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