Jan Gilbert doesn’t see works of art as, well, just works of art. To this artist and curator, the world is multilayered, and so are our creative interpretations of it – artful renderings, to be best appreciated, need to be peeled back, layer upon layer, intellectually and emotionally, to show the richness and texture of life and our world.
That perspective infuses Art of Our City, the potent new exhibition at The Historic New Orleans Collection that Gilbert curated at the behest of and with the assistance of HNOC director Priscilla Lawrence. 71 carefully selected works by 65 artists tell a comprehensive and compelling story of New Orleans — its people, its disasters, its successes — from the World’s Fair in 1984 to the present.
Lagniappe to this richness is the thoughtful beauty of the exhibition galleries themselves. THNOC’s $38 million renovation to the former WWL radio studio on Royal Street has turned it into a world-class museum space, one that certainly rivals anything that New York or D.C has to offer. Three stories and 12,000 square feet of gleaming contemporary exhibition space around the historic courtyard of the the Seignouret-Brulatour House at 520 Royal St. (Carmo restaurant is operating a new coffee house and café there, too.)
And it’s all free to the public.
So how did Gilbert cull more than 300 considered artworks down to a manageable six dozen or so? Certainly, she says, with the collaboration of many HNOC curators and experts. But also from her own artistic world view. And because each final piece simply demanded that it be included.
“These are all pieces that I’m passionate about and think are noteworthy,” she says. “We wanted to highlight things beyond just representational art. Like the fact that the Music Box has sound. That John Scott did a piece with school children. Things that embody the spirit of New Orleans.”
On one level, the works in Art of the City serve as history. The giant first-floor map references eight iconic pieces, some of which are no longer around: Frank Gehry’s World’s Fair amphitheater on the Mississippi River, or Candy Chang’s chalkboard “Before I Die,” which started in New Orleans and spread worldwide.
“As we talked, we realized it had to be about more than photographs or paintings or sculpture,” Gilbert says. “We want to reach out to people in the city and get them to come in, but also get them out to the art.”
A number of innovative auxiliary programs will do just that. The “Portage Bike Roll” leads people to the locations on the map. “Stoop Sitting” brings artists into the gallery to sit and talk with visitors. The Banner Project offers bite-sized pieces of the works on giant banners at partner locations, from where buses will bring people to Royal Street.
The heart of the exhibition itself lies in the works in two galleries on the third floor. It continues with more intimately scaled works on the second floor. About half the works belong to the HNOC permanent collection; the remainder come from museums and collectors. Not all the pieces are by local artists: The first piece you see is by London artist Robin Reynolds, a meticulously rendered mélange of 170 historical vignettes called “New Orleans: Between Heaven and Hell.”
“It’s witty, it’s drawn from the HNOC archives, and it captures things we couldn’t,” says Gilbert. “Sometimes we need to see the city from a stranger’s eyes.” It also has a touch-screen label that allows viewers to zoom in on particular vignettes and read their historical source material. Technology here is cutting edge. (Check out the online version here.)
The works are not arranged chronologically or by medium. New Orleans is much more of a hodgepodge city. Here, there’s a life-sized mannequin of Ernie K. Doe by Jason Poirier, wearing a sequined suit and cape made by the musician’s widow, Antoinette. There, a tower of rubber boots and crushed metal rods by Luis Cruz Azaceta called “Tribute to the Unknown Hispanic Worker That Helped to Rebuild the City of New Orleans after Katrina.” John Lawrence’s dreamy black and white photograph of New Orleans oaks, “Audubon Park,” hangs on the wall behind a freestanding table holding “Asylum,” a surrealist sculpture referencing the St. Ann Parade by Ersy Schwartz. Gilbert loves that juxtaposition.
“It’s the urban landscape. You’re wandering. You’re traipsing the city.”
The exhibition is meant, she says, to be provocative and interactive. It contains the famous – Douglas Bourgeois, Lin Emery, Willie Birch, John Scott — as well as the more obscure. A landscape that once hung in the HNOC office is signed by Jamie Mitchell, better known these days as James Michalopoulis.
Mediums run the gamut, too, from photography to fabric art, sound installations to oils. Abstracts, like Regina Scully’s boisterous “Cosmographia,” hang near more literal, realistic renditions of the city, such as Shirley Masinter’s painstakingly detailed “Mahalia and Tambourine,” or Frank Relle’s dramatically lit photograph, “Brainard.” Some works are iconic (George Febre’s tongue-in-cheek “Alligator Shoes”), some unexpected (George Dureau’s “View From My Balcony”).
“You’ll see familiar names,” says Gilbert, “but hopefully also some surprises.”
Many of the pieces have their own stories. Former YAYA artist Rontherin Ratliff stayed in the CBD during Hurricane Katrina, and afterward took a boat to his grandmother’s house, where he salvaged objects atop the waves for “Things That Float.” Only one work is of the flood itself, Neil Alexander’s well-known photograph “7:28 AM August 30, 2005.”
“We chose things that dealt with the urban landscape,” Gilbert explains. “And we wanted diverse voices to represent the city.”
Her own is not technically one of those voices. The only Gilbert work hangs just outside the official exhibition, a lit-up sign that says “Art” against a building façade that fades into the abstract.
The sign, says Gilbert, “is declaring itself as art. It crosses that threshold when something slowly comes into consciousness, with a growing luminosity. Art reveals itself layer by layer. It takes time. And that’s exactly the sense of what we’re trying to achieve. If you open yourself up to the passions of these artists, you will understand what this city is all about.”
That understanding will be augmented by a series of programs designed to enhance the exhibition’s artistic vision. From book clubs to bike rolls to stoop sessions, these are innovative offerings that, like the works themselves, draw upon the city’s creative and extraordinary underpinnings. Here’s a look.
History and contemporary art interact to refresh our perceptions of New Orleans. At 520 Royal St. through Oct. 6. Hours are Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. and Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Free.
These 6-mile bike tours explore art and architecture along the ancient portage route between Bayou St. John and the Mississippi River. Tours leave Saturdays and Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. from May 11 to June 2 from Washington Square Park, 700 block of Frenchmen Street. Admission is free, thanks to the support of The Helis Foundation, with bicycles provided by Blue Bikes. Reservations required.
Once a month, an artist featured in the exhibition will sit on a rolling stoop and talk informally with visitors. Conceived by Deputy Director Daniel Hammer, the program is inspired by the kind of neighborly conversations we’ve always had on front porches throughout the city. Stoop sittings will happen Sundays, 1:00 to 4:00 p.m, May 11-Sept. 14, 520 Royal St. Free.
THNOC oral historian Mark Cave will interview Robert Tannen and Willie Birch live at the exhibition. July 13, 1:00-4:00 p.m. 520 Royal St. Free.
Pianist Peter Collins will perform work by local composers including Ellis Marsalis, Roger Dickerson, Jay Weigel, Steven Danker, and others. Aug. 14, 6:00-7:30 p.m., 520 Royal St. Free. Reservations required.
Book writer and radio personality Susan Larson will monitor conversations one evening a month from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. with an author and a related artist from the exhibition.