Audio: White Linen Night, the summer’s biggest block party, turns 25

We’re deep in the dog days of summer, and only in New Orleans would that be an excuse for a party. On the first Saturday in August, some 30,000 people will deck themselves in white attire and hit Julia Street for the 25th annual Hancock Whitney White Linen Night. It’s a block party to end all block parties. We recently sat down with Laura Tennyson, Associate Director of External Affairs at the Contemporary Arts Center, to talk about art in the Warehouse District and White Linen Night.

So, for people who have never been to White Linen Night, tell us a little about it.

It’s an incredible celebration of art, culture and community. Many people do not know, but the Downtown Warehouse Arts District was an evolutionary area 25 years ago, when we started White Linen Night. A couple of art gallery owners decided that they wanted to bring some locals out during the doldrums of August and created this night, and 7,000 people showed up. And that was in 1994. So, now, 25 years later, the event is kind of a signature event for New Orleans and for regional visitors, as well as some national visitors. The Contemporary Art Center produces the event in coordination with the Arts District of New Orleans. It’s an incredible night of art… The event runs from 5:30 to 9:30 and it’s all along the [Julia Street] blocks and everyone has openings. And then, at the Contemporary Arts Center, we invite everyone back for the official White Linen Night After Dark party.

How many galleries are there along Julia Street now?

Well, right now, I believe they have around 15 or so galleries and institutions as well, like the Contemporary Arts Center, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the National World War II Museum, which are all part of the Arts District as well.

You’ve got museums down there. You’ve got galleries. You’ve got restaurants. You’ve got bars and hotels. It’s a happening place.

And residences. We have a lot of neighbors now, 25 years later. That downtown district is home to many, many young people and older people as well, who are moving back to the city and finding great places to live.

Why White Linen?

Bankers in the South used to wear white linen in the summer. One of the gallery owners told me that. The founders who started it felt that that would be a good attire and it’s caught on, and folks look for their best white linen and white cotton as well. It doesn’t have to be just white linen. But people really take to the theme. A lot of the retail stores in New Orleans have specials and outdo their windows with white. You know, it’s a way of the community kind of saying, ‘Okay. We are with the program and we’re all going to gather in the same spirit.’

Hancock Whitney White Linen Night takes place the first Saturday of August. (Photo:

Do you go every year?

Oh, yes. I’ve been going since I’ve been in this city, 25 years. I’ve been in the city as long as there’s been White Linen Night, and I’ve been going with friends. It’s a cultural celebration as well. It’s an annual event. So everyone gets excited about it, and we put on our awesome clothes and start at the beginning and walk down and visit friends. I think that’s another aspect of White Linen Night that doesn’t really get talked about a lot. It’s a gathering of local people and friends who have been gathering for many, many years and they have their itinerary — whether they go to Arthur Rogers’ gallery or Jonathan Ferrara’s gallery and continue and explore. And then it always ends up with drinks somewhere, of course. And then maybe the late-night party as well.

But this year we have a lot of aspects that we’ve added to it, including a cool-down lounge at the Auction House Market that people can buy a special ticket for and get some air and tasty bites and relax a little. And I know the galleries are preparing some incredible exhibitions. This year, in honor of its 25th year, we’re focusing on experiencing art as a cornerstone of White Linen Night, along with the community building and celebration of culture. But really, it’s all about art.

It started out as an art experience, and we want to focus on that. It’s the one opportunity, I think, that New Orleans has to tell the world that we’re a really serious art city. A contemporary art city. At the core of it all it’s about supporting artists and providing artists with a platform and an opportunity to showcase their work and their perspectives. And that, I think, is really what the Hancock Whitney White Linen Night is all about. And it’s an opportunity. I would like to invite everyone to come and just explore the art, whether you are a collector or just an appreciator of beauty and of artistic expression.

In these days and times, I feel like artists and all of us need to take a moment to take in beauty, even if it challenges us, and reflect on it. We’re really thrilled to be at the center of this event as the elder kind of institution that the Contemporary Art Center is. We were founded in 1976 and the Arts District kind of grew up around us. And we take the organizing and the producing of this event very seriously because it’s about communicating to the world that New Orleans is a center for art and for artistic expression along with, of course, musical and culinary expressions.

The warehouse district was, until the 1984 World’s Fair, pretty abandoned and derelict. And then the CAC came along. And then, this came along. What has happened in the past 25 years? We have grown exponentially in offerings and resources. So how is it different today than it was 25 years ago? And how is it similar?

The CAC was founded in ‘76, as I mentioned. And it’s an example of something that’s happening today, as well, of people planting an idea in a physical location. The artists who gathered in 1976 pitched the idea to Sydney Bestoff, who owned the warehouse on 900 Camp Street, to do an art show. That was the genesis of it. And he agreed and allowed them to present the show at 900 Camp Street, which was his K&B Warehouse. And that was the beginning of the Contemporary Art Center, whose mission was to break down the walls between performing arts and visual arts. And so planting that flag there at 900 Camp Street attracted many other artists and small business owners as well to open their own galleries. And it went on and on, from Arthur Rogers to some of the younger art gallery owners, like Jonathan Ferrara. And it just grew and grew and grew, with art at the core. And after that, I think, many business developers saw the opportunity to go into the neighborhood and create housing and condos and restaurants and bars. And it became, 40-something years since CAC’s founding and 25 years since White Linen Night’s founding, probably one of the most thriving multi-use environments in New Orleans.

Or in the country.

Or in the country. Definitely in the Gulf South. We think White Linen Night is really the largest art-centered gathering in the Gulf South. The neighborhood, the downtown district, is thriving. It’s alive daily. At the Contemporary Art Center, a year and a half ago, we opened up a third and fourth floor to our building and it’s a collaborative workspace. So now we have all these young entrepreneurs coming in and working in the building that was just run by artists for many years. We have the incredible National World War II Museum. We have the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. We even have a grocery store now.

Hancock Whitney White Linen Night turns 25 this year. Not bad for an upstart block party. Photo:

White Linen Night started as a street party. What happens when the upstart young institutions become the mature older institutions? Do you keep that youthful pushing boundaries going?

Definitely. Art is about pushing boundaries and contemporary art is really the art of our time. And artists who are living and breathing and reflecting on the times. At the CAC, those are the kind of artists that we present, whether it is visual arts, performing arts, dance, theater, music. It’s all living composers and choreographers and artists who are presented in our season. So we haven’t retreated from being on the front lines of pushing boundaries and pushing ideas and reflecting on the times and the struggles that communities are experiencing. And providing a young artist or mid-career artist with a platform to a wall to place their art is a transformative act. So, we feel like that at the Contemporary Art Center, although we are kind of the old lady.

The Grand Dame.

The Grand Dame of the institutions. We are thrilled that there are young and upstart avenues in New Orleans, like the Saint Claude arts district and Royal Street, and Magazine Street. We’re thrilled that those areas exist and that they’re thriving as well. And we’re moving forward. We feel like we have a lot to learn still, and a lot to say, and a lot to do. And New Orleans is an incredible cultural incubator where an institution like the Contemporary Art Center is a leader, and not only a leader, but we also are paying attention to what’s happening everywhere else as well.

It’s a young crowd at White Linen Night. Are these our collectors and appreciators of the future?

Yes. We believe so. We’re very fortunate to have an event that’s 25 years old that has evolved. An audience has evolved from it. So, folks who attended, maybe now their children are attending. And we feel like the young people are the collectors of the future. We want to demystify collecting. How do you collect if you’re 25 or 30 or 35 or 40 or if you’re on a fixed income, if you’re older? How do you begin a collection of art? How do you support art? Because you may not be able to collect, but you still can support them by attending their exhibitions, by following them on their social media, by giving them feedback about the art. So we are shaping the event to meet some of their needs, but also to definitely never retreat from our original audience who supported the event and supported the galleries. The galleries have their own built-in audiences as well, who come out and support the art and buy the art. We love that young people have embraced the event.

You mentioned that your early mission was to take down the wall between performing arts and visual arts, and I think that White Linen Night has done that, too. I’ve seen performance art. There’s music playing. There’s somebody doing something strange in the street with lights or tunnels or wind or whatever. Will there be that sort of aspect?

Yes, indeed. We call that art activations, art experiences. And we are inviting all of the galleries to break the third wall and bring the art into the street as well. We have some great surprises for attendees towards that end. Last year, the Arts Council created a mural wall where everyone could paint and we had so many people painting on the street. And we do feature music as well. We have DJs that will dot the whole multi blocks. And we have DJ Rockaway who will be holding down our After Dark Party at the CAC.

Gallery hopping on White Linen Night Photo:

Many people will agree that the warehouse district has come a long way in the past 25 years. But is going upscale always a good thing?

That’s a good question. As far as economic development, ours is a kind of high-end district now in terms of the residential housing. There’re still some blocks with some more upstart galleries, however, that are smaller in nature. And it’s an interesting evolution of a concept that we’ve been exploring around creative place making and how, when the CAC landed at 900 Camp Street, it was a very desolate area that was just full of warehouses. It was kind of like the Bowery area of the city. And over time it’s really transformed from that. We don’t ever want to say that we don’t appreciate the past in any way, because the past is what made us upstart, as you said. So we feel like we have a responsibility as the grande dame to always feel rooted in our history and to advance the idea that the neighborhood is a welcoming environment for all.

A lot of things about New Orleans are very counter-intuitive, and I think throwing a big outdoor party in August falls into that category. We seem to embrace things we can’t control, whether it’s potholes or bad politicians or even the summer heat. Is that why we’re throwing a big party in August when it’s sweltering?

It’s part of our history. You know, we did it because at one point — I remember this when I moved here — the summers were like doldrums. No one would go out. The Quarter was empty. People would just stay in the house and hibernate until the fall. And so the founders of White Linen were trying to counter that and say, ‘come out. We need you to come see art.’ We’re committed to that still. And now the city has changed a lot because the summers are not slow anymore. The tourists are really still coming. Locals are having a lot of fun still and socializing with each other. So the event is still meeting a need, and why not August?

Give us your three best tips for how to get the most out of White Linen Night.

First, dress comfortably, because it’s a lot of walking. And look great, of course, because a lot of people are gazing at you as well. Open your mind to the art. Explore the art in each of the galleries and speak to the gallery owners as well and learn more about the artists. Speak to the artist if the artist is there. An open mind and an open spirit is really the best thing to bring with you because some of the art may be challenging. You may want to meet someone new. You may want to walk into a room that you’ve never walked into. I feel like that’s the promise of White Linen Night: To experience something new.

What’s coming up at the CAC that we can look forward to in the fall?

On White Linen Night, we’re opening our signature open-call exhibition, which includes 30 or so artists who have submitted art to participate in it, from a 200-mile radius around New Orleans. The theme is identity measures and the artists are exploring how their identity is shaped, whether by race, gender, class. That’s going to be a very amazing exhibition. It’s a great place to start. So maybe that will be my first tip: Start at the CAC.

The Hancock Whitney White Linen Night takes place on Saturday, Aug. 3, from 5:30 to 9:30 along Julia Street in the Warehouse District. An after party will be held at the Contemporary Arts Center. Click here for more information.


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