Marguerite Oestreicher Fine Arts seemed a permanent part of the Warehouse District landscape until recently when, almost 30 years after it went up, the eponymous sign came down.
Yet Marguerite Oestreicher herself had already long moved on, transitioning from a curator of contemporary art to Executive Director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.
The two may seem far apart on the surface, but the skills she honed as an arts influencer and curator are what make her so effective as a leader in the non-profit world.
“They key it to listen,” says Marguerite, whose highlight reel includes co-founding White Linen Night.
“Leading and raising money for a non-profit is not much different than selling contemporary art,” she says. “In both situations, you must listen closely to what that buyer or donor cares about. What motivates them? What do they believe in? What do they value? Once those questions are answered, matching them with a meaningful artist or cause is not so difficult,” she says.
Marguerite last ran her gallery in August of 2005, closing up and evacuating ahead of the storm. With the gallery contents returned to the artists, her home flooded and with a middle schooler in tow, she settled in North Carolina where she began her career in fundraising and non-profit management. In 2014, Marguerite came home to serve as the Chief Advancement Officer for New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.
“Most people like art and most people are charitable,” says Marguerite. “In both professions, I connect values and opportunities. Whether it was connecting a buyer with the opportunity to get to know an artist and purchase their work because it aligned with their personal aesthetic. Or now, when I connect donors with deeply held values and convictions so that those values may be put into action,” she says.
And although she is no longer a talent spotter and dealer in the New Orleans contemporary art scene, Marguerite continues to work in the abstract as she paints a daily picture of why affordable home ownership is important to the city.
“Stay-at-home guidelines can’t be met if you don’t have a home,” she explains. “One societal reality exposed in this pandemic is the high level of housing insecurity that exists in New Orleans for many people we deem essential workers. Medical assistants, sanitation workers, grocery store employees. All essential. All working, but limited by income and opportunity when it comes to stable housing,” she said.
And like she used to do with buyers befuddled by a piece of contemporary art, Marguerite often has to explain how Habitat works.
“Habitat does not give houses away. We help low wage workers become home owners. Habitat homebuyers pay a mortgage, just like you and me. But because Habitat acts as the lender and charges no interest, monthly payments are usually less than the homebuyer was paying to rent a cramped or poorly maintained apartment,” she said.
And instead of a cash down payment, Habitat homebuyers volunteer more than 300 hours on construction sites or in the ReStore, helping others become homeowners.
“As a gallery owner, I was humbly aware that one big show could change the trajectory of an artist’s life,” says Marguerite. “Home ownership has the same effect.”
Studies show that neighborhoods with higher rates of homeownership boast typically less crime, higher property values and healthier families. Children who live in a home owned by their family usually perform better in school.
“The relief and pride of a Habitat homebuyer on move-in day is not unlike that of a new artist who sold their first piece,” says Marguerite. “They can both exhale, knowing commitment and hard work can make dreams come true,” she said.
And if Marguerite ever misses the one-on-one interaction with the creative side of New Orleans, all she has to do is check in with the long list of musicians, visual artists and other “culture keepers” who are Habitat Home Buyers. Among them are Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Singer and Songwriter Margie Perez and Mardi Gras Indian Henry Langlois.
“Having a stable place to create your work is as important to an artist as having reliable housing is to everyone else. As Habitat homebuyers, they have both,” said Marguerite.
Affordable home ownership? An abstract concept to be sure, especially in New Orleans. But like art, necessary for a community to thrive.