The energy was palpable as over 250 artists, curators, community leaders and local enthusiasts crowded into the Indigo building on Aug. 22 to listen to remarks at the grand opening of the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans’s 7th Ward. The center, which was established by the New York-based Joan Mitchell Foundation, is home base for the foundation’s new artist-in-residence program. In its first year, the residency will host 76 artists (see the full list here). The afternoon started off with a downpour, typical for August in New Orleans. As Joan Mitchell Foundation board member and New Orleans artist Ron Bechet remarked, “It’s said that when someone’s born and it rains, it’s a blessing.” And sure enough, the mood was celebratory.
The expanded center’s campus takes up nearly half a city block and encompasses multiple buildings, some renovated and one brand new. Architect Jonathan Tate was responsible for work on the existing buildings. The main house—a former bed-and-breakfast on Bayou Road, an offshoot of the picturesque Esplanade Avenue—dates to about 1800. It now houses administrative offices, guest suites, and a dining room and kitchen where the residents will come together for dinner each night. Three buildings facing Rocheblave Street were combined and renovated to serve as the artists’ quarters. The Indigo building, an old restaurant and bar, will host public programs, including town hall meetings, open studios and artist talks.
Nestled in the back corner of the campus, the new 8,000-square-foot studio space illustrates the brass ring of building in New Orleans: a modernist structure that succeeds in relating to its site and the city’s vernacular architecture. According to the architects, Lee Ledbetter & Associates, the structure is on track to achieve LEED certified gold status. The L-shaped studio building, scaled to the height of the neighborhood, contains 10 studios of varying sizes, most with ample skylights. The landscaping is devoted to native plants, such as cypress trees, and encompasses a water garden and a bioswale that captures water runoff from the roof. Evans + Lighter Landscape Architecture organized the water management plan. These efforts make it clear that the center’s focus on social responsibility extends to the natural environment as well.
In her will, renowned American abstract painter Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) specified direct support for artists, which the foundation has done through disbursing cash grants since 1994. But artists’ needs are not just financial, and Mitchell herself had welcomed visitors to her home in Vétheuil, France as a kind of informal residency. The foundation’s CEO Christa Blatchford identified the advantages of a residency over a grant as time, space and connection. In her remarks, Blatchford noted that she’s often asked why the center is in New Orleans. She answered, “Now, 10 years after Katrina, I think it’s critical to explain what prompted us to stay down here. In New Orleans we found a city built and rebuilt by artists, a community where creativity is central to its identity.”
The Joan Mitchell Center came to New Orleans in 2007, jumping in with emergency support for artists and arts organizations after Hurricane Katrina. From January to June 2013, they ran a pilot residency program for 24 artists and also launched the year-long New Orleans Local Artist Studio Program, which awarded 10 emerging artists studio space, a stipend for materials, and professional development support. Now, the foundation has created a permanent program.
The center’s director Gia Hamilton, a New Orleans native with a background in community organizing, oversaw the development of this long-term commitment. Hamilton worked with a fraternal organization, the Black Men of Labor, to hire and train 10 locals to work on construction. She built relationships with community partners such as the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Arts Council of New Orleans. Given that her grandmother grew up in the 7th Ward, Hamilton felt like the opening day was a “homecoming.”
Board member Bechet explained, “The foundation has come here not just as an interloper, but as a neighbor and a citizen.” His statement summons up the post-Katrina suspicion of new arrivals as carpetbaggers. The notion of community responsibility at the heart of the center’s goals includes the relationship of the residency to the city. With artists coming in for month-long stays, they run the risk of seeing only its spectacle. But Hamilton wants to foster a much deeper relationship. She explained that, for example, she introduced former residency recipient Nicola Lo Calzo to New Orleans photographer Jeremy Tauriac in order to facilitate his increased access to the 7th Ward neighborhood. This connection benefitted both parties, as if the center was a kind of matchmaking service between artist’s needs and local resources.
The center’s commitment to New Orleans is also evident in the residency’s invitation to local emerging artists, in addition to the nationally and internationally known artists. The foundation is, in fact, in the midst of a campaign to transition from awarding grants to recent MFA graduates, to supporting a broader population. This allows the organization to support artists much sooner in their careers, such as two of the emerging artists this year, Miro Hoffmann and Paul Wright. Both graduated from NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts), a high school known for supporting the visual and performing arts in New Orleans, before pursuing undergraduate education outside the city.
This year’s artists-in-residence include Xenobia Bailey, Julie Green and Lisa Sigal, whose site-specific piece Home Court Crawl was featured in Prospect.3 last year as a commentary on gentrification and blight after Katrina. The center also earmarks one residency spot for community-engaged artists, with Heather Hart as the first recipient. According to Hamilton, what distinguishes the program is its commitment to “creating a space for reciprocal relationships” and responding to the unique needs of each resident. Hamilton concluded, “We’re really embodying what it means to be artist-centered.”