Local color, global appeal

Chris Waddington Art, Exhibitions

Three New Orleans museums and two community cultural institutions draw visitors from afar by keeping the focus on indigenous artistry.

Detail of the feathers and beadwork on one of the many ornate Mardi Gras Indian suits on display at the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. Photograph courtesy of Meghan Henshaw and the Backstreet Cultural Museum. 

Visit New Orleans with eyes closed and you’ll never get lost.  The city, which celebrates its three hundredth anniversary in 2018, encourages travelers to navigate with all their senses. Here you can follow the peppery whiff  of crawfish boils through tree-shaded neighborhoods, listen for trumpet-playing school kids at bus stops, and taste traditional dishes that trace back to the kitchens of France and West Africa.

The Stephen Goldring Hall at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, University of New Orleans, is a modern addition to the multi-structure complex, which also includes the Howard Memorial Library, originally designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and known today as the Patrick F. Taylor Library; and the Clementine Hunter Wing. Photograph courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. 

When you open your eyes, however, New Orleans is equally distinctive, especially if your tour includes some of the city’s museums, galleries, and antiques stores. We asked curators at several very different institutions—from the city’s nationally known museums to a community-rooted backyard exhibition space—for their sense of the city’s distinctive culture and how it plays out in their work. They also drew our attention to forthcoming exhibitions and ongoing installations that belong on the itinerary of cultural tourists seeking to understand New Orleans—among them a sprawling show of the dreamy, surrealist photographs of Clarence John Laughlin at the Historic New Orleans Collection; a thirty-year survey of Simon Gunning’s Louisiana landscape paintings at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art; the complete reinstallation of the decorative arts collection at the New Orleans Museum of Art; and a pair of year-round costume displays dedicated to Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, social aid and pleasure clubs, and other manifestations of African-American street culture.

Amid that diversity, one common theme came through: New Orleans still seduces its artists, collectors, and curators. It keeps them home. It becomes their enduring subject and stage. It feeds them and sometimes it frustrates them, but it’s always at the center of their thinking.

Night Blooming Cereus vase by Joseph Fortune Meyer (1848–1931), Newcomb College Pottery, New Orleans, 1903. Earthenware; height 11 1⁄4 inches. New Orleans Museum of Art, gift of Newcomb College through Dean Pierce Butler. 

The facade of the Merieult House, the entrance to the Royal Street Galleries of the Historic New Orleans Collection complex, made up of a series of interconnected buildings and courtyards. Photograph courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection. 

The Historic New Orleans Collection 

Consider the career of Clarence John Laughlin, now recognized internationally for his visionary photos of Louisiana subjects, but once strictly a local, holed up with his books and cameras in the French Quarter of the mid-twentieth century. Back then, New Orleans hovered on the cultural margins—and so did Laughlin.  The photographer’s creative isolation is one of the themes of an upcoming show at the Historic New Orleans Collection, according to John H. Lawrence, director of museum programs for the institution. “Laughlin had little in common with others on the New Orleans scene—mostly competent commercial photographers and second-generation pictorialists. His isolation is a recurring note in his correspondence, which we will display extensively in this show,” Lawrence says.

Starting in the 1930s, Laughlin wrote letters and exchanged prints with many of his twentieth-century contemporaries. At  first he sought encouragement from established photographers such as Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Margaret Bourke-White. Later, he built a network of peers—both friends and intellectual sparring partners—through his correspondence with Minor White, Eugene Berman, Paul Strand, Wynn Bullock, and others.  That correspondence, amounting to thousands of pages, is held by HNOC, along with a comprehensive collection of Laughlin’s own prints.

  • The Unending Stream by Laughlin, 1947. Photoprint, 11 by 14 inches. Historic New Orleans Collection, Laughlin Archive. 
  • The Peacock Fan, Number One. Wall of Ghosts (upper part of wall) by Laughlin, c. 1940. Photoprint, 14 by 11 inches. Historic New Orleans Collection, Laughlin Archive. 
  • Self-Portrait of the Photographer as a Metaphysician by Clarence John Laughlin (1905– 1985), c. 1941. Photoprint, 14 by 11 inches. Historic New Orleans Collection, Clarence John Laughlin Archive. 
  • Farewell to the Past, Number Four. The Revenant, Number One by Laughlin, 1946. Photoprint, 10 by 8 inches. Historic New Orleans Collection, Laughlin Archive. 

“Our exhibit will give visitors the pleasure of reading other people’s mail,” Lawrence says. “In many cases, one will be able to see both sides of the cor- respondence, because Laughlin kept carbons of his own letters. This show also will reunite our collection of Laughlin’s prints with the masterworks he accumulated by trading, most of which ended up at the New Orleans Museum of Art.”

If Laughlin’s missives reveal his sense of isolation, they also explain his lifelong connection to New Orleans. In a 1941 letter to Dorothy Norman, he wrote, “I could show you evidences of an amazing, and indigenous kind of fantasy which sprang into being here, evidences which are to be found still, if they are carefully searched for, in the ‘lost’ streets, the strange burial grounds, the impossibly decayed houses of old New Orleans.”

As seen in this photograph outside the Ogden Museum, visitors and residents alike participate in the annual Whitney White Linen Night in August, when they don their coolest white linen clothes and visit the area’s galleries and museums. Ogden Museum of Southern Art photograph. 

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art 

One could easily slip that Laughlin quote into the Simon Gunning monograph and exhibition that the Ogden Museum of Southern Art will unveil this fall.  The lure of New Orleans changed everything for Gunning, according to Ogden Museum director William Andrews. An Australian native, steeped in the vibrant landscape traditions of his homeland, Gunning gave up a scholarship at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and settled in New Orleans to paint—and to wait tables in the French Quarter.  That was in 1980, and though he left the service industry decades ago, Gunning continues to depict the city’s crumbling streets, the debris of industrial stretches, the surrounding swamps, and the sweeping Mississippi with its rusty freighters and tugs. “Why would anyone spend thirty years in an attic studio if not on a heroic voyage?” Andrews asks. “Gunning’s oil paintings are a sustained act of attention, an investigation of place, and a continuing revelation about the expressive possibilities of his medium. New Orleans enriched Gunning’s art, and Gunning’s art has enriched New Orleans.”

While Louisiana subjects have given Gunning’s work wide appeal among regional collectors, Andrews argues that these paintings, often epic in scale, transcend their documentary value. “Gunning’s canvases are built from bravura, abstract passages of paint that resolve into concrete images. He uses color, line, texture, and illusionistic space to tell bigger stories, to get at the mysteries that hide around every corner in New Orleans.”

  • The Big Bend by Simon Gunning, (1956–), 2014–2015. Oil on canvas, 5 by 12 feet. Photograph by Michael Smith, cour- tesy of Arthur Roger Gallery. 
  • The Fruit Vendors by Gunning, 2013. Oil on panel, 18 by 16 inches. Arthur Roger Gallery photograph. 
  • The Deep Blue Stern by Gunning, 2003. Oil on canvas, 33 by 36 inches. Arthur Roger Gallery photograph.

Focused on craft and dedicated to traditional methods, Gunning has sidestepped current art world fashions. But, in New Orleans, that’s just another sign that he belongs here, for the city’s distinct culture has rarely shifted to suit national tastes.

 That conservatism has many explanations, from the legacy of French and Spanish colonial rule to preservation-by-neglect encouraged by long-term population loss and a historically wobbling, boom-and-bust economy. Yet it has rarely dampened the creativity of locals, especially among black residents—a majority here—whose African-rooted folk culture has helped to make New Orleans, past and present, a font of American music, spawning jazz, early rock, and the enduringly popular rap and bounce of contemporary performers. African-American New Orleans doesn’t just get the city dancing, however. Its tastes have seeped into everything, from the “shotgun” design of traditional houses to the bold Caribbean colors of parade floats and men’s attire.

Ronald W. Lewis, curator and director of the House of Dance and Feathers, sitting among his collection of costumes, masks, and pictures displayed at the museum, located in his backyard in the Lower Ninth Ward.  Photograph by Kathy Anderson, courtesy of the Times-Picayune. 

The House of Dance and Feathers

For a time after Hurricane Katrina it seemed as if all that might change. The flooding was especially devastating for African Americans, who tended to live in low-lying areas and often lacked the resources to return from the post-storm diaspora.

Bringing his neighbors back became a mission for Ronald W. Lewis—and he did it by example. He did it with his backyard museum, the House of Dance and Feathers, which he rebuilt after Federal levees failed and a wall of water swept through the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood. His passion made him a central figure in Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans, the best-selling Katrina chronicle by the former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum. Lewis’s spirit also comes through in the richly illustrated book he created through the Neighborhood Story Project of the University of New Orleans Press, The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald W. Lewis.

Lewis has plenty of passion to spare for visitors who leave the French Quarter and take the ten-minute cab ride downriver and across the Industrial Canal to his tidy house on Tupelo Street. On the way you pass many signs of recovery: new schools, a fire station, the quirky modernist residences of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project. Lewis himself has become something of an emblem of recovery in New Orleans. He greets each visitor with a taste of the culture he wants to preserve: a culture of porch-sitting neighbors, of family gatherings, of barbershop debates, and of music making and masking unlike anything else in America. “New Orleans people came to my house after Katrina, because they knew I was rebuilding, because I was always on TV or at public meetings talking about the importance of our community: the artists who make Indian suits, the musicians, the organizers who put on parades, and the ones who dress on Mardi Gras as Skeletons or Baby Dolls,” Lewis says.

Many of Lewis’s visitors came with contributions for the museum, which had taken on fourteen feet of water in August 2005. “People brought me Indian suits and patches, photographs of parades, and regalia from social aid and pleasure clubs. These were things they had salvaged—things they knew were important. If a working man spends a few thousand dollars to dress for a parade, it’s not a small statement. If he stands up for his community and lets the world know that the street belongs to him, that’s also important.”

Visitors explore the House of Dance and Feathers, and learn about the history and traditions of New Orleans and the marching culture through the objects and costumes exhibited. Photograph by Albert Herring/ Tulane Public Relations/ Wikimedia.org. 

Lewis’s museum is packed with such memorabilia, and it isn’t tucked away in vitrines. Parade umbrellas dangle from rafters, photographs line the walls, feathered fans, appliquéd sashes, and elaborately beaded patches cover the shelves and tables. With its profusion of objects, the House of Dance and Feathers can be as overwhelming as the shoulder-to-shoulder street festivities it memorializes. Yet, with Lewis there, explaining each piece, it’s also a place to get a hands-on appreciation of sewing techniques, to slow down and savor the pace of New Orleans social life, and to hear directly from a cultural torchbearer.

 During our visit, Lewis spoke eloquently about helping Indians sew Carnival suits and he described his founding role in the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which marches annually and supports worthy endeavors in his neighborhood. He also reminded visitors that his modest museum is only the tip of the iceberg. He played a video of a Mardi Gras Indian rehearsal at a local bar and he made it clear that second-line parades occur virtually every Sunday from Labor Day until June in New Orleans—free events that draw neighbors off their porches to dance behind brass bands and decked-out club members.

First started in Sylvester Francis’s two-car garage, the Backstreet Cultural Museum houses a large collection of Mardi Gras Indian suits as well as exhibits on social aid and pleasure clubs, jazz funerals, Skull and Bones gangs, Baby Dolls, and other material related to African-American culture in New Orleans. Photograph by Barry Solow/Flickr. 

The Backstreet Cultural Museum

 Lewis also recommended a visit to the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Tremé. Located in the city’s oldest African-American neighborhood, adjacent to the French Quarter, the museum, founded by Sylvester Francis, preserves and interprets traditional Mardi Gras Indian regalia and other New Orleans material. It’s a regular gathering place for maskers from across the city, including Lewis. On Mardi Gras, for example, he goes there to join with the North Side Skull and Bones group that wakes neighborhood revelers with an early morning procession. “New Orleans isn’t like the rest of America, but when the music calls, when we take to the street, we’re living our version of the American dream,” Lewis says. “That’s why we fought so hard to come back after Katrina.”

The Great Hall of the New Orleans Museum of Art with The Age of Bronze by Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), 1875–1876 (gift of Mr. and Mrs. Aage Qvistgaard-Peterson). New Orleans Museum of Art photograph. 

The New Orleans Museum of Art 

The city’s exceptionalism was instantly apparent to curator Mel Buchanan when she moved south in 2013 to head the decorative arts and design program at the New Orleans Museum of Art. “I came to NOMA from Milwaukee, where, in comparison to New Orleans, the aesthetic is minimalist and pragmatic, with an emphasis on industrial design and Prairie school styles. Here there is a love of ornament that shows up everywhere, including in the city’s amazing nineteenth-century building stock, its auction houses, and the antiques stores of the French Quarter. There is no such thing as ‘too much’ in New Orleans,” she says.

That local taste comes through in NOMA’s decorative arts collection, which has accumulated over a century. It includes plenty of Vieux Paris porcelain and nineteenth-century Meissen figurines—“exactly the kind of things that modernism rejected,” Buchanan notes. Instead of side-lining this material, Buchanan made it part of NOMA’s acclaimed Orientalism installation, which set decorative arts amid Salon paintings and nineteenth-century travel photographs—an example of the cross-departmental interpretation that Buchanan intends to continue as she reinstalls the decorative collections over the next eighteen months.

  • The Rosemonde E. and Emile Kuntz Room at NOMA features several pieces of furniture made in Louisiana, including an armoire, c.1795–1820; a high-post bed,c.1790–1820; and a Campeche chair, c. 1820 –1830. At the right hangs Portrait of a Free Woman of Color Wearing a Tignon by Louis Antoine Collas (1775–after 1833), 1829. New Orleans Museum of Art photograph.
  • The art nouveau collection features a carved mahogany cabinet by Swedish-born Bror Anders Wikstrom (c. 1845–1909), c. 1900–1905; a side chair by Louis Majorelle (1859 –1926) for George C. Flint and Company, c. 1900; and a Pond Lily table lamp designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848 – 1933) for Tiffany Studios, c. 1900–1910. New Orleans Museum of Art photograph. 
  • Five Brushstrokes by Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997), 1984 (fabricated 2010), which stands in front of the New Orleans Museum of Art, was the gift of Sydney and Walda Besthoff and the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. Photograph courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art. 
  • The Orientalism gallery at NOMA includes a Japonism-style parlor cabinet by A. and H. Lejambre (1865–c. 1907), c. 1880, with Rookwood pottery from 1885–1937. New Orleans Museum of Art photograph. 

Buchanan has plenty of material to work with. The highlights of NOMA’s collection include a comprehensive historic survey of glass, impressive holdings of Gorham Martelé silver, a focused group of early Louisiana furniture, and a great deal of American art pottery. Recent additions range from an 1861 ensemble of rococo revival furnishings from the parlor of Louisiana’s Butler Greenwood Plantation to NOMA’s first piece of metal furniture, a John Vesey 1958 Maximilian chair, which offers a modernist variation on the Campeche style popular here in the nineteenth century.

“There are some things you will see on every visit—a great, Louisiana-made Campeche chair,” Buchanan says, “or our elaborately carved Wikstrom cabinet, which reflects [Swedish-born Bror Anders] Wikstrom’s work as a Mardi Gras float designer before World War One….I’m aiming for a Louisiana experience, one that will resonate when visitors leave the museum and look at the city. To do that, I’m having to rethink my own aesthetic. I want to understand the local taste for joy and festivity that comes out in its passion for layers of ornament. That’s the mood I want to keep in the galleries. I never want you to forget that NOMA is located in New Orleans.”

Historic New Orleans Collection 

Three locations in the French Quarter: Royal Street Galleries 533 Royal St.; Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art 400 Chartres St.; Chartres Street Galleries (Williams Research Center) 410 Chartres St.

Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., excluding holidays The Royal Street complex is also open on Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Admission to exhibitions galleries is free. Tours of HNOC buildings are $5.

The Clarence John Laughlin exhibition is scheduled to run from November 15, 2016, to March 18, 2017.  hnoc.org

 New Orleans Museum of Art 

1 Collins C. Diboll Circle, City Park 

Tuesday–Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Friday to 9 p.m.); Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

 Admission: $10 NOMA is reinstalling its decorative arts collection in phases. About half should be on view by December 2016, with the full collection scheduled for installation by December 2017. noma.org

 Ogden Museum of Southern Art

 925 Camp Street

Closed Tuesday; Wednesday–Monday, 10 a.m to 5 p.m. (Thursday to 8 p.m.) 

 Admission: $12.50 Simon Gunning career survey runs October 1, 2016, to February 5, 2017. ogdenmuseum.org

 Backstreet Cultural Museum

 1116 Henriette Delille Street

Tuesday–Friday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Saturday to 3 p.m.) 

Admission: $8 Call 504.577.6001 backstreet museum.org

House of Dance and Feathers 

1317 Tupelo Street 

Open by appointment 

Admission is free, but this community nonprofit welcomes donations. Call 504.957.2678 houseofdance andfeathers.org

New Orleans journalist CHRIS WADDINGTON is a regular contributor to The Magazine ANTIQUES and other national publications. His many awards include two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for critical writing.