New Orleans’ Artist Collectives

by Nick Stillman

Having lived in New York City for a decade before relocating to New Orleans, I’m often asked by artists at the beginning of their careers why they would stay in New Orleans and what is unique about our scene.

There are a lot of answers, practical and emotional. Despite enormous increases in rental rates, studio space is still usually cheaper in New Orleans than in, say, New York or Los Angeles. Another reason: New Orleans is palpably in transition, and artists should be intimately involved during moments of rapid civic change. And then there’s our distinct scene of collectives. This is usually the one that piques people’s interest the most.

Collectives have played a crucial role in contemporary art since the development of modernism. Around the turn of the century, Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Club of New York, for example, was arguably the primary American influence in creating a context in which photography could be interpreted as art. Beginning in the late 1960s, many American art collectives rallied around political and human-rights causes. The Art Workers Coalition, AIR, Womanhouse, and the Guerrilla Girls have lobbied for artists’ rights and for increased inclusiveness in an arts world dominated by white men; Group Material and ACT UP have done substantial work to bring attention to the AIDS crisis. I could name dozens more American artists’ collectives whose work has created opportunities for artists and affected change in the context they found themselves in.

Here in New Orleans, our visual art collectives mostly developed within the last decade. For the purposes of this article, I’m defining “collective” as an artist-run nonprofit that provides exhibition opportunities within a physical space, although one could also expand the field and add various for-profits, non-hierarchical online communities, advocacy groups that align with artists, and the like. Statistics on the amount of collectives in New Orleans are difficult to cite because definitions can be so fluid; however, it’s clear that an amazing amount of the energy, productivity, and vibrancy of New Orleans’ visual art culture is generated by collectives like Good Children, The Front, Press Street/Antenna, Ten Gallery, and Staple Goods.

The only other American city I’m aware of where visual art collectives are so prominent is Philadelphia, whose scene is deeply rooted. Nexus was established in 1975, Vox Populi in 1988, and in 2013 the city hosted a multi-venue exhibition with participation from 23 distinct entities that identify as collectives in some form. St. Louis and Providence also are home to strong scenes of collectives.

Closer to home, New Orleans’ collectives are spaces of possibility and experimentation. Because their identities are driven by members – not directors or presidents – many of the city’s collectives can function as many things within the space of a few months: exhibition and performance spaces, screening rooms, educational-based contexts, and forums for discussion and debate. Several collectives have recently traded spaces with collectives in other cities, affording New Orleans artists exposure in different environments and bringing work to New Orleans that may not have otherwise made it here. Membership is also a realistic goal for recent art-school graduates and other artists without a huge resume in New Orleans, and as the collectives are such an impactful part of this city’s visual art landscape, this is an incredible opportunity, one more thing that makes New Orleans’ visual arts scene unlike any other city’s.

Nick Stillman is the Arts Council’s Deputy Director.