Art As Business

by Ian McNulty
Biz magazine
August 2004

Coming soon: a 93,000-square-foot center designed to provide an up-close-and-personal look at local art, in progress.

The Louisiana ArtWorks complex is scheduled to open its doors in September, giving local artists access to subsidized studios, professional help with business planning and heavy-duty equipment like foundries and a wood-burning ceramics kiln. But along with the amenities, it is the public’s access to artists working in the complex that promoters of the long-awaited project say will be most valuable to the region’s growing arts community.

“We’re not a museum, this isn’t a gallery; this is a place where the creative process is presented for the public to see,” says Scott Hutcheson, chief operating officer for the Arts Council of New Orleans, the nonprofit agency behind the $29-million Louisiana ArtWorks project.

“We could have just provided inexpensive studio space,” Hutcheson says, “but we want
to build the industry, and to do that you need to build your consumer base. This builds an audience for the artists.”

Located on Lee Circle in the city’s arts and museum district, the complex is designed to give the public an intimate look at artwork in its various stages. Visitors will look down from catwalks into 14 studios leased by artists who work in ceramics, glass, metal and printmaking. Art demonstrations will occur throughout the complex, and a café, arts supply store and retail gallery are included to encourage repeat visits.

“We want people to leave with a sense that they understand where the art comes from,” says Hutcheson. “When they go to the museums or the galleries afterward, we want them to feel like they value (the art) more because they saw how it was created.”

In addition to leasing studio space, visual artists can rent the use of expensive, state-of-the-art equipment that they otherwise may not be able to find or afford.

“We have these great universities in the region producing artists and performers, but what happens to them when they no longer have access to the universities’ equipment and facilities?” asks Hutcheson. “They leave and we lose a great resource.”

Arts as industry
Louisiana ArtWorks’ mission to build a consumer base for the arts reflects a changing relationship between arts and business that many believe holds tremendous potential for the local economy.

The recent addition of attractions, such as the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the sculpture garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art, has been accompanied by the emergence of new sales opportunities at grass-roots art markets and a national marketing campaign promoting New Orleans as an arts destination for well-heeled travelers. At the same time, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu is pitching the arts as a new economic frontier for the state.

Momentum for all these efforts has been building for years, says Jonathan Ferrara, a painter and owner of the gallery that bears his name on Carondelet Street one block from Louisiana ArtWorks.

New Orleans’ cultural vibrancy and lower cost of living compared to cities like New York and San Francisco have lured many artists here, who in turn created the foundation for a strong arts scene, Ferrara says. Meanwhile, gallery owners and others have been cultivating the scene with monthly gallery nights and annual events like Arts for Arts Sake in October and White Linen Night in August, which draw thousands of people to galleries and nearby businesses.

Now, Ferrara says, the arts community needs greater support from government officials to promote the city as an arts destination and attract more potential customers.

“We’ve done our job creating the product, the art, and building the arts community here. What we need now is for someone to be the catalyst to move it forward to the next level,” he says.

Ferrara, who is a commissioner of the Downtown Development District, says the local area needs to recognize the arts as an important asset that should be nurtured and marketed. “Instead of planting seeds for another industry and waiting for something to grow, we should be doing more for an industry that has been growing here for decades,” he says.

That sort of thinking has been catching on lately, and several initiatives are under way or planned to build the arts as a business sector and tourism magnet.

Rick Gruber, executive director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, is a vocal proponent of the idea that support for the arts is a form of economic development.

“Creativity is a form of capital, and it’s capital that we have a lot of here,” says Gruber. “It’s one of our greatest resources. The more ways we have to showcase that, like (Louisiana) ArtWorks, the more people will come here.”

‘Creative assets’
Since taking office earlier this year, Landrieu has been stumping for greater recognition of what he calls the “creative industries” in Louisiana, including visual and performing arts, music, film and design.

“We want to change the perception of Louisiana’s creative assets,” he says. “We should be able to tap these resources not only for their cultural value but also for their economic value.”

Landrieu compares the creative works of Louisiana residents with the state’s natural resources, commodities like oil and lumber that companies based in other states process and sell again at higher prices. “Companies in other places get more economic value out of our natural resources than we do,” he says.
But with the state’s creative industries, he says, “We have not just the raw material, but the ability to add value to it and get it to the marketplace from right here in Louisiana.”

In October, Landrieu’s office will host a Creative Industries Summit in Baton Rouge to marshal support for the state’s “creative resources” and gather ideas for capitalizing on them.

“We want to hear from creative people who have had to leave Louisiana to pursue a career. We want to understand what Louisiana needs to do to become the nexus of creative commerce where creativity is the currency,” he says. “We want industry leaders to tell us how we can make Louisiana a more hospitable place to do their business.”

Works in progress
At a warehouse in an obscure corner of Mid-City, metal sculptor Luis Colmenares works feverishly to create a hospitable place for artists to make a living making art.

Colmenares is converting a 14,500-square-foot warehouse on South Galvez Street into 20 artists studios through a project called City Arts Studios. Nine artists are already working in the space, in mediums ranging from neon, to jewelry to woodworking, and Colmenares relocated his own business, Art Metal, to the studio last year. The company fabricates interior design components for homes and businesses, including restaurants owned by Emeril Lagasse and Ralph Brennan among others.

Colmenares is using a great deal of recycled and donated building materials on the conversion, which he says helps keep expenses down and translates to affordable leases for artists of between 75 cents and $1 per square foot monthly. Local entrepreneur and attorney Rob Couhig is an investor in the project.

With a variety of artists working under the same roof, Colmenares says his tenants are able to network for potential commissions and combine their specialties for large commercial projects. Just as important, he says, is the potential for artists to collaborate and learn from one another at City Arts Studios.

“I collect work from young artists and I see a lot of them working out of basements and backyards and they’re just not living up to their potential,” says Colmenares. “Having a studio like this, we can share techniques with them, show them new tools, new materials to use.

“We can teach artists to do things as a business, we teach them that their art has value and that it is a resource that is renewable,” he says.

The teaching and nurturing function is a big part of Louisiana ArtWorks as well. In addition to giving some local artists a “home,” ArtWorks also will lease office space to a variety of arts organizations and businesses, including those affiliated with the council’s Arts Incubator program. Named “Business Incubator of the Year” in 1999 by the National Business Incubation Association, the program provides services from volunteer lawyers, hosts workshops on arts business topics, and runs a tenant program offering subsidized office rent, access to office equipment and consulting from council staff. The program’s tenants include individuals, like jewelry artist Chesley Adler, and organizations, like the National Performance Network, a nonprofit that helps performing artists from around the country book shows.

“The stereotype of creative artists with no business sense is usually inaccurate,” says Gene Meneray, project specialist for the Arts Incubator. “What we see are creative, smart people. Often what they don’t know — but what they can pick up when shown the way — is how to present themselves and their work in a business capacity.”

Markets and marketing
The New Orleans Conservation Guild Inc., an art and antiques restoration company, also plans to move into Louisiana ArtWorks from its current home in the Bywater area, and company president Blake Vonder Haar has big hopes for more arts businesses downtown. She will operate an arts supply store within ArtWorks, with a product line including specialized equipment and raw materials, and she plans to form an outdoor art market in the area modeled after her successful Bywater Art Market.

Vonder Haar started the market in 2002 to provide a venue for art outside of the galleries.

“A lot of people are afraid to buy what they see as real art, and they won’t go into galleries, but they will come to an outdoor market and buy something directly from the artist,” she says. “It’s very grass roots here.”

Those roots have spread rapidly. What began with 11 artists has grown into more than 70 selling their creations at the market, which is held the third Saturday of each month at Markey Park on Royal Street. About 1,400 people turned up for a recent market day.

A similar idea has taken root in Mid-City. In May, the Mid-City Neighborhood Association held its first art market on a vacant lot at the corner of Canal Street and Carrollton Avenue in conjunction with celebrations for the new Canal streetcar line. The Mid-City Art Market is held the last Saturday of the month and so far includes about 30 artists.

“We want people to think of the market day as the day you come to Mid-City and stay,” says market organizer and metal sculptor Wendy Laker. “It’s a potential magnet to support the businesses here. It’s a showcase for the neighborhood as much as anything else.”

Laker says the neighborhood organization is working with nearby restaurants and other businesses to offer arts market-related specials and other promotions.

While organizers say these grass-roots art markets help build a local customer base, a well-funded marketing campaign is under way to bring more arts patrons to New Orleans from around the country. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. hired Peter A. Mayer Advertising Inc. last year to organize a $500,000 campaign based on the city’s growing arts and museum scene and is repeating the effort this year.

Sandy Shilstone, president and chief executive officer of the marketing corporation, says the campaign is aimed at “cultural tourists,” a coveted breed of traveler who typically patronizes fine-dining restaurants and high-end stores in addition to local arts attractions.

As part of the effort, the marketing group launched a Web site earlier this year promoting more than 40 large and small museums and similar attractions around the city. The site,, reportedly receives about 10,000 visits per day.

Louisiana ArtWorks, first proposed in 1997, is being built with a combination of state funds and money raised through an Arts Council capital campaign. The Arts Council predicts annual attendance will be around 200,000 visitors and that after three years the complex will generate enough money from leases, retail sales and facility rentals for special events to cover its operating budget independently.

A grand opening celebration for Louisiana ArtWorks is scheduled for Sept. 25.•



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