Visual Arts
Bywater Builder

For Conservator Blake Vonder Haar, art conservation and neighborhood-building go hand-in-hand

By Meredith Landry
- Country Roads, September 2005


With expertise and passion for her profession - art conservation - Blake Vonder Haar has become an integral part of the movement breathing colorful new life into the tiny neighborhood known to New Orleanians as the Bywater. Since moving to the city in the mid nineties, Vonder Haar has not only raised the profile of art and antique conservation, in the process she has contributed to the preservation and revival of her adopted neighborhood. Bound by the railroad tracks at Press Street, Poland Avenue, the River and St. Claude Avenue, the Bywater area now boasts the city's highest population of artists; its name as recognizable as those of the Marigny or the Warehouse District.

Vonder Haar is not a native New Orleanian, though. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where she grew up part of a family that seems to have the urge to build things in its genetic makeup. Her mother and brother are both artists. "My dad likes to tinker," she said, "My brother is an artist who has built his house entirely by hand and it's a work of art. Even my nephew is a mechanic and builds cars. My whole family is always fixing something." Vonder Haar's parents were also the types who couldn't pass and antique store or flea market without diving in, and she grew up surrounded by the spoils of their antiquing adventures.

She attended college in Colorado where she earned a degree in Fine Art with an emphasis in painting and art history. Afterwards, she fell into the film industry, eventually running a distribution company that created entire promotional campaigns for films. But after several years Vonder Haar found herself ready for a career change. She dissolved the company and took to the road traveling all over the world and living variously in England, Italy and South Africa. Curiously though, it was her time in Paris that eventually lead her to the cozy "mixed usage" Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans.

"I had been taking a break for a while, trying to figure out what I was going to do," she remembers. "One day, I was waiting for a bus in Paris when I saw a Newsweek. The cover story was about art conservation and I thought to myself, 'With my art, marketing and business background, this seemed like the perfect combination of all of my talents. It was just the right fit for me."

In 1997, Vonder Haar opened the New Orleans Conservation Guild - a center for the conservation and restoration of fine art and antiques - at 3620 Royal Street. There, she heads a small team of highly skilled, professionally trained conservators who perform restoration on works in stone, wooden artifacts, papers and books, furniture, gilded objects, glass and porcelain, and also offer fine art research and appraisal. In 2001, Vonder Haar followed this with the opening of a custom framing studio, the Antique and Vintage Frame Gallery, now under the same Royal Street roof.

Since moving to New Orleans, Vonder Haar has lived only in the French Quarter and Bywater areas of the city and says that the Bywater is where she plans to stay. Just down river from the French Quarter, and separated from Esplanade Avenue by the Faubourg Marigny, the Bywater has a unique character different from that of its neighbors. Its streets are lined with funky residences, shops and restaurants that welcome outsiders in. For the brief few blocks that the neighborhood encompasses, scooters, dreadlocks, tattoos, musicians and artists are to the street what mansions and streetcars are to Uptown; or Mercedes, Gucci, Fendi and suntans are to Rodeo Drive, for that matter - just a part of the scenery.

Inside and out, art plays an integral part in what the Bywater is, which is something Vonder Haar is striving to support in the neighborhood where she lives and works. In 2002, not long after opening her framing studio, Vonder Haar launched the Bywater Art Market - a juried, original artwork, outdoor market that takes over the neighborhood's Markey Park the third Saturday of each month. With the city's highest density of artists living in the Marigny/Bywater area, it only makes sense to Vonder Haar to cater to an appreciative local market. To that end, she recently opened New Orleans Art Supply - a high-quality art supply store stocking what she, as a conservator, will use herself or recommend. Today, all facets of this burgeoning art empire are grouped under the appropriate name, New Orleans Art, Inc.

Aside from catering to artists in her adopted community, Vonder Haar's various enterprises have kindled new levels of interest in the arts for spectators, too. The Bywater Art Market has grown in popularity, not only with those who wish to show their work, but with those in search of art, too. "We have a lot of serious art collectors as well as beginners that make it a habit to shop with us each month," says Vonder Haar.

What sets the Bywater Art Market apart from most is that only original artwork is allowed. Vonder Haar notes that she turns away nearly half of the applicants that wish to feature their work at the market and prides her market on being New Orleans' original art market juried for quality. There are no food vendors, there's no music. "It's about art," she says. "Good art, original art."

Of his experiences as a featured artist of the market, photographer Pat Burke says, "Bywater was my introduction to the world of dealing with art and the art-buying public in general. Artists may be skilled in their artistic execution, but until you stand toe-to-toe with the person who will hopefully be paying real bucks for your art, you have no idea how your art is perceived or could be improved. Bywater taught me the essentials."

On art market Saturdays, other businesses in the area report an increase in sales, too. In a recent Bywater Neighborhood Association Newsletter, Elizabeth's Restaurant noted that business at least doubled on art market Saturdays. The Bargain Store, a flea market around the corner from the market, reported that their walk-in traffic was two and three times the regular Saturday customer-count. Bywater Barbeque, The Joint and Harold's also noticed an increase in sales on those particular Saturdays.

Vonder Haar's reputation extends far beyond the Bywater. Highly sought after, her expertise has garnered local, national and international clients, several of whom shop major art purchases directly to the New Orleans Conservation Guild for evaluation and conservation measures before taking possession. She also travels widely, lecturing on various aspects of caring for art and antiques. On Friday, September 16, as a participant in the West Feliciana Historical Society's first Antiquin' In the Streets event, Vonder Haar will be in St. Francisville to present a lecture on how to properly care for artwork as part of the festival's Collection Care lecture series. It is a series designed to give collectors insight into the best methods for caring for and conserving precious art and antiques. For a successful entrepreneur who has built a thriving career on repairing damage to historically valuable objects, it might seem counter-intuitive to present such a lecture. But it's one that Vonder Haar has given many times before, illuminating her passion for the art itself - and the inevitable "hole through the canvas" that will ultimately ensure that her business continues to thrive.


Back to the NOCG press page

Click on a department name for more information.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Guild in the Press
Workshops and Lecture Series
Employment Opportunities at the Guild

New Orleans Conservation Guild Home Page

Contact us for more information:
New Orleans Conservation Guild, Inc.
3620 Royal Street
New Orleans, La. 70117

Phone: (504) 944-7900
Fax: (504) 944-8750