GUILD IN THE PRESS
For Conservator Blake
Vonder Haar, art conservation and neighborhood-building go hand-in-hand
By Meredith Landry
- Country Roads, September
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
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
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.