Can Artists Really “Make It” in New Orleans?

By Brianna Douglass

The nooks and crannies of New Orleans are stuffed with culture, and the tourism industry uses this fact to make bank.  But is New Orleans really the art mecca it’s ticketed as?  Fine artists are conventionally thought to be “starving” and unable to support themselves on the money they make off their art alone.  As a society, we see art as a dead-end dream with little to no real-world (read: cash) value. But in New Orleans, you can literally find artists on every street corner, whether in a small gallery of two or three others they rent the space with or putting up their work around Jackson Square. The city itself is a vibrant testament to the greater ongoing artistic community, including musicians and street performers.  

Joshua Duncan, a visual artist who shows his work in Jackson Square, gave insight into his own experience as a New Orleans based painter.  A jovial man with a full beard, Joshua fits the picture of a full-time artist.  And he is, with no back-up job to speak of.  He and his wife, an artist herself, make enough money off their work to support themselves.  Duncan has a Bachelor’s Degree in Illustration from Memphis College of Art.  His work ranges from non-objective abstract oil paintings to Duncan has been selling paintings in New Orleans for ten years, and believes that New Orleans is a great city to work in as a visual artist.  He said, “There’s something about New Orleans that makes it easy for artists – well not easy, of course you have to put work into it, you have to have dedication, you have to have patience and persistence – but if you’re willing to do it, there’s something about New Orleans. And why, why New Orleans?” Duncan thinks that the feeling of the city itself has something to do with an artist’s ability to “make it” in New Orleans.  People have always come to New Orleans.”  His wife, he says, knows exactly why people come to the city.  He said, “My wife is an artist as well and we always say [to each other], “why do people come to New Orleans?” and she says it’s loose liquor laws.”

Duncan’s work has a cost range of around fifty dollars to several thousand dollars which is a reasonable price for fine art made by a relatively unknown artist.  As it is his livelihood, he must be prolific enough to sell several pieces a week, which requires lots of exposure to the public, especially tourists.  His spot in Jackson square allows for a lot of foot traffic, but only the tiniest fraction of people will go any farther than looking.  However, Duncan also runs an Etsy shop and mentioned his past gallery exhibitions.  Duncan is more than willing to network and put his art out into the world in order to survive as a visual artist.

From Duncan’s point of view, being an artist is a feasible career choice in New Orleans, if you’re willing to work for it.  While this is true, emerging artists must consider exactly what they want from their career before getting too established in one city.  Arthur Roger, owner of the Arthur Roger Gallery, knows that every city’s art market is unique, and an artist in New Orleans will have very different experiences than a New York artist, for example.  Currently, Roger is showing work by a Cuban American artist named Luiz Cruz Azaceta, whose pieces sell for between 1,000 to 100,000 dollars, the latter of which is towards the higher end of the price bracket that art would go for in New Orleans.

Arthur Roger is an experienced member of the New Orleans artistic community, having owned his gallery for just under 40 years.  His gallery is made up of white walls and clean lines, the perfect place to view art.  There is a dark room for video pieces, which he says are typically cheaper and less sought after because they are not one of a kind by design.  In another room, he has a few chairs for potential buyers to sit in while they look at pieces.  In this room, he is able to store thousands of art works from all the artists he works with, keeping pieces ready to be sold at a moment’s notice.

Roger spoke of the New Orleans art scene as it stood many years ago when he was just getting started, saying, “Most people thought being in the art business as…not as a luxury, but in other words you were doing it for the love of it, not that you would think of it as any true business.  That was the attraction of me being in the right place at the right time. The artists, they saw benefit from someone who need to sell work to be able to continue the gallery.  We were really at that timepoint where it was for the first time an opportunity for a business to exist on art – on contemporary art at least. There certainly were Audubon and antique-ish, more historical kind of galleries.”

 According to Roger, the amount that art sells for in a venue like New Orleans is far less than what it sells for in New York.  Artists are tasked with setting reasonable prices for their work and their prices should fit the market they’re in – this simple fact can make it almost impossible to jump into another city’s art scene. Conversely, if an artist is becoming popular in one area and can get away with raising their prices there, their work probably won’t be bought in other places where they haven’t grown a fanbase.  

Another artist who goes only by “Marrus,” believes the real issue for artists has been the change in rent prices more than anything.  Marrus received her BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, after which she moved to New York City to become a comic illustrator and animator.  Her paintings are whimsical and she describes them as “visual metaphors for the human condition.”  Marrus moved to New Orleans right before Katrina and is now a full-time painter in the city and she described the difference that twelve years can make.  “When I moved here, I was able to get a 1700 square foot apartment for 750 dollars – you’d never be able to do that anymore.”  Of course, the rising cost of living doesn’t just affect artists.  As New Orleans becomes a fashionable place for the “elite” to live, prices inevitably begin to skyrocket and neighborhoods change, get “cleaner,” and often see the loss of the people who have been the backbone of the city for many years.  New York has 149 % higher rent prices than New Orleans while San Francisco’s prices are 66% higher.  Both cities are known for their culture and artistic community, which begs the question…how are artists making it there?

The people of New Orleans have a strong connection to the past, and perhaps such an affinity will naturally hold the city back from getting too big, too fast, and (we hope) too expensive.  Everything from the architecture to the slow-moving pace to this city harkens back to the past and as new people from out of town flood in to experience the culture here, either for short periods or longer stays, the city is beginning to change. The future of New Orleans art is perhaps unclear, but if you want to make bets you should bet on St. Claude.  Those who are looking to make it in the NOLA art scene, be it visual or performance, can be found here first.  More recently, however, this area has been plagued by gentrification issues.  The people who have lived there for decades are suddenly less and less able to afford groceries and rent as wealthier people move to the area, bringing with them the need to change and “improve,” to achieve an artsy aesthetic.

 Artists like Marrus and Joshua Duncan, who set up around Jackson square are a particular kind of successful: they make enough to support themselves but are arguably unlikely to be the next Andy Warhol.  Nonetheless, being able to display your work in Jackson Square comes with its own esteem – not everyone can do it.  You must have a permit and then fight over spaces during the busiest tourist seasons.  Marrus mentioned that for French Quarter Fest, 80 artists from all over the country were guaranteed spots, out of the 200 spots available.  Marrus believes that it should have only been Louisiana artists represented there.  

 Marrus, just like Duncan, emphasized the importance of work ethic. “I think artists can make it but any artist that thinks they are going to be able to sit in their closet and doodle the angst in their souls are destined for failure.  I think that galleries and agents are the artist’s version of winning the lottery. If you wanna do this – unless you have a trust fund – you damn well better get good at marketing and promotion.”  And she’s right; there’s nothing wrong with only making art in your down time, but if you want it to be your career then you’re going to have to hustle.    

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