A Rose is A Rose
Bayou Road Renaissance
Cheryl Gerber Photograph
In the earliest days of New Orleans, Bayou Road was a major route from Lake Pontchartrain and Bayou St. John to the French Quarter. Today Bayou Road, near Broad Street, is developing into an artistic crossroads. The Joan Mitchell Arts Center, the Southern Repertory Theater, and the Waldorf School of New Orleans will all have homes in this revitalized neighborhood, with the aid of the architects and planners of Alembic Community Development and the involvement of area residents.
Alembic (the name comes from the process by which alchemists turned base metal into gold) offers planning and development services to nonprofit organizations, neighborhoods and cities, with a presence in New York City and in Biloxi, Mississippi. Michael Grote is director of the building programs in the New Orleans office. Grote noted that the Bayou Road project was begun by the late Hal Brown and his wife Shawn Kennedy as the Rose Community Development Corporation, with a board of directors. An agreement to lease and possibly purchase the St. Rose de Lima Church was signed. A request for proposals brought in Alembic as a development partner, the church was purchased (with two other buildings) and the project began in earnest.
The Bayou Tremé Center will focus on the arts, Grote explained. “You can’t leave vacant buildings around. We think these are community assets.” Local businesses have also benefitted from neighborhood improvement. “It’s a commercial strip, and the Historic District Landmarks Commission can speak up on demolition and neglect,” Grote added. “We want to see this an active place year-round.”
The Southern Repertory Theater will have its first home base, with a theater constructed inside the church. “We are not changing the space or intention of the building,” Aimée Hayes, Southern Rep Producing Artistic Director, asserted. Southern Rep will open in the 2018-2019 season, but they are active now. “We are out in front of the church every second Saturday for an event, and we will be back in September,” Hayes said. One recent Saturday saw a bike fest. “This is a terrific crossroads, and it’s a vibrant, interesting community.” Besides theatrical productions, “the theater has an extensive arts education program, school to stage, five year olds to adults - and we will be offering theater classes through NORD. Those programs will be offered in various forms at this new space,” Hayes noted.
Art is also an important part of the curriculum of the Waldorf School of New Orleans, which will occupy an old parochial school building. Another building on site will be office space. Margaret Runyon, enrollment and outreach director, noted that Rudolph Steiner, who set up the first school in Germany after World War I, devised his own education method. “It’s not just arts based, it’s arts integrated. Students create their own lesson books and they illustrate these books, and that is like a record of their learning.” The centennial of Waldorf education is 2019: by then the new school will be open. Currently there are 109 children in Waldorf School elsewhere in town, from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Although the school is private, “we will have scholarships for a child from the neighborhood in each grade,” Runyon said.
New Orleans native Gia Hamilton, Joan Mitchell Center Director, came home from working in the arts in New York to oversee the center’s local programs: monthly community open houses and a by-invitation residency program. The center’s namesake, Joan Mitchell, was an abstract expressionist painter, and the organization is based in New York. Visual artists in residence are encouraged in creativity by the light-filled studio space and the attractive layout of the campus, which features an eighteenth-century home moved there from Esplanade Avenue in years past. There is communal space as well as housing for the artists. The site is also well designed for New Orleans’s climate, with rain retention facilities.
Between 35 and 50 artists a year come through the program, with local artists included. There are 40 nominating organizations, and the awards are coveted. A jury selects the applicants. “I try to be very responsive to artists’ needs.” Hamilton said. “If we see that teaching artists are not applying, we can open up more summer slots. There’s a really nice flexibility in the program.” Local photographer Clifton Faust summed up his time in residence at the Joan Mitchell Center: “This is a beautiful space. I have been productive here.” His fellow artists would agree.