The doors are open, the noisy crowds are flowing from one gallery to the next and local and international visitors are enjoying the dozen or so new contemporary art exhibitions opening tonight. You might assume it’s another night on Julia Street or maybe Magazine. But be surprised. This vibrant scene is taking place in the Upper 9th Ward on St. Claude Avenue in the Bywater, and it’s not just this night. It is “Second Saturday of the Month” and  it happens 12 months of the year.

The idea of Second Saturday started just after Hurricane Katrina when four galleries (Farrington’s, The Skull Club, New Orleans Art Noir and Barrister’s) decided to open their new exhibitions on the same night as an attempt to draw art lovers and collectors to this area. There are now nearly a dozen galleries and the list is growing.

Many people credit Prospect.1, the first international biennial contemporary art show in the U.S. which took place in 2008-’09, as a catalyst for the reinvigoration of the area and a growth hormone for contemporary art. Dan Cameron, founder and curator of P.1 says, “There’s been a gradual but dramatic transformation of the area. St. Claude Avenue is experiencing a rebirth as an art strip, and the artists showing there are some of the best in the city, if not the country.”

Cameron continues, “The new bohemia of the neighborhoods of St. Claude and St. Roch remind me of Williamsburg in New York 10 years ago or the Lower East Side 20 years ago. It is a very fruitful moment, and for people tentative about buying modern art, these artists represent a great, easy-on-the-checkbook way to take the plunge and start collecting. There are houses Uptown starting to fill up with these works and it’s an interesting way to support a whole new generation of artists.”

Most of the galleries in this area are collectives of artists who got together and committed themselves to keep art alive during post-Katrina New Orleans. They pooled their finances, bought properties and the renovated art spaces themselves. Many of them live in or above their spaces. They are all committed to showing local and visiting artists with a huge variety of styles and mediums.

Rachel Jones of The Front Gallery says, “We love it when we hear of a new gallery opening; most of us are collectives and by collaborating together we are creating a new platform to show and sell our art.”

P.1 undoubtedly brought a huge amount of attention to this edgy neighborhood and the whole of the Upper and Lower 9th ward; challenging perceptions of art and the environment in which it can be appreciated. Artists have said it was a ‘do or die moment’ to maximize the attention and the 42,000 visitors the exhibition drew. However, they also talk about the availability of space, the affordability of these neighborhoods versus other arts centers like New York or Chicago and the inflow of grant money to get projects off the ground after the storm.

The renovation of the Colton School on St. Claude Avenue into studios and exhibition spaces by the Creative Alliance of New Orleans, the use of the Universal Furniture Building as an official location during P.1 and the decision by the University of New Orleans to open their own gallery on St. Claude were all milestones in the street’s transformation.

Cameron is so confident in the art being created there that he believes there will be guided tours to the areas with art experts showing locals and visitors around.

Perhaps before the secret is really out, think about going yourselves and using our guide as a starting point.
A first stop is The UNO Gallery on St. Claude Avenue, where Ariya Martin is showing SEE SAW into June, an exhibition entitled “Erotica for you…to take back since it was never mine;” it’s a fresh and provocative media installation.

Then there’s Barrister’s Gallery (opposite Colton) at 2331 St. Claude Ave., run by Anthony Antippas, who, having run an eclectic gallery in the French Quarter for 23 years, now focuses entirely on contemporary art and is opening “Paper Works” on May 8.

L’Art Noir (4108 St. Gallery  Claude Ave.), one of the first art spaces to open in 2003, bills itself as “New Orleans’ Premier Lowbrow Art Gallery” and continues to surprise, recently showcasing a musical performance by Mardi Gras Indians.

The Front (4100 St. Claude Ave.) utilizes four fresh spaces, each showing one of the resident 14 artists of the collective or a visiting guest artist. Or visit The Trouser House at 4105 St. Claude Ave., an initiative combing contemporary art and urban farming which also runs school tours and field trips.

Dan Tague, has burst onto the arts scene with his U.S. dollar bills containing messages of inspiration, criticism and commentary on American society, shows at The Good Children Gallery (4037 St. Claude Ave.). It is a space where all the artists in the collective once locked themselves in for 48 hours to create whatever occurred to them.

You won’t be able to miss The Rusty Pelican studio next door at 4031 St. Claude Ave. – the front will be filled with the sculptures of birds and robots made from metals and debris scavenged by local artist Travis Linde in his post-Katrina neighborhood.

Move over to St. Roch Avenue, specifically 1228, and you’ll find a concrete block attached to a shotgun house: The Sidearm Gallery, opened by extraordinary dance man Scott Heron in 2003.

Before you leave, take a pass at the Life is Art Project on North Villere Street between Music and Arts streets.

There you’ll find four 1800s houses, a bakery and a storefront transformed into a home for curator Kirsha Kaechele. A set of abandoned rooms and a yard are used as an art space and urban garden. If you’re lucky, you might spy an installation through the windows, such as an old stove covered in real gold or perhaps you’ll find yourself at one of the ‘feasts’ Kaechele ‘curates,’ where locals have mixed with celebrities such as Jude Law and Uma Thurman in true Bacchanalian fashion.

Some may say this is just the beginning. There is $8 million approved for a New Orleans Healing Centre and the resurrection of the St. Roch market is happening again. Prospect.1.5, the sequel, is planned for next year and a new Art Walk is underway on St. Roch Avenue.

So if you fancy a different view and want to take in some of the most unusual new art in the city; you don’t have to get on a plane like the New Yorkers or Chicagoans, just head towards the Industrial Canal and enjoy the surprises.