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Gambit Weekly Transitions and Transformations

By D. Eric Bookhardt

Another year! -- Another deadly blow! Another mighty empire overthrown! And we are left, or shall be left, alone. -- Wordsworth

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  Well, not quite. Wordsworth wrote his famous sonnet Another Year in 1807, but that was then and this is now, and while stuff always happens, we have once again been blessed with a silver, if not golden, afterglow of a year gone by. For instance, while 1997 started out on a dire note for Ida Kohlmeyer fans, as the reigning grande dame of New Orleans artists ascended to that celestial gallery in the sky, we have hardly been left alone. As one of the premier women modernists in the South, Kohlmeyer (along with Shreveport's Clyde Connell) blazed a trail that many others have followed.

In fact, it's been an interesting year for local women in the arts -- but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Cleaving, for the moment, to Wordsworth's grim foreboding, we can say that art-bashing remains a favored pastime among the more disturbed elements of American society. For instance, after some of the deep waffling that passes for soul searching in the inner recesses of Newt Gingrich (a futile effort, to be sure!), the Fat Man finally sang his fateful song, vowing to cut off funding for the National Endowment for the Arts once and for all.

It was just political theatrics of course, mere pandering to the daffy but influential far right. Hence, it was up to President Bill and his yuppie White House to Just Say No! and impose a bit of sanity on the nutcases at the gates. And it really was nutty -- kill the NEA, and all that would happen is that the Republican millionaires who support the big museums would demand that it be reinstated again. So it was all just a bone thrown to the "Boycott Disney" bunch, those masters of the Midas touch -- in reverse!

Of course, the same crowd tried to torpedo PBS, the public television network, with equally lame results. Billy Tauzin, the Louisiana Republican congressman and quick-change artist, led the fight to save public TV, proving once again that Louisianians are equally unreliable whether they are Republicans or Democrats. Other low blows came closer to home, as certain elements in the daily media continued their incoherent slasher attacks on local artists, with George Dureau emerging as this year's most noteworthy, if unlikely, martyr.

Now, I have my own bone to pick with Dureau's paintings, but, even so, no one can deny that the man has paid his dues. He has helped build the local art community, and the sorts of hysterical attacks that he and other well-known local artists have suffered at the hands of the daily media have not exactly fulfilled the role of art criticism as a stimulus to thoughtful discourse. Instead, such diatribes were widely perceived as inanely negative and personal, causing many Orleanians (closet Latins that they are) to devise their own colorful theories about what all this really implied.

Oh, well. I suppose it all comes out in the wash. On a more positive note, 1997 was a good year for the continued spread of art and galleries to every nook and cranny of the city. Such incremental expansions of the scene have, over time, amounted to a pervasive reweaving of the fabric, a kind of sea change. And if it is hard to point to any one thing, there are many little things that can be regarded as hopeful signs. Optimism remains high for the new regime at the Contemporary Arts Center, for instance, and new visual arts curator Doug MacCash has tried diligently to balance the interests of all the tribes in the local art world.

Indeed, the ability of art to say that which cannot readily be expressed in words has facilitated a better understanding of various cultures, both among themselves and in the community at large. In much the way that artists like George Dunbar visually express certain higher sensibilities of mainstream society, many alternative approaches -- such as Feminine Products at Zeitgeist, Hugo Montero's Day of the Dead at the CAC or any of the Stella Jones or Neighborhood Gallery shows -- contribute to our understanding of each other and ourselves. And there are financial implications as well, for, as Mayor Morial recently told Congress, "art plays a vital role in our local economy."

But quality of life is never measured in dollars alone. In an ever more generic world, our grassroots creativity has helped preserve the personal aura that has always made this city unique, and this has not gone unnoticed. Citing all the artistic ferment, the Dec. 9 issue of the Utne Reader rated the Lower Garden District No. 1 among America's "hippest" neighborhoods. And our moles in New York inform us that at least one more mainstream magazine has an article in the works on the Big Easy's creative renaissance.

So it goes -- and so we see. As we come to recognize our true potential as a community, so we are perceived.

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