MicroFest USA: New Orleans Conference Recap

mfaughna's picture
Press Street Antenna Gallery, Holy Angels Academy
3718 Saint Claude Avenue
New Orleans , LA
United States
Louisiana US

Thanks to the generosity of PGSA, I attended several sessions of “MicroFest USA: New Orleans”, the 3rd leg of a 4-city conference series put on by the Network of Ensemble Theaters.  The MicroFest USA: Revitalize, Reconnect, Renew series is exploring the impact of art on communities and advocating for creative placemaking – the shaping of public spaces around arts and cultural practices for added social value.  The goals of the series are to document learning, theoretical frameworks and best practices for arts-based revitalization, while strengthening community ties and fostering collaboration among participants.

From January 17-20, I participated in several events in the Upper 9th Ward (although other events took place at sites across the city). Personally, I hoped the events would help me advance my dissertation topic about arts/creative cultural practices in public action and community development.  My goals were to network, explore potential fieldwork sites in New Orleans, and refine my theoretical frameworks.  Other participants included a balanced mix of local and visiting ensemble practitioners, artists, and community development professionals. 

These are the events I attended

Arts and Community Development Breakout Session, Press Street Antenna Gallery

This breakout session on Friday, hosted by St. Claude Main Street, began with a panel of several cultural and community leaders, including representatives from Junebug Productions, May Gallery, the Renaissance Project, Ekistics, Inc. and Booty’s Street Food.   Panelists discussed their approaches to creative placemaking through their own work. The panel was followed by two presentations, one from members of the Naturally-Occurring Cultural District New York, and another from New Orleans Airlift on their Music Box project in New Orleans, both of whom delved further into strategies and approaches for democratizing arts and cultural development.  A central theme of the day was the potential of neighborhood-based arts and cultural practices for equitable and democratic development, but only if appropriate stakeholders are included in the process.

MicroFest USA Journey, Holy Angels Academy on St. Claude Street

On Saturday I attended a group sharing and reflection session led by eight MicroFest Fellows at the Holy Angels Academy on St. Claude.  The Fellows relayed their experiences at previous conferences and one shared a short, creative writing piece about the connections between art and nature, inspired by the Appalachian Mountains.  Then, we broke up into groups to share our own questions about arts and community and how to apply the weekend’s lessons to our own work.  Many members of my group had similar questions about managing the balance between creating art for art’s sake and art that benefits and connects with our communities: What is the artist’s role in the community? To whom are we responsible? How do we collaborate across sectors?  How do we bring artists and audiences together?  Why is this work important now?

Introduction to Carnival and Mardi Gras History, Holy Angels Academy

This event was a creative lecture by Cherice Harrison-Nelson, Big Queen of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe Guardians of the Flame.  Cherice delivered a dramatic and humorous monologue about inheriting the Indian masking tradition from her father, punctuating her performance with characteristic Mardi Gras Indian dance movements to the drums, tambourines and chants of her son, Big Chief Brian Nelson, and another tribe member. She then donned pieces of her suit, explaining the meanings of symbols and designs she had sewn and beaded.  This performance prepared the group, especially visitors, to head over to the Krewe du Vieux parade afterwards.

Throughout MicroFest, the participants brought up many downsides to this work (gentrification, exclusion, elitism, difficulty of impact measurement).  But they also expressed a belief in art and culture’s power to unite, inspire, and transform individuals and communities.  What I ultimately took away from the conference is that creative placemaking can be a tool for social change when based on collaboration and respect for human dignity.  We need to challenge divisions between artists and audiences, placemakers and community recipients, without compromising others’ identity and creative vision. 

These lessons and ethical implications will influence practical choices for my dissertation, such as focusing on community stakeholders as research subjects and applying critical theoretical perspectives to creative placemaking. 

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