By Kendra R. Chamberlain
Published July 13, 2011
Baton Rouge’s artscape is quietly growing up, and people around the country are starting to take notice.
“It’s amazing stuff, and you see a show and you’re thinking ‘how did that come to Baton Rouge?’” said Jason Andreasen, executive director at the Baton Rouge Gallery, located in City Park. “We’re not used to seeing interesting things – but now that’s not the case.”
The art scene in Baton Rouge has grown leaps and bounds in the last few years, thanks to a field of art-related boosters that are coming into their own: art walks have proliferated in the past few years; the Shaw Center, as well as the Louisiana Arts and Science Museum, and the Louisiana State Museum, have brought in incredible, nationally-acclaimed exhibits; bigger events, like Art Melt (this weekend), and Uncommon Thread have ballooned in attendance and hype. We even have an art clearinghouse event, Stabbed in the Art, every month in the Garden District.
Creating the Creative Capital
It seems silently understood among locals that artists live in New Orleans – and if they don’t live in New Orleans, they live in Lafayette.
Lobbyists live in Baton Rouge.
That perception doesn’t quite stand the test of reality anymore. It hasn’t exactly happened organically. Instead, the burgeoning art community here is the result of a concerted effort of a few invested organizations, legislators, galleries, and artists. The consensus among these groups is that art isn’t just something for rich people: it’s a city-building tool.
“A lot of artists all over the country are recognizing that [Baton Rouge] is a viable community,” said Derek Gordon, director of the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, “and it’s a community that will invest in quality art.”
Jared Loftus, local entrepreneur and art enthusiast, agrees.
“Some of our artists are from New Orleans,” said Loftus. “The fact that they still come over here and do this show makes me feel like we are doing something kind of special; different.”
It’s that “something different” quality that Baton Rouge seems to thrive on. With our reputation for entrepreneurial fertility, “Silicon Bayou” technology, and fantastic food, fine art is next up on the list of “Things We Rock At.”
“We’re not New York,” Andreasen said. “But we’re not Podunk, nothing-good-ever-comes-through-here-place either.”
Instead, Baton Rouge is something creatively in between.
Gordon believes that a city with a thriving cultural character, where art, music, and performances are expected and celebrated, will always be more attractive to a business – especially those looking to relocate.
“Are the people that I employee, that are being moved here, are they going to find the same kind of offerings that they would find in Austin, or Portland?” Gordon asked rhetorically. “We are helping to keep Baton Rouge competitive.”
That’s not the only reason art is important for a successful city.
“Creativity is our greatest asset, and we really have to nurture that in our young people,” Gordon said. Loftus agrees.
“Creativity breeds creativity,” Loftus said. “Entrepreneurs are being creative every day, making something out of nothing…Software coders, and hackers, they all have to be creative. Have you ever watched guys do coding? There’s always a million different ways to do the same thing. There are several different ways to paint a painting or code a website.”
In other words, a vibrant city benefits from the symbiosis between artscape and entrepreneurial spirit. With start-ups sprouting left and right these days, Baton Rouge has entrepreneurial fertility; and with art events happening just about every week, the city is sowing seeds to reap a harvest of talented art enthusiasts that are hungry to show the state, and the national art scene, that we got it, too.
The state’s department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism has created a number of “cultural districts” in Baton Rouge, where visual arts media are sales-tax exempt. The initiative, which was started in 2007, created 8 new districts this month in cities across the state, including a new one here in Baton Rouge. Now, we have four cultural districts throughout the city, including the Old South Baton Rouge district, the Mid City District, the Perkins Rd. District, and the Baton Rouge Arts and Cultural district. For more information, visit www.CRT.state.la.us
The Audience for Art
Baton Rouge is blessed to have a caliber of graduate arts programs at our universities that draw in a sizable population of artists from across the country.
“I think the universities are very important for our community,” said art dealer and gallery owner Ann Connelly. “We’re in a great place for art. We have lots of amazing professors at both Southern and LSU.”
With a stream of transplants and local artists being funneled into BR, the question becomes how to keep artists from leaving.
That task becomes especially challenging with nearby cities like New Orleans and Lafayette, which are home to nationally recognized established art scenes.
Ask the art community this question, and the response is resoundingly consistent, from gallery owners to art enthusiasts to artists themselves.
“It boils down to the word ‘support,’” Jason Andreasen said.
Enter the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge.
The organization has made ‘support’ their stated objective. From grants to programs to legislative initiatives, the Arts Council’s sole purpose is, as the website describes it, as an art catalyst.
“We’re building audiences of all different kinds,” Gordon said. “If you want to get people excited about the art, you have to provide the art. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a great deal of growth.”
“The main thing is making people more open to the idea of experiencing art,” he said.
“There is quality art. And people are realizing it more and more. We’re seeing receptions get bigger.”
For the artists themselves, increased public interest in art is a necessity, and groups like the Arts Council can be a godsend for the community. But viewing art is only half the equation. The variable in this equation is rooted in the community’s pocket book.
If you like it, buy it
Events and exhibitions are a great way to get the public to interact with art. You see it, you talk about it – you might even meet the artists and put a face to it.
If you want to become a platinum card member of the creative Baton Rouge club, though, you’re going to want to buy.
“Pay money for art. That’s how you do it,” Jared Loftus said succinctly. “I’ve seen people make rent at Stabbed in the Art,” Loftus explained. “That’s what supporting art is about. Buy a piece of art, so that they can pay their bills. That’s how we support it.”
It’s can be a tough leap to take. Art is often considered something only for old money and celebrities to indulge in.
“I think people would be shocked to learn how inexpensive it is to buy art,” Andreasen said. “You hear on the news about this Picasso that sold at auction for seven figures.”
Buying art isn’t necessarily an indulgence, Andreasen said. Think of it more as a smart investment.
“For the same price that you spend on a weekend trip to Destin, you could easily buy a piece of art that will be part of your life for years to come. You’d be shocked at what you can get for 200, 300 bucks.”
The most important thing to remember is: don’t be intimidated.
“You’ll walk into a space like [the Baton Rouge Gallery], and there’s a lot of white walls. And maybe there’s a piece on the wall that, you know, is a little bit challenging,” Andreasen said. “Some people think that because they don’t have an art history background they can’t comment on works.”
Art isn’t actually so exclusive. The mantra in buying art should be if you like it, buy it. And if you don’t like it, keep looking.
Jared Loftus agreed.
“You’ll know when you like something, you’ll want to buy it,” Loftus said. “You’ll see it and say, I gotta have that piece. You may not see anything you like for a while but then you find something that you really like.”
There is another reason to buy local art – you might be surprised to find that it’s enjoyable to support local artists.
“People want to drink Abita beer, they want to eat Louisiana crawfish,” Andreasen said. “It matters that it’s from here. I think the same is true for people with art. They want to know if the artist that’s up on the wall is from Louisiana. Are they local? That’s a question you get asked a thousand times during a show.”
Art catalysts in BR
• The Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge provides a number of grants, resources, programming and arts education. Visit www.ArtsBR.org
• Stabbed in the Art is a monthly art sale in the Garden District. Art makers and art lovers drink wine and buy art the first Friday of every month. www.StabbedInTheArt.com
• Baton Rouge Gallery is a non-profit contemporary art gallery located at 1442 City Park Ave
1442 City Park Ave. The gallery offers monthly exhibitions of local artists as well as a variety of community events like Movies and Music on the Lawn and the Surrealist Soiree. Check www.BatonRougeGallery.org for events.