If you had to point to one institution that best illustrated the progress of the arts community in post-Katrina New Orleans—not to mention the progress of the city in general—you wouldn’t have to look any further than the Colton Middle School on St. Claude Avenue.
Named for an evidently well-regarded member of the New Orleans Board of Education in the early years of the 20th century, the Charles J. Colton School opened in 1929 and operated for more than seventy-five years as a middle school serving a community which included the Bywater, Faubourg Marigny, Tremé, and Lower Ninth Ward neighborhoods. Although the school was one of a handful to reopen shortly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a dispersed population and resulting drop in attendance led to its closing after the 2007-08 school year.
Shortly after its closing as a middle school, the city’s Recovery School District leased the building to the Creative Alliance of New Orleans (CANO), a non-profit arts-focused economic development organization spearheaded by “cultural entrepreneurs” Jeanne Nathan and Robert Tannen. The couple organized the Studio at Colton partly as a response to concerns voiced by artist Paul Chan, who noted while visiting New Orleans for his landmark production of Waiting for Godot during Fall 2007 that there was not enough affordable studio space in the city.
In short order, and with a shoestring budget supplemented by donated janitorial services and volunteer work, CANO transformed the vacant 100,000 square foot building into exhibition, rehearsal, and studio space for more than 100 artists and arts organizations including painters, photographers, theater and dance companies, costume designers, sculptors, landscape architects and video production outfits. In return for use of the facilities, many resident artists and groups at Colton conducted free or low-cost classes and workshops for New Orleans student groups and adults. (More than 60 such classes and workshops were offered during the spring of this year.)
Rechristened the Studio at Colton, the building received a high profile boost when it was selected as one of the venues in last year’s Prospect.1 biennial exhibition. Art:21 Season 3 artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Black Fireworks piece (above) was installed to magnificent effect in the Colton’s main auditorium, and Prospect.1 artists José Damasceno (below, left) and Tatsuo Miyajima (below, right) created room-scale installations in former classrooms elsewhere in the building.
In addition to the Prospect.1 installations, the Studio at Colton also served as a showcase for several distinctly New Orleanian arts and crafts, including Carnival floats and Mardi Gras Indian costumes. Local artists Austin and Alice Alward transformed a classroom full of old desks and A/V equipment into an installation called Deskhenge; others covered the walls with murals. And the building was full of all kinds of unplanned found art pieces from its former role as a middle school.
Over the past year, the Studio at Colton was well on its way to becoming the linchpin of New Orleans’ burgeoning Saint Claude Arts District, which consists of over two dozen galleries and performance spaces and has been steadily transforming an economically depressed commercial corridor into a vibrant arts destination. However, last month it was announced that the Recovery School District of New Orleans would be taking over the building again for the 2009 school year—which means that the Studio at Colton will be closing at the end of July.
It’s hard to argue with the RSD’s decision to use the school for its original purpose, and the fact that it has the need to do so is a measure of how far the adjacent community has rebounded to its pre-Katrina population and student enrollment levels. And there has been some talk that the curriculum at the newly reopened school will somehow be more arts-focused than it had been before CANO came along. Conspicuously absent in the RSD’s rationale to reopen the school, however, is a recognition of the extent to which the Studio at Colton was already serving as an educational institution, one no less important to the community than the more traditional kind of school which will replace it in the fall.
According to its website, CANO is currently looking for a new location for its arts and education residencies. Meanwhile, the students who will start attending classes at the Colton School will no doubt benefit from the newly revitalized facilities. Whether they will also continue to benefit from the educational programs provided by the Studio at Colton remains to be seen.
The Studio at Colton (cano-la.org)
“Colton Middle School thrives as arts center” (nola.com, March 2009)
“Artist colony at Colton school to disband; Matt Damon to help relocate rooftop garden” (nola.com, June 2009)