The Road to Recovery

An Interview with Shirley Trusty Corey, Arts Council of New Orleans

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Artist pulling a large print

Master artist John Scott pulling a print of "Spirit House," a public art project of the Art Council of New Orleans. Photo courtesy of Art Council of New Orleans.

For more than 30 years, the Arts Council of New Orleans (ACNO) has worked with public and private sector partners to meet the arts and cultural needs of the New Orleans metropolitan area. In October 2006, ACNO President and CEO Shirley Trusty Corey talked with the NEA about the current state of the arts community in New Orleans and its plans for the future.

NEA: How would you describe the general state of ACNO a year after Hurricane Katrina?

SHIRLEY TRUSTY COREY: ACNO remains more passionately committed to supporting and rebuilding the cultural community than ever before. None of us take anything for granted; it is an opportunity to rebuild a greater New Orleans with the role of arts and culture more formally established in policy, procedure, and funding than it was before Katrina. Previously, the participation of the cultural community in funding and policy issues was not directly proportional to our impact on the city's economy. Katrina was a wake-up call.

NEA: Approximately how much of New Orleans's income was previously derived from arts and culture activities?

STC: Our 2001 economic impact study, conducted in partnership with Americans for the Arts, told us that the nonprofit arts industry generates more than $300 million in economic activity every year, with more than 10,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

NEA: Why is it important to rebuild the city's arts community, given the basic human needs still to be met?

STC: The city's arts community is an essential part of the comprehensive recovery that the city needs -- and wants. The recognition of the need to interact with one another as a community and at events that celebrate, engage, and speak to who we are -- whether it be through our writers, musicians, artists, or actors -- is stronger than ever.

NEA: How did ACNO use its $30,000 hurricane relief grant from the NEA?

STC: The initial NEA grant was used to stabilize our limited staffing in order to sustain the capacity of the agency to operate and serve the field.

NEA: This past August, ACNO convened a meeting of the city's arts and culture organizations with support from a second NEA grant.What were the goals of that meeting?

STC: The August forum provided an interactive opportunity for these organizations to collectively share their needs and to provide meaningful information to the Arts Council to help guide our strategic planning for the next 18 months. It provided a compass for responsive service and leadership. The forum also provided the opportunity to bring in resource planners from around the country who could help give us perspective in times of disaster and to open the door for recovery partnership projects.

It was important to move the discussion from comparisons of pre-storm staffing, audiences, and facilities to questions about the future. It was also imperative to recognize and prioritize the demands being made by the realities of housing, municipal services, employment, health issues, communications, and others. There are many more challenges in doing business after a disaster.

NEA: What are the key priorities of most New Orleans arts organizations over the next 18 months?

STC: Programming issues range from the challenges of adequate housing for artists to lack of venues and volunteers. We're looking at real change in the emphasis of our organizations, having to look at the most basic needs, having to work collaboratively on issues like marketing. Our audiences have changed; our venues have changed.

We also need to help people understand where the money is and isn't. It's a different funding world; we lost a lot of our corporate base. Even our long-term, most stable organizations have to adjust. For example, one of our museums has to raise $15 million over the next three years to make up its losses.

There's also a real need for ongoing sustainability coaching, strategic planning, and the opportunity to come together periodically as a group. We need to help people learn what the right questions are to ask, get them to ask themselves those questions, and decide if their mission is still valid in the current climate.

NEA: What were some of the outcomes of the forum?

STC: We reinforced the value of the New Orleans cultural community to the city.We created a framework for the Arts Council's strategic plan for the next 18 months and identified new resources to assist the actions planned.

We are also creating a cultural recovery brochure to provide an assertive voice for cultural recovery sector funding. Our board members will be able to use it in one-on-one and group meetings with the mayor, the city council, the city's economic groups, the Chamber of Commerce, and other change agents in the community. We also plan to distribute it to our constituents and at neighborhood meetings, libraries, and other public spaces.

Another key element of our plan is the completion of the Louisiana Artworks facility, which will provide greatly needed work space for artists and access to state of the art equipment in metal, glass, printmaking, and ceramics, a need that is even more urgent after the storms. It will provide for the increased expansion of artists' products, serve as a unique cultural tourism destination, and act as a hub for the community of new and returning artists.