Arts and Culture in Louisiana
Louisiana represents a blend of cultural traditions. New Orleans and southern Louisiana reflect influences of French-speaking Acadian culture, also known as Cajun culture, derived from French colonists who settled in Canada’s Atlantic provinces in the 17th century. Northern Louisiana features African American and British American traditions. Several additional cultures are represented in Louisiana’s history and art, among them Native American people and immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Philippines, Latin America, and East Asia.
The Louisiana Division of the Arts and the Louisiana State Arts Council operate as catalysts for the state’s cultural institutions, ensuring that Louisiana represents its diverse people. In addition, the state’s tourist industry continues to rebound since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The state Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism states that Louisiana receives 24.1 million tourists per year, many seeking the cultural festivals, nightlife, and visual arts for which the state is famous.
Classical music offerings in Louisiana cannot come close to approaching the folk, regional, and traditional sounds emanating from the state’s parades, bars, street corners, cafes, clubs, and concert halls. That said, the state has a significant number of orchestras. New Orleans’ Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra is the primary ensemble, presenting classical, pops, and educational concerts for a 36-week season. Other Louisiana classical music offerings include the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra and Lafayette’s Acadiana Symphony Orchestra & Conservatory of Music.
In 1943, music lovers formed the New Orleans Opera House Association. The company’s inaugural season consisted of a popular series of open-air concerts. The current season features a full roster of operas and musical theater.
Shreveport has two opera institutions. Since 1971, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society has produced Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the city. The Shreveport Opera produces a few operas and musical dramas during its season.
In a state in which dancing goes all night and fills the streets, professional dance offerings are relatively slim. The New Orleans Ballet Association hosts professional ensembles from around the world. Since 1969, Delta Festival Ballet has presented diverse, professional programming in New Orleans as well as in rural parts of the state. Chard Gonzalez Dance Theatre taps local talent to showcase provocative work in Louisiana and beyond. A cultural gem of northwest Louisiana, the Shreveport Metropolitan Ballet has a classic repertoire, while Escaped Images, the resident company of Shreveport’s Centenary College, interprets jazz, tap, modern, and theatrical dance.
Louisiana has over 150 museums, many of them educating the public about community customs and the rich cultural fabric of the state’s peoples. New Orleans holds major fine arts institutions, led by the New Orleans Museum of Art, the city’s oldest museum. Over 40,000 objects from Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas include deep holdings in art glass, photography, contemporary art, and decorative art. The surrounding five-acre Sydney and Walda Bestoff Sculpture Garden features footpaths, reflecting lagoons, 200-year-old oak trees, local flora, and pedestrian bridges dotted with 50 sculptures.
New Orleans has other noteworthy visual arts institutions. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art at the University of New Orleans has the world’s largest collection of Southern art, representing 15 Southern states and dating from the 1700s through the present day. Tremé, the country’s oldest surviving black community, is home to a Creole-style villa and former plantation that operates as the New Orleans African American Museum. Temporary exhibits complement the permanent holdings of African divination objects, beadwork, costumes, textiles, masks, musical instruments, and paintings. At theVoodoo Museum, two rooms showcase natural remedies, charms, voodoo tools, and ephemera. TheHistoric New Orleans Collection, in the French Quarter, illuminates the city’s history with documents and artifacts. The complex consists of four structures: the 1700s Merieult House, the 1795 Counting House, the 1889 Williams Residence, and the Maisonette.
The Louisiana State University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge showcases regional portraiture as well as 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century works by portrait artists from Europe and throughout the United States. Louisiana painters such as Jacques Amans (1801–1888) and Alfred Boisseau (1823-1901) have work on view. Also in Baton Rouge, the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African American Museum celebrates the contributions of minority inventors and exhibits African art and rural artifacts.
Shreveport’s Louisiana State Museum features murals chronicling state history. Galleries exhibit frescoes and detailed dioramas on regional themes. The Southern University Museum of Art, also in Shreveport, has two stories of African American and African art shows.
Smaller cities and towns also contain cultural institutions. In St. Martinville, the African American Museum depicts the path of Africans’ arrival in Louisiana and the development of Louisiana’s Free People of Color community. Hammond’s Tangipahoa African American Heritage Museum displays inventions, photographs, art, objects, and writing related to the region’s African-American heritage. TheMasur Museum of Art in Monroe has a permanent collection of 300 artworks representing European masters of impressionism, modernism, and surrealism, as well as American modernists and regional painters.
It’s impossible to discuss Louisiana music without recognizing the unique historical events and diverse peoples that have congregated in New Orleans. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, slaves met in the city’s Congo Square, performing songs, dance, and music native to Africa and the Caribbean. Nearly 100 years later, a recording studio near the same square saw New Orleans native Fats Domino laying tracks for up-tempo R&B music with a strong back beat, some of the earliest rock and roll songs.
Not too far away, Dixieland jazz, a combination of ragtime, blues, and marching band music, was taking hold. Early adopters of the genre include ragtime cornetist Buddy Bolden and pianist Jelly Roll Morton, while trumpeter Louis Armstrong was among the next generation of artists to develop the city’s jazz legacy.
Other artists associated with New Orleans include 1920s blues and jazz singer Willie Jackson, swing jazz artist Louis Prima, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, rhythm and blues performer Professor Longhair, boogie woogie singer-songwriter Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, experimental jazz artist Wynton Marsalis, and contemporary jazz musicians Alvin Batiste andEllis Marsalis, Jr.
The folk traditions and music of the Mardi Gras Indians have earned fame in the work of Bo Dollisand Monk Boudreaux.
Pop, rock, and rap artists such as Better Than Ezra, Cowboy Mouth, Cash Money, Eyehategod, and Crowbar hail from Louisiana.
In the southern Louisiana region of Acadiana, or Cajun country, Cajun French music, swamp blues, Creole sounds (called La La), and swamp pop inform the fast-tempo zydeco music for which the state is known. Institutions such as Eunice’s Cajun Music Hall of Fame and Museum and Ferriday’s Delta Music Museum recognize regional artists and musical genres. In New Orleans, Bourbon Streetis a living museum of musical culture. The mishmash of nightclubs, galleries, and performance venues play host to regional and international musicians, often showcasing jazz. Famous artists associated with Southern Louisiana music include Cajun artists D.L. Menard, BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet, andMarc Savoy; Creole outfits Clifton Chenier and Boozoo Chavis; swamp pop group Cookie and the Cupcakes; and zydeco musicians Buckwheat Zydeco, Mary Rosezla "Rosie" Ledet, and Terrence Simien.
Northern Louisiana has historically attracted more mainstream musicians in the areas of country,rockabilly, and country rock, producing nationally acclaimed musicians such as Tim McGraw,Lucinda Williams, and Hank Williams, Jr. Shreveport was the birthplace of the artists in the avant-garde rock outfit The Residents. Other regional artists include rockabilly singer Jerry Lee Lewis, old-time country outfit The Cox Family, the gospel band Zion Travelers, and blues country artistLeadbelly.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
A smattering of state-of-the art theaters, complemented by small community, regional, equity, and upstart theater groups, keep the performing arts scene alive, if not thriving, in Louisiana, particularly in New Orleans. The Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, in New Orleans, hosts touring ensembles, dance troupes, visiting soloists, and family productions of national and international renown. New Orleans’ Contemporary Arts Center showcases performance art, modern dance troupes, independent cinema, and temporary installations by multidisciplinary artists. The New Orleans theater troupe Running with Scissors injects theater with pop culture, resulting in the 2010 comic production of The Really Desperate Housewives of Stepford Parish!, a saga of florists and fembots. Other New Orleans theater ensembles include The Nola Project, Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré, Southern Repertory Theater, Cripple Creek Theatre Company, Sidearm Gallery, and Theatre Louisiane. In addition, the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane University presents professional productions of Shakespeare dramas and comedies.
Beyond New Orleans, Lafayette’s Cité des Arts blurs boundaries between artistic disciplines and helps produce theater festivals. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University’s Greek-style amphitheater provides a dramatic backdrop for classic theater. The Performing Arts Society of Acadianapresents international performers and ensembles in Lafayette’s Heymann Performing Arts Center. In Metairie, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society organizes productions of opera, musicals, dance, and classical music. Shreveport’s River City Repertory Theatre is a professional company that involves members of Actors’ Equity. Also in Shreveport, the Theatre of the Performing Artspresents work with themes of African American culture and history.
In 2009, Disney filmed Secretariat in the city of Lafayette. The biographical movie was about Penny Chenery, the owner of the horse that won the 1973 Triple Crown. As of 2010, Warner Bros. is shooting its feature film Green Lantern in New Orleans.
Other famous films associated with Louisiana include the biker drama Easy Rider (1969), the historical thriller JFK (1991), action picture Out of Sight (1998), the stirring drama about the death penalty Dead Man Walking (1995), classic drama Sounder (1972), crime thriller Miller’s Crossing (1990), drama A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), award-winning drama Monster’s Ball (2001), poignant A Love Song for Bobby Long (2003), the documentary A Taste of Heaven: The Heartbreak Life of Raymond Myles, Gospel Genius of New Orleans (in production in 2010), the adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men (2005), the drama Because of Winn Dixie (2004), the fictionalized biography of Buddy Bolden entitled Bolden! (2007), music industry story Cadillac Records (2008), New Orleans music scene documentary Deacon John’s Jump Blues (2003), southern action-adventure comedy Dukes of Hazzard (2005), romantic comedy Failure to Launch(2005), action thriller Jump Out Boys (2007), moving documentary Katrina’s Children (2007), Louisiana bayou crime picture Little Chenier: A Cajun Story (2005), suspense drama Ocean’s Thirteen (2006), the award-winning Ray Charles biography Ray (2004), and drama The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2007).
Louisiana’s notable film artists include comedian Ellen DeGeneres, John Goodman, television and film actor John Larroquette, pianist and actor Harry Connick, Jr., Delta Burke, action movie star and Jefferson Parish Deputy Sheriff Steven Seagal, and Reese Witherspoon.
Louisiana’s Creole culture formed the backdrop for many of the novels and short stories by Kate Chopin (1850–1904). The proto-feminist writer spent her adulthood in New Orleans, and her home there became the Bayou Folk Museum before it was destroyed in a fire.
Scores of other writers were born in Louisiana or migrated there to write in the home state of literary legends such as journalist and fiction writer Truman Capote (1924–1984) and Tennessee Williams(1911–1983), the playwright whose Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Streetcar Named Desire was set in New Orleans.
These writers include Pulitzer Prize-winning short story author Robert Olen Butler (b. 1945), children’s author Mary Alice Fontenot (1910–2003), celebrated novelist Ernest J. Gaines (b. 1933), left-wing playwright Lillian Hellman (1905–1984), crime fiction writer Elmore Leonard (b. 1925), philosopherWalker Percy (1916–1990), Gothic novelist Anne Rice (b. 1941), comic novelist John Kennedy Toole (1937–1969), poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren (1905–1989), and playwright and fiction writer Rebecca Wells (b. 1952).
Alexandria’s Arna Bontemps African American Museum was the birthplace of Arna Wendell Bontemps(1902–1973), a Harlem Renaissance writer, poet, and librarian.
New Orleans street parties, musical parades, second lines, and the Krewe of Zulu, depicted in bright acrylics and moody charcoals, compose the work of Willie Birch (b. 1942).
Cajun artist George Rodrigue (b. 1944) uses abstract expressionist techniques to paint portraits, dogs, and images inspired by the legend of the Loup Garou, a werewolf-like creature.
Mississippi River life and lore inspires painter Alvin Batiste (b. 1962), a self-taught painter who works in a primitive style.
Rambling plantations, humble rural homes, historic sites, and whole neighborhoods form the diverse landscape of Louisiana architecture. In New Orleans, the French Quarter contains several examples of well-preserved architecture, some dating back to the Revolutionary War. The Louisiana State Museum oversees several historic sites in the French Quarter, among them the Old U.S. Mint, the Cabildo,1850 House, Presbytere, and Madame John’s Legacy. On the Bayou St. John, New Orleans’ Pitot House is the city’s sole Creole colonial-style house museum.
The Paraplex in New Orleans offers a different experience. The three-story 1800s structure once served as a funeral home and now functions as a paranormal observatory, as it allegedly hosts nine ghosts.
The 1720 St. Louis Cathedral stands in New Orleans’ Jackson Square. Guided tours showcase the structure, which was granted the status of minor basilica.
New Orleans’ historic Garden District holds the rococo House of Broel’s Victorian Mansion Museum, displaying antiques and a collection of dollhouses.
White Castle’s Nottoway Plantation, built in 1859, represents steamboat Gothic architecture. Its elaborate architecture almost bankrupted the owner.
Lockport’s Bayou Lafourche Folklife and Heritage Museum, inside a National Register of Historic Places building, exhibits historical artifacts about life along Bayou Lafourche.
An 1848 Greek Revival building houses Plaquemine’s Iberville Museum, which features Doric columns, cypress beams, and brick walls.
Part of the complex of Louisiana State Museum properties, the E.D. White Historic Site is an 1825 Acadian plantation house surrounded by old live oaks in the town of Thibodaux. Also in Thibodaux, theLaurel Valley Village Plantation holds nearly 60 structures dating from the 1800s and 1900s.
Living history tours bring the world of the 19th-century Frogmore Plantation to life. Thematic displays, recordings of slaves’ secret music, and furnished slave quarters chronicle the work of early Natchez planters and their slaves.
In addition to the main museum collection, the West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen contains the 1830 Aillet House, an 1850s slave cabin, and a freedman’s family cabin.
Gravemberg House Museum in Franklin is an antebellum 1851 Greek Revival townhouse containing period furnishings, Civil War artifacts, and antique toys.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ART
New Orleans’ annual Mardi Gras celebration, which begins every year on the Saturday before Lent, represents the state’s most famous manifestation of folk culture. The party extends beyond New Orleans, with Krewes house-hopping and riding horses. Floats are constructed on flatbed trucks in southern Louisiana rural spots including Mamou, Eunice, Church Point, Soileau, Basile, and Elton. Organizations such as New Orleans’ Backstreet Cultural Museum and Kenner’s Mardi Gras Museum are dedicated to preserving the rich history and culture of this event.
The sites that make up the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve system, including Lafayette’s Acadian Cultural Center, Eunice’s Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, and Thibodaux’s Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center, focus on Acadian folk life, language, and culture.
At Kenner’s Cannes Brûlées Native American Museum, traditional and contemporary woodcarvings, baskets, toys, model dwellings, clothing, moccasins, jewelry, and tools represent the contributions of Louisiana’s American Indian craftspeople. Charenton’s Chitimacha Museum exhibits basketry and other crafts by the region’s first inhabitants.
HISTORIC ART MOVEMENTS
Self-taught artists and memory painters work in various parts of Louisiana, particularly rural and agrarian communities. Many of these artists draw upon traditional folk art forms and cultures. Notable practitioners of the form include Clementine Hunter (1886–1988), Henry Watson (b. 1961), andSarah Albritton (b. 1936).
One of Louisiana’s notable artist environments is Chauvin Sculpture Garden, situated on the shore of Bayou Petit Caillou in Terrebonne Parish. A 45-foot lighthouse marks the location of Kenny Hill’s (b. 1950) brick and concrete sculptures and assemblages of gods, angels, cowboys, soldiers, children, and the artist.
The Abita Mystery House in Abita Springs is a folk environment populated with thousands of found objects and homemade contraptions.
-World Trade Press