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Audio: Being local and thinking big with the Joan Mitchell Center

New Orleans has been and still is home to any number of established as well as emerging visual artists. It is also home to a branch of one of the nation's major art foundations. On this week's "Notes from New Orleans," NolaVie's Sharon Litwin talks with Gia Hamilton about the work of the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New Orleans.

Q: Tell us a little bit more about Joan Mitchell and how did the foundation end up here? 

A: It's always a pleasure to talk about the work that we are doing at the foundation, specifically Joan Mitchell's legacy. Joan Mitchell was an abstract expressionist painter. She was born in Chicago, educated at Smith, she did very well in New York, and then she ventured off to France, which is where she spent the majority of her life.

We are learning so much about her. She was really known for caring about emerging artists as well as artists in general, so there were artists that would stay at the estate, have small workspaces, and eat with her. When I think about the work that we're doing at that Joan Mitchell Center, it really feels like a continuous thread of legacy work by building this residency.

This is the span of the 50s through the 70s in regard to the height in her career. Some colleagues of hers that people might be familiar with are names like Rauschenberg and Pollock. She's really known for dedicating herself to her studio practice.

What I've really been trying to do is get people to paint this picture of a timeline of how and why the foundation came to the city of New Orleans. I have to take people back to 2005.

The first entry point was through emergency grants. They provide emergency money to artists whenever there is a man-made or physical disaster in a particular city. They come to support artists directly.

Q: Let's talk about the artists. They're not necessarily, but they come from everywhere, right? 

A: One of the oldest programs at the foundation is its grants program. We have several different grants. It looks at artists all over the country in order to build a very diverse applicant pool. Those artists are nominated for an opportunity to receive a $25,000 grant unrestricted. It's really about supporting an artist right at the precipice of their career so the artist can use this money to really catapult themselves forward and gain visibility.

Q: What do you expect of the artists, then, when they are in this program? 

A: What is super interesting is that finding the right residency is like dating. There are so many different styles and places. When we think about our residency, the way I've designed it and thought about it is that it is a place-based residency. This residency really couldn't take place anywhere else. It has to be in New Orleans. It has to be rooted in the 7th Ward, and there has to be some real connection between the community and the artist there.

We ask the artist to be fully present. We ask them to participate in this temporal community, but we don't require that they produce anything.

Q: This city has been the beneficiary of year of devotion and great generosity from the Joan Mitchell Center, so are there any big plans ahead that we should know about? 

A: One thing I'm very excited about is our Town Hall. It's sort of our annual program that allows us to take these large issues that the art's community and that our communities in general are talking about and distill them down to a local level. Then we create immersive environments that allow for a call and response. Having a situation where the audience can participate in a conversation with panelists creates a really interesting dynamic. It allows the conversations to continue on after the Town Hall is done.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]