MaC-Notes: The city of New Orleans WILL have a “Cultural Master Plan.”
…No, it hasn’t yet been scheduled or decided, no bill has been created. But someday, sooner than later, it will be. It must be. Civic leaders worldwide are stewarding the cultural health of their cities. Here in the U.S., New York City recently started this process, while cities including Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago, even Houston and Reno have had plans in place for a few years. They recognized that their cultural assets were important enough to their citizenry, their economy, and their community’s sense of identity to catalog, encourage and support. It’s inevitable that New Orleans will be among these cities.
The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans is ramping up efforts to build a coalition around the creation of a “Cultural Master Plan,” and took a big step in that direction by hiring a “Community Engagement Coordinator.” His name is Renard Bridgewater, known by many as poet and self-described “hip-hop culturalist,” Slangston Hughes. MaCCNO’s Executive Director, Ethan Ellestad explained that this is key to, “…building our base to make sure the 'cultural agenda' is represented in the political process. Everybody wants to speak for the cultural community. This position will help our efforts to empower culture-bearers to speak for themselves…”
Bridgewater, a formidable performer, has that laid-back passion quintessential to New Orleans. Upon MaCCNO’s announcement of his appointment, I caught up with the Hollygrove native and alumnus of Holy Cross and UNO to discuss his new role but quickly learned that it’s not actually that new for him. By adding a music business component to his successful Uniquity music showcase, he already has experience empowering musicians by bolstering their professional development. He riffed on my concerns that MaCCNO’s open membership policy has been slow to attract the culture-bearers we need to protect most because they lack confidence that their input matters. “…I would agree. Not only from a culture bearer's perspective,” Renard told me, “but many within the city are of the opinion that their voice doesn't matter. Though cultural practices have continuity, it’s difficult for the venues we grew up recognizing and the streets we enjoyed them on to adapt to the shifting crossroads of culture and business in a post-Katrina world.”
I confessed that my concerns about the post-Federal Flood cultural landscape were at the heart of this column. MaCCNO knows that as invested as I am in their mission, I don’t get too excited about protecting venues from bullying neighborhood associations when those venues don’t pay musicians fairly. I’m not enthusiastic about making New Orleans a busker’s paradise for anyone with face paint or tramp-clown attire and a banjo. And, I’m usually quick to condemn the over-dependence on tourism that finds Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands advertised as destination wedding entertainment. Bridgewater reminded me, “At the end of the day, it’s a balancing act between business and personal goals. …We live in a commercial society. I prefer we encourage culture-bearers to stay true to the history that created our traditions, but both parties, artists and presenters, need to thrive.”
He’s about educating and informing and he’s already hitting the streets to get better acquainted with the scene. Meeting elders and up-and-comers, he acknowledges that he’s just beginning to make the face-to-face contact he sees as necessary to learn about the needs of musicians and artists who make New Orleans unique. Ellestad is inspired by the potential of these efforts. “…MaCCNO has always been about amplifying the voices of those in the cultural community so that they can help influence the policy that impacts their day to day lives and their cultural practices. This might mean being involved in crafting a new sound ordinance or fighting for affordable housing that meets their needs. With Renard as our Community Engagement Coordinator, we now have someone dedicated specifically to bringing as many voices into the fold as possible, which is going to be a huge boost for us.”
The first event at which Renard will be engaging folks will be MaCCNO’s Street Performance and the Law teach-in on November 9. Other upcoming events include a fall fund-raiser and membership drive. Hopefully, when you meet him, you will be ready to discuss moving cultural activity forward in a meaningful way. And, in the near future, when a cultural master plan is actually in the works, MaCCNO wants to make sure that if your voice isn’t in the conversation, it’s not because you weren’t asked.
Evan Christopher is a noted member of the New Orleans music community and advocates for the cultural workforce. Click here for his performance schedule. He writes MAC-Notes for NolaVie. Email him with your comments about cultural issues, particularly in the music world, at email@example.com.