How The Arts Helped Save New Orleans After Hurricane Katrina

The Daily Beast

September 17, 2016

For Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, the arts is not a frippery, a luxury, an extra in the life of a city. It is a necessary engine of economic and cultural development, particularly in New Orleans, a city so known for music—especially, of course, jazz.

Supporting and nurturing the arts, Landrieu said, helped save New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Addressing the 2016 Lincoln Center Global Exchange (GX) conference—which featured speakers including Samantha Power, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, and David Rubenstein, co-founder and CEO of the Carlyle Group—Landrieu said, “Arts are essential, necessary. It’s not an add-on, not the cherry on top of the banana split. It’s actually the banana.”

“People feel hopeless about America,” Landrieu said, “but across all boundaries, the arts unite us, giving us hope. If we turn away from that that would be sad.”

Space, he added, “without art, without music, without color, without beauty…is a very boring space.

“We saw that in New Orleans after Katrina. The city was empty. It was brown. It was quiet. There was nothing there. It was boring. And essentially what happened, the artists came to remind us it wasn’t buildings that mattered, it wasn’t church, it wasn’t businesses, it was the soul of who we were as people.” That, he said, was “mostly manifested through artists that reminded us [of it] through words and music.”

This year’s GX conference focused on art and conflict, and art and the environment. Landrieu was adamant that civic leaders should think of employees wanting to live in cities where they may want to “go to the opera.” Culture “makes up the DNA of who we are as a people,” said Landrieu.

Relating a story of how Hugh Masekela had come to own one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets, with New Orleans a significant fulcrum, Landrieu said, “Art transcends geography and it transcends time.”

But for all his keenly held, romantic talk about art and music providing a “window to the soul,” artists also have to eat and a city has to house and feed the artists it professes to cherish.

When Landrieu was Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana (from 2004 to 2010, when he became Mayor of New Orleans itself), he and his team “conceptualized the cultural economy.”


That meant first calculating how much of the state’s economy was dependent on the arts, and how many people’s lives and livelihoods were interlinked with it. In Louisiana, it was estimated, that 185,000 people worked in the arts. “Culture means jobs,” he said. “It’s economic development and economic growth. And it’s about how a city lives and breathes and New York is about as good an example of this as anywhere else in the world.”

New Orleans had aimed to “plant seeds” and nurture them. That meant removing a tax on live music venues, ensuring schools provided a decent arts education, and implementing a housing policy that took into account not just good design but also ensured that artists had somewhere to live. This was the spur for New Orleans’ “musicians’ village,” spearheaded by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis.

There was a need, said Landrieu, for “beauty and resilience” when it came to keeping culture central to urban planning, negotiating, for example, with developers to create sustainable, creative space.

“After Katrina, we rebuilt the whole city, the way it should have been and, by the way, there’s global warming and sea levels rising,” Landrieu said. The arts created “communion in and among people.”

The Republicans and Democrats “can’t agree on what time of day it is,” he said to audience laughter. But take them to a Kennedy Center Honors event, and have Paul Simon or Chita Rivera entertain them, Landrieu said, and watch political divisions melt away. People find “communion and peace and common ground around art, music and historic preservation.”

Culture was in New Orleans’s “blood, bones… it really is the DNA, the special sauce you feel in New Orleans.” Artists, Landrieu said, create or recast things to edify people’s souls. “People in Iowa say ‘OK, you have it (arts and culture) there, we don’t.’ That categorically is not true. Everywhere in the world has indigenous, authentic things that are different from every place else.”

Politicians, philanthropists, artists and the people have to come together to nurture our cultural life, said Landrieu. The city, for him, is both museum and canvas, and the people via the arts “through light, fire, water, how the roads are done, create their own beautiful canvas. That lifts people and brings people together at the end of the day.”

Landrieu’s conclusion was as passionately put as the rest of his speech, and drew fervent applause. In terms of the arts, he said, “If we going to rebuild, we ought to stop taking for granted what was there before. We’re actually going to run to it rather than away from it, which is why we invest so much in it.”