“Arthur Roger,” OffBeat

by Alex Rawls, OffBeat

The walls of Arthur Roger Gallery on Julia Street are uncharacteristically bare. On Art for Art’s Sake (Saturday, October 1), the gallery will host a show by filmmaker/writer/artist John Waters titled “Catholic Sin,” but this afternoon, they’re just broad expanses of white. In the back rooms of the gallery, meticulous paintings that depict paperback book covers and album jackets by Richard Baker are leaning against the wall, waiting to be hung.

Arthur Roger has been a mainstay of the Julia Street contemporary arts scene, and for years his gallery has been one of the must-see stops on first Saturday art openings. For years, Art for Art’s Sake has been the contemporary arts community’s signature event, though in recent years, White Linen Night has challenged that standing. On a quiet afternoon, Roger talks about changes in the New Orleans arts community and the business of art.

How long have you been on Julia Street?

We started the gallery right after the World’s Fair, so we were making plans in this building in ’84. We moved into the gallery in ’88.

When did Julia Street become an arts center?

We were on Magazine Street for 10 years before that, and at that time Magazine Street was pretty funky and very inexpensive, which was the reason why we were there. But the buildings are these long, narrow buildings that go back forever, and they’re not ideal for contemporary art. When the developers asked me if I’d be interested in this space, it was like winning the lottery. They were just giant boxes.

The Contemporary Arts Center had already been opened. The Children’s Museum was Dixie Art Supplies, Naomi Marshall had a gallery—Downtown Gallery—that was there, and we came right after Galerie Simone Stern left uptown to come to Julia Street at well. But we all came here to be by the Contemporary Arts Center.

Who was showing at the CAC at that point?

It was all the main mid-career artists that you see now. George Dureau had his first show at the Contemporary Arts Center at that time, Gene Koss, Ida Kohlmeyer—all these people who really have been taken for granted. The people that pioneered contemporary art in New Orleans were having their first moment. The museum (NOMA) had been very neglectful of contemporary arts and the CAC barged in with a very remarkable entry, with Don Marshall being the director.

At that time, the scene seemed really dynamic. You could see brilliant stuff and woeful missteps, which I thought was part of its beauty.

There was an energy about it more than anything, and a curiosity of what was coming. It was very experimental in an exciting way, but it’s like everything. Things are always changing— they’re evolving and you have to keep up.

How have they changed?

Well, one, we’re not new anymore.

We were like every other city looking for validation from New York, and I think we’ve gotten over that in a lot of ways. It’s not that we don’t care anymore, but it’s different. It’s not like that is the emphasis anymore. I think the emphasis is to just do something really well.

You have a lot of new institutions like the Ogden Museum, and I think NOMA will be much more active in contemporary art. They have a contemporary art curator for the first time.

The other thing is, artists were on an island and we were insulated, and even though it was denied, there was a sensibility of the South. After the hurricane, there was this influx of younger energy and creative people and I don’t see that anymore.

Also, the universities have produced so many art students, and those people are very active, so that brings in another influx of tremendous energy and changes the dynamics.

Has the Internet broken down the sense of distinctions between places?

It’s always about artists. No matter what anybody says, artists are the ones who determine everything. They’re the ones who make this possible for me. They’re the ones moving the whole dialogue, and they’ve decided they don’t all want to live in New York anymore, for whatever reason—it’s too expensive, it’s not the same as it was, they like their big studio spaces, they like being near their family, whatever.

When I started the gallery, there wasn’t a business school for art. Leo Castelli [a New York contemporary art dealer] was a shirt salesman, my father was a streetcar driver. I learned from my artists. One of the first things Ida Kohlmeyer told me was, “Always follow the artist; don’t follow the collector.” It was good advice because they’re the ones that are directing the dialogue.

What was your background?

I studied special education at UNO. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. Galleries were generally failures, and at that time you could disappear and owe artists a lot of money. The only successful gallery was Simone Stern when she was still living, and it was a gallery where someone had committed that there would be a good gallery in New Orleans even if they had to pay for it. We were the first to come in and actually make it into a business.

I thought of myself more as an artist when I opened the gallery. I brought artists together with the idea that we’d run the gallery democratically, and it was one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done in my entire life. It was horrible and scary, but it made me realize that artists wanted a businessman on the front lines for them, and that they didn’t want an artist handling their career. I’ve modeled myself on the person I think my artists want me to be.

What did they want you to be?

Someone there to fight for them who’s fair, and someone who understands them, who understands what they’re doing, what it takes for them to do what they do, and who tries to make a living for them.

Julia Street has become the establishment in New Orleans’ contemporary art community and St. Claude Avenue has become the new upstart row. What are your thoughts on that shift?

I love it. I think it’s really great. One of the advantages of growing older is that you understand what they’re going through. I’m very supportive. They can do things that I can’t do anymore, but I know that they’re on a ride now where they have to figure it out as they go along, and the roads change. It’s very hard to keep a gallery going. It’s a business most people don’t understand. I’ve always said if anybody says they can explain the art business to you, don’t trust them.

What can a St. Claude Avenue gallery do that you can’t?

When you get to the maturity of the gallery that we have, you have an image and you have to be respectful of that. I’d love to be able to do wild and crazy shows—and I’m not saying that in any derogatory way—but after you’ve been showing art for 33 years, you can’t be hit and miss. You’ve got to have some consistency. Some purpose as to why you’re showing this work. Like anything that’s older and bigger, we’re slower-moving. If you’re younger and you’re rawer, you’re faster. You can respond quicker. When we opened the gallery, we took on 13 artists in three months; now we take an artist on in a year, that’s a pretty big deal.

How do White Linen Night and Art for Art’s Sake factor into your business?

Don Marshall, Barbara Muniot—she was the director of Galerie Simone Stern—and I, we started the first Art for Art’s Sake in the early ‘80s. Art for Art’s Sake was a name for the benefit for the Contemporary Arts Center. My openings were on Saturday and hers were on Friday, so we decided to coordinate openings. Because summers are so long, we can’t really begin in September like the Northeast does for their openings, but you need some sort of punctuation: “Okay, it’s the cultural season.” We thought the title was good, we coordinated the openings on the early side, and we all ended up at the Contemporary Arts Center. The CAC at that time was a dessert party. It was an extraordinary success, way bigger than any of us ever anticipated.

The other part of it—and the other reason for these big events—is that there was a lot of resistance to contemporary art at that time. It was easier to attack art than understand it, so you’d have people say crazy things like, “I don’t know about art, but I know what I like,” or “A child could do it,” or “Is it sideways?” The openings give an opportunity to bring everybody in in a non-intimidating way and they can have a good time and hopefully learn something in the process.

Now things have changed. People realize that they’re dumb to say things like that and they’re more knowledgeable. It has been really successful. Unfortunately, we lost control of Art for Art’s Sake. It’s become a party for party’s sake.

Is Art for Art’s Sake night a good night for business?

I never look at them as selling nights, but after doing this for so long, I can pretty much tell when somebody’s very serious about something. I can also tell whether or not I need to wait until I have a better opportunity to spend more time with them. Some nights are very serious and people are very interested in what you’re doing. Others, you feel like you’re a backdrop that no one’s really paying attention to.

Our White Linen Night show would not be changeable with our Art for Art’s Sake show. White Linen Night—we try to be lighter, we try to put up something that will connect with that audience, whereas Art for Art’s Sake—we try to be edgier. I want things that are going to be a bit uncomfortable, that will make people think a little bit more. White Linen Night—I’m all about the feel good.

Can you look at a room and tell who’s a serious buyer?

Absolutely. I can tell you who’s a serious person who wants attention. I can tell you who’s interested that wants you to leave them alone, and I can tell you who’ll suck the blood out of you if you get cornered in a conversation.

Has White Linen Night eclipsed Art for Art’s Sake?

I thought White Linen Night was the worst idea. I was there at the beginning. I sponsored it. I said if anybody’s going to do it, I’ll be there for them, but this is craziness. I hated the whole pretension of dressing up for an event, but I was wrong. People love it.

I think the restaurants make more than the galleries do. We had three shows—one did phenomenally well, one did okay, one didn’t do well at all. I have a love/hate relationship with White Linen Night. I never want a line at my door. That’s not who we are, but there comes a time when there are so many people in the gallery where it’s a bad feeling rather than a good feeling to be in here.

I wish the St. Claude galleries could be here rather than there. No matter what it looks like, we’re all trying for the same thing. We’re not fighting each other. I worry about Julia Street becoming boutique-ish, but what can you do? You look at New York and how Soho is now, and who’d go there? And it just happens. I understand why they want to be over there and not over here, but it really upsets me. I can’t go over there to see what they’re doing as easily.