By Doug MacCash via NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Happy 20th birthday to Whitney White Linen Night, the New Orleans Arts District’s summertime soirée that has long been one of the Crescent City’s great street celebrations. Starting at 6 p.m. on Aug. 2, tens of thousands of partiers will gather in the 200 to 600 blocks of Julia Street to attend free gallery openings, sip cooling cocktails and listen to live music. The nearby Ogden Museum of Southern Art and Contemporary Arts Center also will welcome art lovers. And when it’s all over at 9 p.m., it’s not all over, because the party continues with DJs and dancing at the CAC until 11 p.m.
The term White Linen Night has to do with tropical clothing, of course, but it also serves as a perfect metaphor for an artistic outpouring. Linen is used to produce the best quality artist canvas, after all, and a white canvas is a space that’s ready to welcome artistic expression. There’s a good chance that more New Orleanians contemplate contemporary artwork on the steamy first Saturday evening in August than any single day in the rest of the year.
Damn the thermometer, full speed ahead
White Linen Night is an important fundraiser for the nonprofit CAC, but that’s not how it began. Before 1994, the Crescent City art scene slowed to a standstill in the late summer. But two Julia Street gallery owners had a plan to bring art lovers downtown despite the heat. Their strategy had to do with the early 1990s popularity of fine craft. As my NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune colleague Chris Waddington reported at the time:
“Like daily thunderstorms and roadside watermelons, the summer hibernation of art galleries is something New Orleanians have always taken for granted. Tomorrow night, a dozen galleries along Julia Street plan to overturn that tradition – and everyone is invited.
“White Linen Night is their name for a free street festival built around coordinated art openings. … In deference to the season, knotty abstractions and conceptual art have been banned from most galleries. Scores of local and national craft artists will exhibit objects that go a long way toward explaining the rising national interest in functional, decorative arts.”
In 1999, at the fifth anniversary of the event, gallery owner Wyndy Morehead, who founded White Linen Night with gallery owner Donna Perret, described the impetus of the big party, which included the presence of an army of visiting barristers.
“We just realized that not everybody was out of town in August,” Morehead said, “and we wanted to do some kind of event, because the galleries were usually so dead. In fact, most of the galleries used to close for two or three weeks during this season.
“But the thing that really got us started that year, was that my friend Cameron Gamble was the host attorney for the American Bar Association convention that was coming to town in August. He said, ‘What am I going to do with 20,000 attorneys?’ So we had the first event for them.
“The original theme was supposed to be white linen and martinis,” Morehead said. “The white linen part was my idea, but it was very simple really — what were you supposed to wear outdoors in August? I remember getting calls from people right away saying they’d love to come, but they didn’t have anything white to wear. But of course you could come wearing anything. The martini idea came from the Bombay Club, who helped sponsor the first event. It was supposed to be a sort of Casablanca-type thing. We thought it would be very low-key, and the first year we had 7,000 people turn out.
Though most of the crowd will wear snowy outfits Saturday night, there has never been a dress code. Over the years, certain White Linen Night partiers have appeared in everything from tie-dye to body paint to kilts. The focus on fine craft didn’t last long. As Moorehead explained in 1999:
“The other part of the original concept was that the galleries could set this time aside for functional art: furniture, ceramics, lamps … We were going to try to create a cultural event like a mini Speleto in Charleston (a summertime high culture fest centered on opera), with four days of lectures and seminars for collectors, White Linen Night being the final thing.
“But the other galleries started going their own ways, and the event changed. It became a big party, of course. By the second year, they had a transvestite fashion show. They used my apartment as the changing room. I still find feathers now and then. But that’s New Orleans. We could tell how much people liked the event because suddenly we saw restaurants that had White Linen Night menus and things like that. It was everywhere, so, two years ago, we copyrighted the name for the association.”
A blizzard of attendance
The original White Linen Night drew an astonishingly large first-time crowd. It now might be more than six times as large. Merit Shalett, the CAC’s senior associate director, said that, according to police estimates, White Linen Night attendance grew to 45,000 in 2013.
Whitney White Linen Night, 2008 New Orleans’ most popular art event
Gallery owner Arthur Roger admits that 20 years ago, he wasn’t especially taken with the White Linen Night concept.
“It was Donna’s and Wyndy’s idea and the gallery supported it, but I thought it was crazy. It was the worst time of the year and they wanted to put on an elaborate complex event. It was a big success. … I thought it was a distraction, the white linen and all, but I was wrong.”
Roger said the big party came about at about the same time the Arts Council of New Orleans declared the neighborhood to be New Orleans’ official Arts District. The elegant white party helped draw public attention to the area. More importantly, the August social event may have helped introduce people to contemporary art.
“We’ve come a long way,” Roger said, “if you think about where we were 20 years ago. There was a real need to make people comfortable with contemporary art; they were intimidated. It was something more to make fun of than to embrace, but that’s not true any more.”
Roger said he remembers a time when August was a dead month in the gallery, but now there are regular sales and the staff stays busy. The big party helps the galleries, he said, but the restaurants that have sprung up in the neighborhood during the past two decades probably benefit even more. At the beginning of White Linen Night, the aesthetic was supposed to be lighter and more decorative, but now the August slot is as serious as any other, Roger said. For instance, this year Arthur Roger Gallery will be showing a series of Civil Rights-era photos by the late legendary photographer Gordon Parks.
For White Linen Night 1997, CAC curator Thomas Lanham took the event’s original devotion to functional art in another direction by displaying custom motorcycles in the Camp Street art center and suggesting attendees wear leather bike gear. That also was the year White Linen Night became an annual CAC benefit. The gallery association rents the copyrighted title “White Linen Night” to the CAC.
It may have been counterintuitive, but the New Orleans public was drawn to the party, swarming onto Julia Street in ever-increasing numbers, despite the steamy summer atmosphere that left many a linen suit soaked with sweat. By the 10th White Linen Night, police estimates put the number of attendees at 18,000. In 2004, I reported on the party’s …
“‘It was absolutely jam-packed,’ said Mark Bercier, (then) director of Marguerite Oestreicher Gallery. ‘It gets bigger and bigger. It was wall-to-wall all the way down Julia Street.’
“With crowds, of course, come logistical difficulties. Cramped galleries, plus long lines for cocktails and food marred the event for some. Reese Johanson, the Contemporary Arts Center’s events coordinator, who steered this year’s [the 2004] White Linen Night, said she planned food and beverage needs on past attendance. ‘I based this year on last year, which was the biggest it had ever been,’ she said. ‘I even bumped it up a little. But we really got blown away.’
“Each of the four Julia Street food outlets (stocked with 600 to 1,000 portions) had run out by 8 p.m., Johanson said, and two extra bars were set up in the CAC to handle the crowd.”
Part of the 2004 bottlenecking may have had to do with the elimination of beer from the outdoor bars, as I reported at the time.
“In order to lend this year’s White Linen Night a more sophisticated tone, the gallery-owner members of the New Orleans Arts District Association, which presents the event, decided to eliminate the loud rock bands of the past, and beer — a decision that raised the ire of some attendees.”
Beer returned to White Linen Night in 2005.
For 2014, Merit Shalett, the CAC’s senior associate director, is hopeful that beer consumption will be more convenient than ever. As in past years, 2014 White Linen Night partiers must purchase tickets for cocktails and food from CAC ticket sellers at tables in the street. But, Shalett said, “we’re exploring the possibility of cold beer depots where beer will be sold for cash.”
In addition to the hoped-for cash beer bars, Shalett said that in 2014 there will be 56 bartenders at six bars on Julia Street plus a record 23 restaurants serving small plates.
The miracle of 2006
White Linen Night 2006 had special significance, since it was the first since Hurricane Katrina damaged the CAC and the levee failures flooded much of the city, forcing the a large percentage of the population to relocate. Though rain poured on Julia Street in the minutes before the event was to begin, the sky magically brightened just before party time.
Shalett, stood in the center’s glass doorways watching the deluge in 2006 and fearing the worst for the CAC’s summer income.
“I remember thinking, ‘We’re dead. This is really bad,'” she said. “Then, didn’t people just come swarming out of nowhere?”
Indeed they did. As I reported in 2006:
“Miraculously, Saturday’s torrential rain stopped at 6 sharp, allowing the 13th annual White Linen Night art block party to proceed as planned. A rainout would have ruined one of the Contemporary Arts Center’s major fundraising events.
“Instead, as (then) CAC director Jay Weigel reports, the estimated crowd count reached 12,000. The figure, provided by the New Orleans Police Department, was down from 18,000 in 2005, but quite reassuring in the post-K era.
“‘That’s two-thirds of the number of people, in a town half the size,’ Weigel said. ‘I’m happy about that.’
“He’s also happy that bar sales and admission allowed the center to recoup the $40,000 it costs to produce White Linen Night and reach its income goal of $30,000.
“The gallery owners who belong to the New Orleans Arts District Association can be happy as well. Last year, the association licensed its trademarked party title ‘White Linen Night’ to the CAC for an annual fee of $10,000 — up from the $1,000 they’d received in the past. The fee is used to advertise member galleries.”
Shalett said the CAC’s average annual income from White Linen Night for 2011-13 is $51,000 after expenses. The infusion of White Linen Night money is a particular blessing in the summer when other fundraising falls off, she said.
Sometime in the first decade of the 21st-century, White Linen Night became New Orleans’ most important art event of the year. Its older rival, Art for Art’s Sake, which takes place in October, is still a huge, important art event. But most onlookers agree that White Linen Night has taken the crown.
2010: the best WLN ever?
Artistically, White Linen Night 2010 was the best ever, thanks to a team of renegade artists who transformed themselves into an audacious living artwork. Nothing before or after has rivaled the performance for visual punch. As I reported in 2010:
“Artists Craig Tracy and James T. Martin, plus 40 outrageous associates, upstaged the standard Whitney White Linen Night exhibits Saturday with a guerrilla art performance that was by far the most entertaining moment of the enchanting evening.
“Tracy has made a career of painting illusionistic images on the human body. Imagine an authentic-looking cheetah sprinting across the musculature of a reclining nude female — that sort of thing. This time out, Tracy partnered with Martin, an abstract painter in the Miro vein, to create a multipart, painted-human masterpiece.
“Martin composed a colorful pattern of circles, stripes and squares that he and Tracy began applying to scantily clothed volunteers early Saturday afternoon. As Martin explained, the living canvases soon learned to apply the patterns to one another, which made it possible to create 40 painted figures by show time.
“At 6:45, Julia Street was already jammed with hundreds and hundreds of art lovers, most dressed in elegant white linen skirts, shirts and suits – or at least white outfits of some sort. That’s when Tracy, Martin and company appeared in their midst, passing like a noisy flock of potentially stain-producing peacocks.
“The funky flock alighted in a parking lot just off of Julia Street, where helpers unfurled a 48-foot-wide banner painted in the same complex abstract pattern that covered the painted people. Cellphone cameras seemed to appear from every pocket as ‘the tribe’ – as Tracy called them – assembled in front of the backdrop. Here’s where the genius of Tracy and Martin’s plan became evident as the garishly painted bodies blended with their background in a sort of surrealist camouflage.
“The human tapestry cavorted in front of the background for the benefit of professional photographers apparently hired to capture the moment. … When the photos were all taken, the now-sweaty painted people slowly dissolved like watercolor back into the white linen-clad Julia Street crowd.”
Look for exhibit recommendations later on NOLA.com.
Whitney White Linen Night
What: A popular annual street party featuring exhibits of contemporary art works at some of the city’s finest galleries, live music, food booths, outdoor bars, people-watching and an after-hours dance party.
Where: The outdoor party takes place in the 200 to 600 blocks of Julia Street, with exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Center and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in the 900 block of Camp Street, plus exhibits in scattered locations.
When: Saturday (Aug. 2). The street party takes place from 6 to 9 p.m.
Music: Egg Yolk Jubilee, Mahayla, and The Unnaturals will play at outdoor stages on Julia Street.
Participating restaurants: Bratz Y’all!, Broussard’s, Charcoal’s Gourmet Burger Bar, Crêpes à la Cart, Foundation Room, GG’s Dine-O-Rama, GW Fins, Le Foret, Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant, Marcello’s Restaurant & Wine Bar, Marti’s Restaurant, Mellow Mushroom, MOPHO, Nirvana Indian Cuisine, Nola Foods, Phil’s Grill, Pinkberry, Rita’s Tequila House, Rue 127, Saucy’s BBQ, Seed, SoBou and Somethin’ Else Cafe.
Dress: There is no dress code, though summer white is the customary color.
Admission: The Julia Street outdoor party is free with cash bars and food booths.
After party: DJ sets from Bouffant, Bouffant and DVRA, and performances by New Orleans artists from the “Mark of the Feminine” exhibit from 9 to 11 p.m. at the CAC, 900 Camp St. Admission is $10.
More information: Visit the Contemporary Arts Center website or call 504.528.3805.