by John D’Addario via The New Orleans Advocate beaucoup
It’s a safe bet to say that the contemporary art scene in New Orleans would be a lot less interesting without Arthur Roger.
For nearly 40 years, his gallery has been a focal point for introducing the city to major currents in the national and international art scene, as well as for launching and nurturing the careers of some of the most prominent New Orleans-based artists working today.
And as an astute and prolific collector in his own right, Roger is responsible for one of the most important gifts ever to the New Orleans Museum of Art and the city as a whole: more than 80 artworks from his personal collection, which will go on display at NOMA on Friday.
Curated by NOMA’s Katie Pfohl, “Pride of Place: The Making of Contemporary Art in New Orleans” features work by artists with international reputations like Dale Chihuly, Robert Mapplethorpe and Catherine Opie alongside several New Orleans-based artists — including Luis Cruz Azaceta, Willie Birch, Bruce Davenport Jr. (Dapper Bruce Lafitte), Nicole Charbonnet, Dawn DeDeaux, and Cynthia Scott, among many others — whose work has increasingly been recognized further afield thanks in no small part to the efforts of Roger and his gallery team.
As Roger notes in a delightful interview with trash film auteur John Waters that introduces the excellent exhibition catalogue, he opened his first gallery on Magazine Street in 1978 during a time when the audience for contemporary art in New Orleans was limited — to say the least.
“It often felt as if art ended in the 1950s, and contemporary art didn’t exist,” said Roger.
Curator Katie Pfohl says the opening of Roger’s gallery put New Orleans into a deeper artistic dialogue with the rest of the country — a conversation which continues to this day, as evidenced by events like the opening of the Prospect.4 biennial this fall.
But she says that the New Orleans gallery scene in the late 1970s was very different than the one we’ve come to take for granted. “Prior to this period, most of most of the established art galleries in the city primarily exhibited historical portraiture and landscape,” said Pfohl. “And the few modern or contemporary art exhibitions there were focused largely on artists from New York.”
Roger and his gallery changed all that. In her introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Pfohl notes that from its inception, Roger’s gallery has always championed artists who engage with race, gender and sexuality in their work.
“Arthur’s gallery brought together nationally recognized voices in contemporary art alongside emerging local artists to show how contemporary art could respond and reflect on the cultural and political issues of the time,” said Pfohl.
In turn, Roger’s collection will add new dimensions of breadth and depth to NOMA’s already significant collection of contemporary art. In fact, NOMA director Susan Taylor calls Roger’s gift to the museum “transformational.”
“The gift includes pieces by a number of artists whose work is either not represented in our collection, or the work we do have exemplifies a different phase of their career,” said Taylor. “So it both augments and strengthens our collection in a variety of ways.”
Pfohl adds that New Orleans audiences should expect a few surprises in “Pride of Place,” which will be on view at the museum through September.
“My favorite works in the show include Robert Colescott’s ‘Power for Desire-Desire for Power’ from 1987 and Catherine Opie’s ‘Self-Portrait/Cutting,’” said Pfohl. “And I think that NOMA audiences are going to be astonished to realize how early these nationally recognized contemporary artists exhibited their work in New Orleans, as well as how many locally based artists were engaging with similar issues and ideas.”
And of course, the gift means that museum visitors will be able to enjoy the works as they are exhibited with the rest of the museum’s contemporary art collection long after the exhibition closes.
“It is a rare and wonderful thing for a museum to be able to acquire a collection in its entirely,” said Pfohl. “And NOMA thanks Arthur Roger for his vision and generosity in allowing us to preserve and share his collection with the public for decades to come.”