New Orleans French Quarter: The Glory of Galleries
M.S. Rau Antiques
Photographs by Cheryl Gerber
Memories of time spent in the French Quarter bring many things to mind: beignets, street performers, music, shopping and – for me in particular – art. Even from my first trip to Royal Street, the heart of New Orleans’ art scene, my parents taught me about the rush that comes from finding that perfect piece, the one that really speaks to you and expresses something inside you that’s hard to put into words (or one that just makes you smile).
We are lucky that our city brings in and nurtures some of the most talented painters and sculptors from all over the world. Most of the galleries that are owned by locals and represent local artists are also staffed by locals; in fact, on any given day you can often find gallery owners manning their own registers. Unfortunately, thanks to Hurricane Katrina and the rise of e-commerce, gallery owners and the artists they represent have suffered, and a few have even closed up shop forever.
That happened to artist and gallery co-owner Georgette A. Fortino, who now runs Nouvelle Lune with co-owner and artist Linda Berman at the same site at which Fortino used to own P.K. Gallery with friends. While the old gallery focused on fine arts (primarily painting and photography), Nouvelle Lune focuses on the eclectic, from rolling robots made from repurposed objects by Anne Cambell to paintings by drummer Tony Nozero to jewelry by Bonnie Miller (who among other pieces, creates rings with “secret” messages), as well as works by the owners themselves. Fortino suggests that those looking to start their collection begin by buying pieces that make them happy and are within their price range. Nouvelle Lune showcases items ranging from $125 to $2,500 (though there are occasionally some on offer for less) from more than 28 artists (currently 25 of which are local residents).
Though it specializes in representing artists from France, the Galerie d’Art Francais is also the premier original painting dealer of Todd White’s original work (if you don’t recognize his noir-esque paintings that are most often of skinny ladies, you might know him as the former lead character designer for SpongeBob SquarePants). Galerie d’Art Francais showcases items from $3,750 to $195,000 and represents 16 artists.
Vice president of operations Ryan Tramonte says, “The French Quarter is one of the hidden treasures of the art world. While there are big names on Royal Street, the real finds are tucked away on the walls of some gallery waiting for you to find them.” This is a gallery where one can learn not only about the pieces on the walls and the artists that created them, it’s also a place to learn about art in itself, and how to buy it. Tramonte also suggests that those who are interested in art, “read as much as you can about art, artists and the art business. The more you read and learn, the better you’ll become at knowing what’s just around the corner.”
Mary Catherine Romaguera of MC Romaguera Studio
Located behind St. Louis Cathedral is MC Romaguera Studio, owned by artist Mary Catherine Romaguera, who runs the studio with her husband, Michael Minivelle, who sells her original works for $35 to $3,000. Set inside one of Royal Street’s almost hidden carriageways, Romaguera specializes in acrylic on canvas ranging from abstract landscapes to architecture to wildlife – on my visit she was painting a blue crab at the entrance to the gallery with her canvas hanging on a floor-to-ceiling shutter. “Find a piece that will put a smile on your face every time you see it,” Romaguera says. She also suggests that if you’re interested in an artist’s style, but don’t see a piece that you love, that you, “ask if there’s additional artwork in their stockroom or how you can be kept up to date on future creations.” In addition, many artists – including Romaguera – accept commission work, which allows you to customize a piece of art to your liking.
Everyone who visits the French Quarter on a somewhat regular basis has a “must see,” place that you have to visit every time you wander its streets. For me, that place is M.S. Rau Antiques. Rau is a treasure trove of antiques including furniture, silver, canes, porcelain, globes and jewelry – and art. “In our painting collection,” says CEO Bill Rau, “we have impeccable works from the Impressionist masters” including Monet, Cezanne, Gaughin and Renoir, “as well as works by Norman Rockwell and Sir Winston Churchill.” While on first glance Rau seems to be out of most people’s price range, “Actually we have items to fit every budget,” says Rau, “starting at $100 and reaching more than $5 million.” When obtaining items, they look for provenance; they acquire and sell works of art that were owned by collectors, museums or made famous by a moment in history. “You don’t always have to follow trends or the dollar sign,” says Rau. “If a particular era, style or artist inspires you, then use that as your guideline for collecting.”
In addition to the hotbed of galleries that is Royal Street, one of my favorite ways to discover artists that are new to me is by wondering along the fence around Jackson Square (see box). Artists must acquire a permit from the city’s bureau of revenue’s permits department, which costs $20 to apply and $175 annually. According to Jackson-Square.com, there are only 200 permits issued each year (renewable in January) and there’s currently a waitlist for artists waiting for permits to become available. These permits allow artists to display works created by hand (no digital media) as well as reprints of their own work (a recent, contentious development).
Also new to me are the artists displaying their work on the fence surrounding St. Anthony’s Garden at the back of the cathedral (“Le Fete Jardin” will be held Sept. 29, with a patron party on Sept. 27, to celebrate the restoration of the garden). While I’ve often seen people painting around the area, it’s only recently that I’ve seen more than one or two artists displaying and selling their wares in an area that on its western edge has the George Rodrigue Gallery next door (it moved from across the street) and the Peter O’Neill Gallery across the street. Rodrigue is a Louisiana treasure and the inventor/artist of the famous Blue Dogs as well as of traditional Creole scenes and more. In addition to his Royal Street gallery, O’Neill owns one of the largest artist-owned galleries in St. Augustine, Fla., as well as a gallery in Charleston, S.C. Many of his paintings are of the female form but he also offers sketches, original paintings and prints of New Orleans Carnival and jazz scenes.
Everyone you look in the French Quarter there’s art, from wrought-iron balconies and fences to paintings and sculptures in windows, on the sides of buildings and under an artist’s brush. My advice is to talk a long, slow walk and see what strikes your fancy and makes you smile, then make a deal.
Galleries in order mentioned:
938 Royal St.
Galerie d’Art Francais
541 Royal St.
MC Romaguera Studio
711 Royal St.
M.S. Rau Antiques
630 Royal St.
Rodrigue Studio New Orleans
730 Royal St.
Peter O’Neill Gallery
721 Royal St.
Up Close & Personal
On my most recent trip to Jackson Square I was stopped short by a series of paintings depicting an anthropomorphized New Orleans-style street lamp in shenanigans around the city. With pieces ranging from $10 to $300 in acrylic, ink and mixed media, his work is approachable and accessible. After he saw me noticing his art, J.A. Courtney introduced himself and we had a chat:
How would you describe your art? The funny things in my head, exposed
Why showcase your art in Jackson Square? I find it is the best place in the city where I can display and sell my art with little hassle, while still enjoying the whole experience of meeting new people.
What are your tips for someone looking to purchase a piece of art from the square? Don’t be afraid to look around the square. Just keep in mind if you like a piece, buy it. It might be bought by someone else by the time you come back around.