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Art in Katrina's Wake

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 10, 2006 5:00PM

Five months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the future of New Orleans remains mired in doubt and bureaucracy. When the mainstream media shelves substantive debate over the city’s rebuilding to decipher Mayor Nagin’s “Chocolate City” speech, the art world picks up the slack. Two local exhibits and a new play examine The Big Easy, the city and the idea.

Stories surfacing in Katrina’s wake about R&B legend Fats Domino’s disappearance and his reappearance in the floodwaters hinted at the larger questions: Will New Orleans’ celebrated music scene recover? Is it worth saving? An exhibit at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery, Gifts of New Orleans Music and Culture, not surprisingly believes it will and it is. If you’ve been to the Smithsonian or the Rock Hall, this collection of classic records, photos, sound clips, and important documents seems familiar enough. But this exhibit looks beyond gumbo and zydeco to showcase ragtime, orchestral and even pop and classical music. A tribute to the larger Louisiana sound reminds us of amazing native favorites like Mahalia Jackson. The real soul of the show is in the CD players stationed around the room loaded with one-minute sound clips. Just a few seconds of Buddy Guy and Fats Domino’s original recordings made us weep for decades of bad cover versions. Katrina is only addressed indirectly, and that’s kind of the point. Whatever you throw at The Big Easy—crime, gangs, political corruption, or even a hurricane—its music will endure.

Tucked just outside the school’s massive library, the DePaul University Art Museum may not be the most effective venue for social worker and photographer Jane Fulton Alt to keep hurricane victims in the public mind. Those who actually see the work in the unassuming Lincoln Park space won’t soon forget these scenes of disorientation and loss. The images in Look and Leave were taken last fall as Alt volunteered for a relief program of the same name, capturing an experience she calls ‘heartbreaking,’ in desolate landscapes, ravaged downtowns, and ripped houses that seemingly could have been anywhere. We won’t soon forget being socked in the gut by a faded family portrait recovered from the wreckage.


Katrina: State of Emergency, Bailiwick Repertory’s new ripped-from-the-headlines drama, takes a much more direct approach. In the same manner as Bailiwick’s recent Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, this show reenacts news accounts, public testimony and even a few of those pesky blog entries to capture victims’ outrage and frustration over the slow federal response. As quickly as it came together, this may not be the most polished show on a Chicago stage but it is provoking those sorely needed discussions about community obligation.

Gifts of New Orleans Music and Culture continues at Columbia College's Glass Curtain Gallery, 1104 S Wabash, through February 17. Admission is free, more information at their website.

Look and Leave continues at DePaul University Gallery, 2320 N Kenmore, through March 12. Admission is free, a Mardi Gras reception will be held February 28 to benefit relief efforts. More information at their site.

Katrina: State of Emergency is at Bailiwick Repertory, 1229 W Belmont, Thursdays - Sundays through February 19. Tickets are $25. More information at

Photo via Jane Fulton Alt & DePaul University Art Museum.