City / Culture: Transforma Interview, Part 2

The second half of Jeremy Rosenberg’s interview with Transforma’s Jess Garz, in which Garz talks about the legacy of the New Orleans-based, artists-conceived initiative.

New Orleans, 2008: The Safehouse of the Fundred / Pay Dirt project led by conceptual artist Mel Chin. Fundred was one of three Transforma pilot projects. Jess Garz

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Last week, City / Culture published part one of a two-part conversation with Jess Garz, the project manager and sole staffer for Transforma Projects, a seminal, New Orleans-based, artists-conceived initiative certain to be studied for decades to come. Today, we conclude with the conversation’s part two. Transforma’s co-founders are Jessica Cusick, Sam Durant, Rick Lowe, and Robert Ruello.

In New Orleans, who are some other creative groups doing important civic work?

JG: There’s the Antenna Gallery. For a short period, there was the Colton School. And HOME New Orleans was a Transforma pilot project that’s now financially independent. At HOME, creative thinkers help to redevelop neighborhoods or areas in ways that city government was unable.

One HOME project is the Sankofa Marketplace in the Lower Ninth Ward that convenes the second Saturday of each month. It’s a place where artisans and artists sell their work or share their practice – everything from painters to people who make Mardi Gras Indian suits. It’s also a place with access to health care, like with mobile blood pressure and diabetes units. These are resources that don’t make it to the community the other 29 or 30 days of the month. Rashida Ferdinand is the director of the market, and she’s a visual artist. Directing some of her creative thinking to a marketplace – which we don’t traditionally think of as an artwork – allows for an inspired place that this community really values.

Transforma co-founder Rick Lowe is known for his Project Row Houses work in Houston. That’s also redevelopment project meets art.

Transforma benefited from Rick’s experience in Houston, and from all his experiences. He’s collaborated and interacted with the most diverse range of individuals imaginable from the art world, development world, social services sector, you name it. Rick’s ability to communicate with professionals, citizens, students, politicians – everyone – was an amazing asset. Rick and the other co-founders also helped give Transforma credibility – on a national level even more than a local level – before we might have deserved it. That’s a point not to be understated. Having people involved who already have the respect of a national audience really helps a project serving a localized community get much-needed support.

Jessica Cusick, another co-founder, is the Director of Cultural Affairs for Santa Monica, California.

When you look at Santa Monica and New Orleans, you probably have two of the most different cities in the country – in terms of socio-economics and in terms of how each city functions. New Orleans doesn’t even have a Department of Cultural Affairs. Jessica played the role of arts administrator extraordinaire, and not as a bureaucratic arts administrator. She’s really proficient at communicating with politicians and a wide array of other people. She also creative, has aesthetic ideas, and the way she works on numbers and budgets is kind of poetic.

What’s Transforma doing today, and what will be the projects’ legacy?

Transforma is “sunsetting.” We are no longer actively running the [Creative Recovery] Mini-Grant Program or financially supporting our three pilot projects. Transforma was very intentional about not moving forward at full steam with the programs we’d developed. We wanted to be diligent about determining what we’ve done well and what could maybe be done better in the future. We’ve focused a lot of attention these past 8-12 months on a process of documenting the initiative, both from an organizational administrative and an aesthetic perspective. We’ve hired two individuals to look at the work: Maria Jackson, who comes from the urban planning and community development world; and Aimee Chang, who comes from the art historical, critical, and curatorial world.

Maria’s examining how Transforma has served as an “intermediary” – which is a term that’s often used in the community development world. Amy is looking at Transforma as a new or alternative pedagogical model for artists, and as a different model to support artists working in the public sphere. The purpose of the writing is not just to put us in the record books and make sure we live on the shelves of important people for years to come [laughs], but to serve as a useful tool for organizations, artists, and institutions to learn from Transforma’s experience. Some of Transforma’s work was in response to those initial needs of survival and recovery. New Orleans doesn’t need that so much any more; we’ve entered into a different period.

That’s not to say that some of the lessons we’ve learned couldn’t be applied around other cities and towns throughout the United States that are dealing with similar social or economic hardship. Transforma existed in a unique time and space: New Orleans, post-Katrina. The first five years post-Katrina are very specific. New Orleans is a much different place today than it was on August 30, 2005.

Read more from City/Culture here.

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