In 2014, Erica and Mitchell Gaudet moved their studios from the Bywater of New Orleans to the neighborhood of Old Arabi in St. Bernard Parish. The move has been a return to one of the things the Gaudet’s do best: pioneering.
Studio Arabi: Building a Creative Economy in St. Bernard Parish, La.
Mitchell first opened Studio Inferno in 1991 with then business partner, Scott Benefield. In search of a place they could turn into a working studio, issues of space, city codes, taxes and price all played a factor in leading them to what would become home to Studio Inferno for the next 23 years. Once a bottle making factory, the 16,000 square foot space they found on Royal Street in the Bywater was ideal (given enough vision and the gumption to see it through).
“We wanted to make a true, community accessible glass studio,” said Mitchell, “that promoted not only traditional glass work but also an artistic glass studio.”
They sectioned it into several studio spaces, invited artists from other disciplines to join them and had all of the spaces filled within a year and a half. Arguably, Studio Inferno would become a spark which would go onto fire the Bywater’s distinction as one of New Orleans’ notable arts and culture districts.
“Artists, creatives, entrepreneurs need a space to work. It doesn’t have to be an artistic area. It just needs to be an affordable, live-work space with some convenience,” said Mitchell. “In the creative workforce, people look to the outside, to older buildings. Affordable is the number one, not safety.”
The search for affordability which drove them to open Studio Inferno in the Bywater would be one of the things to drive them out.
“I sold my building in the Bywater in 2013 and moved to Arabi in 2014. Two miles from the old location but back to where I started environmentally as far as a new neighborhood, an up and coming neighborhood that’s embracing community,” Mitchell said. “The Bywater became so gentrified so quickly. The thing that people move in for is the thing that gets chased out. It’s an evolutionary thing that takes place, and it happens everywhere.”
After selling their Bywater properties, Erica and Mitchell bought studio spaces in Old Arabi, one as the new location for Studio Inferno and the other to house Erica’s studio space and gallery for her furniture designs, Larkin Gaudet Studio and Gallery.
“If you asked me this question when we were purchasing my studio in Old Arabi, I would have told you that the size of my building and that it’s located only steps away from the Mississippi River,” answered Erica on the benefits of life in Arabi. “But, now three years later, I would say that the greatest benefit has been the incredible community of people of Old Arabi and in fact, St Bernard Parish as a whole. There is an amazing positivity and excitement within the community to improve economic development within the area and welcome new businesses.”
The Gaudet’s developed a real estate component of their business while in the Bywater, and this business model is one they continue today. They recently partnered with the Meraux Foundation to transform an underutilized area of Old Arabi into an arts and cultural district. The Meraux Foundation is dedicated to enriching the lives of the people of St. Bernard by cultivating economic and cultural avenues throughout the parish. “The Meraux Foundation has assembled the properties as a public interest project to accelerate the growth of the Old Arabi Cultural District,” read a statement from the Meraux Foundation. Erica and Mitchell formed Studio Arabi to serve as the vehicle through which they are developing an “arts campus” along a two block corridor of St. Claude Avenue.
“All parts of this ‘Art Campus’ will have a public component. Open studios, workshops, artist lectures, school tours, performances and gallery opening,” said Erica. “We not only provide studio spaces to individual artists, but encourage public and community engagement.”
In conjunction with the board members of the Mereaux Foundation, the Gaudet’s have redesigned the properties into an extensive network of spaces dedicated to the arts and generating a creative economy in the heart of St. Bernard Parish. The studio spaces have the capacity to accommodate artists from all mediums, including an area to house a foundry, welding bays, performance and media arts as well as living and gallery space. The living spaces were constructed to serve as both living quarters and studio space for artists involved with Studio Arabi.
The Meraux Foundation states, “Borrowing from creative placemaking approaches, the project will leverage arts and culture as a driver for economic development and enhanced livability in the parish. A growing body of evidence suggests that fostering creative activity is an effective way to revitalize communities.”
Construction of Studio Arabi is coming to a conclusion with an expected completion date of April, 2016. To keep abreast of events, subscribe to the Meraux Foundation’s newsletter and follow Studio Inferno on Facebook.