By Anitra D. Brown
The New Orleans Tribune
It was a warm spring day back in May 2021 when New Orleans Cultural and Tourism Fund’s board members and staff excitedly gathered inside Studio Be on Royal Street at a sparsely-attended press conference to announce the organization’s launch and its initial round of $600,000 in grants.
New Orleans’ tourism based economy was still fighting its way back from the pandemic-induced slowdown, so NOTCF also announced the availability of the special Open NOLA grant funding to help live music venues pay for artists and meet state-mandated personal protective equipment requirements in place at the time.
It was first fruit offerings from the new organization intent on making its mark on the local tourism economy in a brand new way.
Its grants would go directly to the culture bearers – Black Indian maskers, baby dolls, musicians, secondline clubs, and all of those who have kept and carry the traditions that make New Orleans a unique, destination city that attracts more than 20 million visitors annually, fueling a $10 billion a year tourism economy.
At the 2021 press conference held to announce the program, NOTCF board member and local culture bearer Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters spoke to his own experiences as a purveyor of the culture that generates billions of dollars each year. He was especially pleased to let his fellow Mardi Gras Indian maskers know that NOTCF is real and available to them.
“I have been in the culture. For over 30 years, I have been masking. And they make money off of us, and we know that,” Melancon said then. “Through me standing here, I want the culture and masking Indians in New Orleans to realize that they can go to this fund for help to be able to buy feathers, to be able to buy beads, to be able to buy needle and thread to continue this tradition that we have been doing for over 250 years in this city.”
As a part of the “Fair Share” deal Mayor LaToya Cantrell pushed during her first term to ensure that the City and it’s people received their just due relative to the tax revenue created by tourism, the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation (NOTCM), a small publicly funded agency that focused on marketing the city as a tourism destination, was merged with the larger, privately run and publicly-funded New Orleans & Company, which previously focused it’s efforts on luring large conventions and corporate travel to the city.
Out of the ashes of NOTCM, the NOTCF emerged with an entirely different mission to support and sustain tourism by providing direct support to and programs for culture bearers and small cultural institutions.
NOTCF was formally established in May 2020, by City Council ordinance. One year later, with a staff and board members in place, NOTCF announced its first round of grants – a total of $600,000 that would go directly to culture bearers.
Making an Amazing Difference
Fast forward 18 months from that first press conference, and NOTCF has now more than $5.5 million in grants to individuals and organizations across cultural sectors that include building arts & preservation, design & web cultural activities, food related activities, visual arts & crafts, writing & publishing, festival sponsorships, and performance and traditional practices.
More than 50 percent of the grants that have been awarded since May 2021 have been in the area of performance and traditional practice, including the Open NOLA venue grants.
NOTCF Deputy Director Tiffany Jackson explains that grants for performance and traditional practices are primarily awarded to masking Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls and social aid and pleasure club members for single community events in which they request support to help with the cost of suits worn during Mardi Gras or for second line parades.
“We see NOTCF as a catalyst to deliver resources, such as funding and training programs, that will support the growth of cultural artists and the development of their businesses,” Jackson says. “It is our goal to encourage, elevate and empower our artists. As we achieve those goals, we hope to see a ripple effect leading to the positive impact of future generations through the work that is being done today.”
NOTCF awards grants at three different levels, which include:
•Level One: Mini-grants up to $2500 provide support for smaller projects.
• Level Two: Mid-level grants between $2,501 and $10,000 to support projects and programs that reach a larger audience.
• Level Three: The Fund’s largest grants provide up to $20,000 for larger-scale projects and programs that stretch over a larger time period, reach a wide audience, train a class of culture bearer/worker in multiple skills, larger multi-community/city-wide events.
The organization provides larger grants for community events such as neighborhood and city-wide festivals.
New Orleanians like Gretchen Bradford can attest to the impact NOTCF has had over the last year and half or so. Bradford is a founder, chairperson and organizer of the annual Gentilly Festival, which received $40,000 grant from NOTCF in 2022.
“That grant is so amazing,” says Bradford. “We are a community festival. We want to support our community, and with the help of the NOTCF we were able to hire over 20 bands, in all more than 100 musicians. We had over 24 food businesses and 54 arts and crafts vendors. The funds we got from NOTCF helped us immensely. The festival is free, but we have to pay our bills. We have been doing this for 15 years, and we are doing it from our heart because we love the community.”
Bradford says the Gentilly Festival has largely relied on fundraisers and sponsorships to put on the annual event that began in 2008, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic made fundraising harder.
“We always had to raise money. We got support from business sponsorships, but when I tell you the struggle is real . . . the struggle is real,” she says. “And after the pandemic sponsorships really diminished. Many of the businesses weren’t able to do as much as they had done in the past. So the grant really filled in the gap. I can’t tell you how important NOTCF is to organizations like ours. Because of them we were able to keep the festival entry free.”
NOTCF board member Angela Simon admits to being a bit surprised by the immediate impact NOTCF is already having across the cultural community.
“It has been better than I ever thought it would be, says Simon. “I did not think it would have the impact that it has had. Just listening to the stories from our community—our culture bearers and small businesses—and the impact it has had on them. It has been amazing.”
A director of sales at local hotel with more than 20 years of experience in hospitality, Simon says she is also seeing a shift in how the industry is embracing and looking to the local cultural community
“I have been in this industry for 20 plus years,” she says. “The dynamics have changed. We use the same folk to do the same things all the times. Now we are branching out to ensure that the community has a seat at the table.”
NOTCF recently announced the recipients of the 2023 Inaugural NOTCF Honors Gala awards.
Among the honorees is Beverly McKenna, co-publisher of The New Orleans Tribune and co-founder of The McKenna Museums. She will receive NOTCF’s Honors Gala 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Along with her husband, Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Dwight McKenna, McKenna founded The McKenna Museums, which includes Le Musee de f.p.c., a house museum dedicated to legacy people of African descent, and The George and Leah McKenna Museum of Art, which showcases the visual aesthetic of people of the African Diaspora, including both emerging and master artists.
“The work that we have done with the museums has always been about interpreting, preserving, sharing, celebrating and showcasing the contributions of people of color throughout history through art and culture,” says McKenna. “Much of the art and material culture the museums feature are from our family’s personal collection that began nearly 50 years ago. When we founded the museums, we felt it was time to share it with our community. It has been a labor of love filled with purpose and passion. So to be honored simply for doing something that is so important and something that has been profoundly fulfilling is especially nice.”
Other honorees include Aaron “Flagboy Giz” Hartley, who will receive the 2023 Emerging Artist.
And several New Orleanians are being honored as 2023 Established Artists in their various fields, including: Culinary Arts – Edgar “Dooky” Chase IV, Chase Concessions; Design – Barry Kern, Kern Studios; Entertainment – Adonis Rose, New Orleans Jazz Orchestra; Literary Arts and Humanities – Vera Warren, Community Book Center; Preservation – Raymond Manning, Manning Architects; and Visual Arts and Crafts – Ayo Scott.
“Culture is the driving force of our economy, which is why NOTCF promotes preservation by honoring those that make New Orleans a world renowned destination,” says NOTCF president and CEO, Lisa D. Alexis.
The honorees will be presented with awards designed by visual artist, Sheleen Jones during a special presentation at the Gala on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023, at The Sugar Mill.
WWL-TV’s Charisse Gibson, will host the event, and the local news station serves as the gala’s media sponsor.
“We are proud to partner with NOTCF to honor and support those members of our community who make New Orleans one of the world’s most culturally unique and diverse communities,” says WWL president and general manager, Tod A. Smith.
Tickets and sponsorships for the Gala are still available. For tickets, visit eventbrite.com and search “2023 NOTCF Honors Gala” in events search bar.