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by Danielle Coston

New Grant Program Puts Funds in the Hands of Culture Bearers

New Orleans’ cultural economy has been hurt by the pandemic. That’s a fact. Hotel occupancy in New Orleans was down 43 percent in 2020, according to HVS, a global consulting firm focused on the hospitality industry. In 2020, every major festival and event was canceled, as was the 2021 Carnival season. And according to the New Orleans Business Alliance, nearly 50 percent of jobs in the accommodations, food service and retail industry were lost as a result of the pandemic. 

But a return is on the horizon. Several festivals, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Voodoo Festival, the Fried Chicken Festival and the French Quarter Fest, are slated to return this fall. And the 2021 Satchmo Summerfest is scheduled to take place even sooner, July 30-Aug. 1. 

As the city’s tourism and hospitality industry begins to slowly rebound from the impacts of COVID-19, the cultural contributions of Black people and the role they play in making New Orleans a destination city that attracts 20 million visitors annually can no longer be sidelined or exploited for financial gain.  The impact and work of the city’s culture bearers must be fully recognized as an integral, if not dominant, part of the whole and subsequently positioned to benefit from the economic largess that results from the thriving tourism industry.

Now is the time to ensure that happens.

The Roots of the Culture

NOTCF staff and board members after a press conference announcing the launch of its grant program.

Mardi Gras Indians. Jazz. Second Lines. A savory bowl of gumbo or a plate of spicy jambalaya—like so much of the food, music or culture that is authentically New Orleans, these things have their roots in traditions that originated in Africa, then were preserved, shared and handed down to generations of Black New Orleanians that followed.

Of course, it is true that New Orleans is a place where diverse histories, cultures and traditions meet. Still, the major impact that African traditions and Black culture have on the New Orleans is undeniable. 

Just why New Orleans’ culture is so Africanized today ought now to be well known. Under French and Spanish rule, enslaved Africans were given Sundays off and were free to trade goods or hire themselves out. They were also free to gather, and they did that too—dancing and playing music steeped in their varied African heritages and keeping their cultural traditions alive. So while in much of colonial America, enslaved Africans had their traditions and cultures obliterated, African culture continued to thrive in New Orleans. In fact, it was reinforced as others of African descent, such as Blacks emigrating from the Caribbean, arrived and other free Blacks joined in to connect to the culture as well. 

A quick survey of those traditions and how they have impacted the culture that permeates New Orleans today yields several examples.

For instance, the roots of Jazz music are traced back to those weekly gatherings in Congo Square, which in 1817 by order of New Orleans’ mayor, became the only place the enslaved could gather to dance and sing to the beat of rhythmic drumming. 

The influence of Black culture bearers on New Orleans culinary scene are just as impactful. The red beans and rice that are so nice on a Monday—or any day of the week for that matter—were brought here by the Black people fleeing Haiti and the revolution there at the turn of the 19th century. Enslaved Africans made a stew reminiscent of home and called it gumbo, a word that means “okra” in the Central Bantu dialect of West Africa—a region of the continent that was the native land of many of the Africans who were brought to Louisiana. 

Both the Mardi Gras Indian culture and the Second Line tradition, both of which have become all but synonymous with celebrating in New Orleans, are part of Black cultural traditions in New Orleans that date back hundreds of years.

Yet, as heavily influenced as it has been by Black culture, this economy has not always treated and respected the role its culture bearers have played and continue to play in making it one of the most unique cities in the world. While the African influences and the impact of culture bearers cannot be dismissed, they have not been given the commensurate credit or the remuneration they deserve. 

In fact, the city’s main attraction—Mardi Gras—has a history steeped in exclusion, racism and classism that was not successfully challenged until the near end of the 20th Century in1991 when  City Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor proposed an ordinance to  a bill that would desegregate Carnival krewes by refusing to issue  parade permits to krewes that practiced discrimination and withheld membership on the basis of race, sexuality, religion, etc. 

Often times, even the narratives surrounding the existence of Black people in New Orleans have been told in a way that diminishes the influence of people of African descent. Consider the constant promulgation of placage to explain the growing number of households of free people of color during French and Spanish colonial rule. Though placage existed, the system, which describes the practice of European men joining in civil unions with free women of color and providing for them and the children that resulted from these relationships, is given far more credit than it deserves with regard to the means by which Black households were established. A search of historic property records will reveal that many households were led by both free Black men and women, who married, purchased property, engaged in business, led robust social and civic lives and raised families. Institutions such a Le Musée  de f.p.c., a house museum believed to be the only of its kind in the country dedicated to preserving and sharing the history and legacy of free people of color through its unique collection of art and artifacts, helps to shine light on that truth—and the even larger truth that the story of Black New Orleans is not just one just of suppression and subjugation, but one of achievement, creativity, pride and innovation that has played an integral role in creating a unique and enthralling culture now at the bedrock of a $10 billion a year industry.

“This is why having institutions by, for and about Black people is so important,” says Beverly McKenna, co-founder of The McKenna Museums, of which Le Musée is a part. “We cannot and should not rely on others to tell our story. The story of Black New Orleans is the story of New Orleans. Those who have played a role in the history, tradition and culture must be recognized. But more than that, they must benefit. 

To McKenna’s point, small Black-led institutions throughout New Orleans From Back Street Cultural Museum to Treme’s Petit Jazz Museum to the Donald Harrison Sr. Museum & Legacy Performance Pavilion and others—have, with few resources and often relying on personal sacrifice—worked, for decades, to share authentic stories of local culture and traditions. But without resources, these cultural repositories have not enjoyed the success and economic growth that mainstream institutions experience.  Even now, funds earmarked to support exhibitions of Black history, art and culture are funneled large mainstream institutions while smaller Black organizations continue to struggle.

Steps in the Right Direction

For its part, there have been some positive moves within the tourism industry in recent years to do more to ensure the equitable participation of Black culture bearers and Black-owned businesses in the industry. In 2018 and 2019, the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corp., which has since merged with New Orleans & Company, partnered with McKenna Publishing Company on the annual Welcome magazine, a guide for tourists in New Orleans designed to direct visitors to Black-owned businesses and authentic cultural experiences. 

Before the merger, Mark Romig served as the CEO of NOTMC. In a February 2020 interview with BlackEnterprise.com, Romig, who now serves as chief marketing officer of New Orleans & Company, talked about efforts to ensure the tourism industry was a more economically integrated one.

In the BlackEnterprise.com article, Romig said, “We have increased our intentionality around supporting all businesses in our community involved in the tourism economy, especially those who have not been part of the conversation in years past. We recognize the vast variety of diverse service providers in our community and we will continue to do as much as we can to continue having a positive impact on the community.”

Before its merger with New Orleans & Company, NOTMC also partnered with the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network (NOMTN) to develop a creative quarterly workshop to maximize opportunities for local and diverse businesses. The “In It to Win It” workshop series provided participants with real-time news and information about procurement opportunities as well as  strategies and best practices to improve their businesses. For instance one workshop focused on helping attendees tap into the city’s festival economy. Though COVID-19 put a damper on things in 2020 and the for the first half of 2021, there are more than 135 licensed festivals in New Orleans that serve as major economic drivers in the tourism industry. 

Romig recently spoke with The New Orleans Tribune, saying that programs like the In it to Win It workshop series could relaunch soon under New Orleans & Company.

“We loved doing that when we were with NOTMC,” he said. “It was a series we were very proud of. And we want to continue providing resources like that as we get out of this pandemic and are able to have more face to face meetings.”

In the meantime, Romig shared other efforts being taken by New Orleans & Company to help ensure that the economic benefits of the city’s lucrative tourism industry are felt throughout the community, including a very new partnership between New Orleans & Company and the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce that provides Black Chamber members with “access and a presence in the tourism ecosystem.”

Executive Director of the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber Laverne Toombs explains that with their paid membership to the Black Chamber, business owners will also get a one-year membership Chamber membership to New Orleans & Company at no additional cost. And while the partnership has just started, Toombs says several Chamber members have already begun taking advantaged of the benefits the dual membership provides, adding that she encourages business owners to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them.

New Orleans & Co. is also offering free membership to Black-owned restaurants across the city to help ensure that more are able to participate in the upcoming Coolinary New Orleans, an annual culinary event designed to promote local restaurants by featuring specially-priced lunch, dinner and brunch menus throughout the summer, Romig says. 

Right now a lot of attention is going to filling jobs in the hospitality industry, including many on career-building jobs that lead to management level positions with good pay and benefits in the restaurants and hotels, Romig said. Some 400 applicants showed up to a recent hospitality job fair that featured 100 different companies. Of those 400 applicants, more than half left that day with jobs; and two more hospitality job fairs are planned for the summer, he adds.

The intentionality Romig talked about remains at the center of ongoing efforts at New Orleans & Company to ensure that the city’s cultural economy touches everyone, he says.

“We are talking about and thinking through things to be more intentional that ever,” Romig told The Tribune. “We can always do better, and we are trying to do better.”

New Program Connects Culture Bearers Directly with Funding 

More recently, the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund (NOTCF) recently announced the launch of its initial grants program for culture bearers.

At the press conference held to announce the program, NOTCF board member, contemporary artist, and local culture bearer Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters spoke directly to his experience as a purveyor of the culture economy that generates billions of dollars each year. He was especially pleased to let his fellow Mardi Gras Indian maskers know that this Fund 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. “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.”

For its initial grant program, NOTCF is distributing $600,000 through June 30, or until funds have been exhausted. 

To be sure, $600,000 is not a lot of money. The funds will likely be exhausted in short order. But for the initial grant period, it is a start. It will be important that NOTCF operates within its intended purpose, and that its limited funding is used for the direct benefit of culture bearers. We intend to keep a watchful eye on this process.

Nonethless, through the NOTCF grant, culture bearers and programs can be funded at one of three levels.

• 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.

Grant funds have also been set aside to help live music venues pay for artists and meet state-mandated requirements related to personal protective equipment. The special music grants include $2,000 to cover PPE costs and an additional $1,000 once the live booking entertainment has been verified.

“The mission of the NOTCF is to support our culture bearers, the cultural industries and businesses to advance sustainable tourism,” said NOTCF President Lisa D.  Alexis.

Revenue for the Fund comes from the hotel occupancy tax tourists and others pay each night they stay in a hotel room in Orleans Parish.  NOTCF was established one year ago, in May 2020, by City Council ordinance, with its creation coming out of Mayor Cantrell’s plan that merged the NOTMC, which had largely served as a  tourism promotion agency, with New Orleans & Co., which had focused its efforts on attracting big conventions and business travelers to the city.

NOTCF Board chairman Lloyd Dennis says the Fund is important to supporting New Orleans’ “authentic culture and make sure that it lives, thrives and evolves.”

For more information or to apply for a grant, visit www.notcf.com.