Exploring the City’s Fun New Interactive Galleries
by Leslie Cardé
WHETHER YOU LOVE POSTING SELFIES on the various social media platforms or just sending outrageous shots to your friends and relatives, New Orleans is now playing host to two new experiential attractions. One is a selfie museum designed to provide backgrounds for highly unusual photos, and the other a cultural funhouse where background scenes highlight the joy, art and music of the city, as seen through the eyes of its talented local artists.
The ARTmazing Gallery within the French Quarter features 21 settings in which smart phone-toting guests can capture themselves as highfalutin royalty, depict themselves flying through the stratospheric clouds, or romping about within a giant birdcage. You can even photograph yourself in a very realistically improvised bank vault. The idea for this fun-loving play space, which opened at the end of October, came to owner Giselle Monteiro after a trip she made to New York last year.
“I celebrated my 40th birthday there, and had read about this warehouse in Brooklyn called WonderWorld,” Monteiro remembers. “The different walk-in art installations were just so much fun that I thought why not do something interactive like this in New Orleans.”
As she set about looking for space in 2020, the pandemic hit, which modified her
thinking in a couple of different arenas. First off, the interactive displays she had
planned had to be modified so surfaces could be easily sanitized, and the space could no longer cater primarily to tourists, as tourism had taken a big hit amidst the viral pandemic. This would mean scenarios would have to change more often than originally planned, rotating every few months to keep locals coming back.
What she eventually found as the gallery’s headquarters was a light and airy second floor space on Decatur Street, previously owned by a restaurant company. It included a central hallway and rooms right and left in which to invent fun and photo-worthy scenes. For safety, the money vault originally planned to blow hundred dollar bills around, instead now has bills hanging from ceiling wires. And the flurry of feathers from the pillow-fight room, for example, had to be scrapped entirely. But, there are still plenty of amazing ways to make the selfie premise work, while putting safety first, including creating your own mug shot, or posing in a decorative bathtub… just for starters.
Monteiro, originally a granite exporter from Brazil, also owns a cabinet refinishing company in New Orleans. However, the artist in her wanted to do something creative, while creating a niche previously unknown to New Orleans. The ideas for all scenarios are largely Monteiro’s but only became a reality when local artists got involved to bring her imaginative stagings to life. And, she has bigger plans on the horizon. “We plan on augmenting selfie-taking by utilizing our bright, beautiful space in the back of the property for brunches, birthday parties and events. We will even have live music,” says Monteiro.
According to Monteiro, the exhibits are meant to be kid-friendly while also catering to adults, and therefore families can make it a destination outing, free from life’s usual stresses.
“There are no politics here,” says Monteiro. “This is a place to escape and just have fun.”
Now, with Christmas approaching, there will be holiday scenarios with wrapped packages piled high, and glittery trees with ladders alongside for shutterbugs to affix the tree-topper, all in time for the festive season.
For a $25 admission, plan to have a lifetime of photo remembrances. Tickets can be ordered online at artmazinggallery.com. Admission is timed so that groups can be sequentially spaced. Masks are required, hand sanitizer is available.
Amble over to the Faubourg-Marigny and encounter JAMNOLA (for the joy, art, and music of NOLA), a phantasmagoric 12-room display which the owners aptly call a cultural funhouse. Owners Jonny Liss, originally from New York, and Chad Smith, from Boston, met in California, and had one striking element in common—they both loved New Orleans. Flash forward and the two transplants have settled in Bywater, a stone’s throw from their other-worldly gallery.
“We like to refer to this place as an art maze or art walk, because museum sounds a bit stuffy,” says Liss. “Each of the exhibits here give you an entirely different feel of New Orleans. Most of them came from our experiences in this city, whether it’s throwing beads at the Spiritual Tree of Life, or going to a crawfish boil.”
The project was waylaid by four months when the pandemic erupted and wholly finished productions had to be revamped. So, for example the feather forest which brushed against you like a carwash is now about multicolored, illuminated feathers growing out from the walls, down from the ceilings and up from the floor.
The costume closet has now become a virtual escapade, but a blast nonetheless, as costumes, hats and even cats fly across a screen that encompasses you in all of its wackiness. All the while, photos are being cranked out non-stop to be sent to your e-mail.
“We originally had designed a bracelet for JAMNOLA which would be touched
to everything as you wound your way through the various rooms. Now, it’s your own smart phone which connects you to a guided tour,” explains Smith. “It was originally 20 folks to a room, and now it’s six, so we can socially distance everyone. There’s hand sanitizer outside every room, and cameras to monitor the rooms for security to ensure the rules are being followed. If people know they’re safe here, they’ll come, and the proof is that we’re fully booked into the holidays.”
The property on Royal Street is on the grounds of NOCCA in Faubourg Marigny, and the number of working New Orleans artists who have contributed to the exhibits is staggering. That entourage of artisans includes students from NOCCA, and artists from the Where Y’Art Gallery, as well as painters, sculptors, photographers, welders, and float-builders from all around the city.
JAMNOLA was inspired by The Color Factory and The Museum of Illusions in New York, but the project which Liss and Smith envisioned was decidedly New Orleans, designed to support and pay tribute to the thriving artistic community here. George Porter Williams is the music curator, and folks like Big Freedia and Tank and the Bangas selected music for the individual exhibits.
JAMNOLA includes historic videos and mind-blowing visual effects including a bead room which transports you to another world, a sort of a hallucinogenic trip, minus the drugs. The exhibits include a giant crawfish boil, a forest of spirit trees, and a gold sequined Louisiana bayou. Sculptor Marcus Brown has created a sound circle which emits the notes of various musical instruments with just the wave of a hand. But, the pièce de résistance may just be the Garden of Legends, featuring giant replicas of such luminaries as Dr. John, Professor Longhair and Satchmo himself, Louis Armstrong. The sculptures, made of foam, are from artist Sky Erie, key float-builder for Mardi Gras King of Carnival, Rex.
With the Christmas holidays approaching, expect some whimsical notes to the holidays, in the time of the coronavirus. Upside down trees, distancing with six-foot candy canes and a safe Santa encased in a plexiglass box, are all a nod to the signs of our times.
Timed tickets are available at JAMNOLA.com and are $29 for admission, $20 for seniors and a 15% discount for Louisiana residents.
Bring your camera to both venues, and prepare to have a couple of wacky and wonderful experiences.