When Arlene Meraux founded the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, she asked her niece Rita to manage it with a simple guiding principle: to ensure that the land resources that Arlene transferred to the Foundation would be used to improve the quality of life in St. Bernard.
To advance this mission, the Meraux Foundation has partnered with Studio Arabi, the artistic team of Erica and Mitchell Gaudet, to develop a two block stretch of vacant and underused properties along St. Claude Avenue into Studio Arabi, an “art campus” that will include studios, galleries, artist residences, and a theatre.
The Meraux Foundation has assembled the properties as a public interest project to accelerate the growth of the Old Arabi Cultural District. These properties are being leased to Studio Arabi, which will operate the properties sublease spaces to artists of all types to populate the campus.
Borrowing from creative placemaking approaches, the project will leverage arts and culture as a driver for economic development and enhanced livability in the parish. Studio Arabi will create a new destination for current residents and visitors, attract new homeowners, and increase commerce in St. Bernard.
Small towns struggling in the wake of out-migration and the Great Recession are turning to arts and culture as an economic and community development strategy.
A growing body of evidence suggests that fostering creative activity is an effective way to revitalize communities. We need look no further than the success of the NUNU Arts and Culture Collective in Arnaudville, Louisiana to see this type of creative placemaking working. Placemaking is an intentional, collaborative effort to build the character of a place. Creative placemaking employs arts, culture, and creativity to transform a community in a way that builds character, identify, and sense of place. There are many approaches to creative placemaking, including cultural districts, creative industry clusters, mixed use development, and public art. Studio Arabi is leveraging several of these approaches as a strategy for economic development and enhanced livability in the Parish.
Studio Arabi is expected to ignite positive development by attracting other arts and culture related businesses to the area, such as boutiques, restaurants, cafes, and performance spaces.
Studio Arabi is strategically positioned within the newly designated Old Arabi Cultural District, a state-certified Cultural District approved by the Louisiana Department of Culture Recreation and Tourism on July 1, 2014. The district, spanning from Jackson Barracks to N. Peters St. and St. Bernard Hwy. to the parish line, contains existing cultural assets, including Studio Inferno, the Maumus Center, the Sugar Museum, the Lebeau Plantation site, the Aycock Barn, artist studios on Mehle Street, and more. Businesses within the district benefit from tax incentives including a sales tax exemption on the sale of certain original works of art, individual tax credits for eligible expenses incurred during the rehabilitation of certain owner-occupied residential or owner-occupied mixed use structures, and income and corporate franchise tax credits for eligible expenses incurred during the rehabilitation of certain historic structures.
The project will also benefit from and complement an $811,000 median (neutral ground) beautification project currently underway.
Studio Arabi is a $2 million project that will create a unique space that will spur economic development in Arabi and throughout St. Bernard. It will do this by attracting people to live, work, visit, and spend money in the Parish. Re-envisioning and putting the vacant and underused properties back into commerce will generate local property and sales tax revenues that can be devoted to infrastructure improvements. The $2 million acquisition, construction, and renovation project alone will support more than 100 jobs, and the finished project is expected to directly create more than 15 new jobs for St. Bernard. The redevelopment will also contribute to a ripple effect, attracting complimentary businesses to the area.
New residents, including creative workers, looking to live near Studio Arabi will be drawn to St. Bernard by its affordable housing, low crime, high-performing schools, as well as the other quality of life attributes that the Parish offers. These new residents will contribute to the local economy, spending money at local businesses and paying taxes in St. Bernard. Current residents, too, will spend more money inside the Parish at the new businesses instead of in neighboring parishes.
Studio Arabi will transform a stretch of highway into a unique, welcoming gateway into St Bernard. It will enrich the the neighborhood’s character and compliment the charm of Old Arabi. The project will enhance the livability of the area for residents, improving aesthetics and creating new cultural assets for locals to enjoy. As demonstrated in other communities, when these types of creative placemaking projects build momentum, they attract more quality of life projects, like public art, bike paths, parks, and gardens.
This project is a unique collaboration between civic, nonprofit, and for-profit partners. With confidence that it will reinvigorate the St. Claude corridor, the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, a private, family managed 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, assembled the properties to jumpstart and instantly scale the concept. The two-block assemblage provides the footprint necessary to achieve critical mass and to establish Studio Arabi as a destination.
The Meraux Foundation was established by Arlene Meraux to benefit the community of St. Bernard Parish by leveraging its landholdings. Today the Foundation’s board of directors is presided over by Arlene’s niece, Rita Gue, and members Floyd Gue, Bill Haines, Chris Haines, and Sidney Torres, III. Guided by Arlene’s vision, the board is implementing an innovative strategy to create lasting change and build a better St. Bernard.
All of the Foundation’s actions meet five key criteria. They:
With these five criteria in mind, the Foundation has been able to make great strides toward fulfilling Arlene’s vision.
The Foundation’s signature place-based project has been Docville Farm, a 130 acre campus dedicated to charitable purposes and operated by the Foundation as a center for culture and learning.
The Foundation is pursuing this new place-based project to harness the power of the arts to heighten quality of life and revitalize the Parish. The Foundation’s role in the public interest project was to make it (1) possible by assembling the properties and (2) affordable by leasing them at a low interest rate. Affordable rents will attract artists to the space. Any revenue generated from the project by the Foundation will be reinvested to fund its charitable endeavors.
The Foundation has leased the property t0 Studio Arabi, the artistic team of Erica and Mitchell Gaudet, to operate in accordance with partners’ shared vision for the project.
PROOF OF CONCEPT: STUDIO INFERNO
In addition to dozens of similar creative placemaking projects around the world that have helped enrich communities, the success of Studio Inferno provided proof of concept for the success of Studio Arabi.
Mitchell Gaudet launched the glass studio nearly 25 years ago in the New Orleans Bywater neighborhood. He was a pioneer in the wave that transformed the Bywater; and in 2014, he and his wife Erica Larkin Gaudet moved their studios to Arabi. Mitchell, a highly-regarded artist who has exhibited work throughout the United States and has taught at prestigious schools around the world, is also an experienced businessman. Throughout his career, he has sub-leased studio space to meet persistent demand. Erica has for the past 25 years owned and operated a metal arts and furniture business that also provided artists with studio spaces. Her sculptural work has been displayed in conjunction with Sculpture New Orleans, and her design work can be found in many homes in the area and across the country. She has also taught nationally and internationally. With their network within the arts community and experience managing studios, the Gaudet’s are well positioned to lead Artifi Arabi to success.
6601 — STUDIO INFERNO
Housed in what was the Arabi theatre, Studio Inferno is a glass studio, gallery, and artist space. All of Studio Inferno’s regionally influenced artwork is produced here as well as commissioned pieces. Studio Inferno is home to Mitchell Gaudet’s studio as well as three other artist spaces. It is open to the public for gallery and shop tours.
6609-6619 — LIVE + CREATE
This sixplex apartment building will be renovated into living quarters for artists.
6621 — The Valiant Theatre + Lounge
Named ‘The Valiant’ in honor of a large, historic crown that adorns the building, the new space located in the old pawn shop will have a full service bar and lounge in addition to a 120 seat theatre. Operated by Richard Mayer, the theatre will host a wide variety of performances, including cabaret, puppetry, musicals, plays, and more. Audiences can expect to see the return of their favorite groups from Old Marquer, Mayer’s previous venture, plus the larger space will allow for bigger, better shows. It will also feature live music, including weekly blues bands. The lounge will have live piano and acoustic guitar several nights a week. Mayer is partnering with Paul Chiriaco, owner of Mag’s bar on Elysian Fields, to operate the bar.
6707 — STUDIO ARABI
Studio Arabi in the old Fastenal building has been renovated to provide 12 studio spaces varying in size from 500 to 2000 sq. ft. Spaces are still available, and current tenants include: