Mardi Gras Indian Cultural University progress includes plans for site construction


Once the contractor and sub-contractors are set in place, project liaison Matty A. Williams said, construction could take between six to 18 months to complete on the site located on the historic LaSalle Street corridor near A.L. Davis Park — a landmark for Mardi Gras Indian events.

Plans to create a Mardi Gras Indian cultural hub at a historical site in Central City should pick up momentum this summer. The Mardi Gras Indian Cultural University, which Foundation for Louisiana (FFL) helped the Mardi Gras Indian Council launch thanks to a $500,000 grant it secured through ArtPlace America, will complete its request for proposals to construct the site in early May. A developer is expected to be chosen in early June, according to project liaison Matty A. Williams.

Once the contractor and sub-contractors are set in place, Williams said, construction could take between six to 18 months to complete on the site located on the historic LaSalle Street corridor near A.L. Davis Park — a landmark for Mardi Gras Indian events.

“From a year ago, or, last July, that’s pretty nice advancement,” said Williams, referring to when FFL received the grant.

(Learn more: Read about how the ArtPlace America grant happened here.)

Williams joined FFL Vice President of Programs & Special Initiatives Alfredo Cruz and Tyrone Casby — Big Chief of the Mohawk Hunters — at ArtPlace America’s Summit 16 in early April in Phoenix to share their progress with other attendees. Casby, a longtime New Orleans educator who recently was named interim principal at Landry-Walker High School, appeared as a panelist at the Summit.

“It was really great to hear directly from other organizations working on their respective projects that are creating art in place,” Williams said. “It’s always helpful for us to see how we’re all matching up in terms of the progress we’re trying to make, the obstacles we all face, but also the opportunities we discover. Sometimes things aren’t as straightforward as you want the process to be.

“Projects aren’t just based on one artist, but a community of artists, instead,” Williams pointed out. “It’s certainly good to feel not alone. And it was really reassuring for Big Chief Casby to have a chance to participate. It was helpful to reaffirm things to help him get a better sense of what’s happening with other projects around the nation, to be in a group of your constituents. I think it was a good thing for both of us.”

Casby, Big Chief of the Mohawk Hunters since 1980, emphasized the notion of exposing the rest of the world not only to the project, but also who it will benefit.

“The Summit brought us to a larger audience of people who could actually see the project, and where it came from,” said Casby, who’s been masking since 1967. “This is the only place in the world where you’d have Mardi Gras Indians, so, at the end of day, I was able to tell those individuals the ‘who,’ the ‘what,’ and the ‘why.’ And it gave us a chance to encourage ArtPlace America to continue to help fund us. This not only will give the Mardi Gras Indian Council a boost, but it also gives New Orleans a boost, and it gives Louisiana a boost, because people are going to want to come here and see what it will be about. They can come to one central location and get a snippet of it.”

Organizers believe this new site will give Mardi Gras Indians a unique opportunity to recognize economic benefit from their unique contributions to arts and culture — not just in New Orleans, but worldwide as well. Too often the Mardi Gras Indians’ contributions to the city’s cultural community have flowed in only one direction. Also, the establishment of the Mardi Gras Indian Cultural University comes at a vibrant period of revitalization along LaSalle Street, which has seen, among other things, the redevelopment of the Harmony Oaks housing development.

(Learn more: Read about the vision for the site here.)

Casby envisions a place where visitors can come watch the Mardi Gras Indian culture unfold — like watching Indians sewing a new suit, for example — in a more organic setting, instead of, as he put it, pay $75 a ticket to see it done at Jazz Fest, “and get a true piece of culture.” The potential seems unlimited: sewing demos that can be interactive (even hands-on), exhibits, meetings, social gatherings.

“I see a campus where individuals are constantly coming in and out to learn the history of Mardi Gras Indian culture, about the city of New Orleans, and the communities here and how we’ve been steadfast despite all the adversity,” said Casby, who laments visitors who take guided tours but barely absorb the local culture.

Because ArtPlace America provided grants for both the Mardi Gras Indian Council and the Arts Council of New Orleans, the organization encouraged the two to partner on projects whenever possible. A sign of things to come can be found at this year’s Super Sunday (March 20) gathering. The Mardi Gras Indian Council and the Arts Council of New Orleans partnered on a one-day art installation inside A.L. Davis Park titled “The 1,000 Stories Project,” in which youths were encouraged to come to the park and create art out of blank, interconnected discs to hang in the breeze.

“It was a great hands-on opportunity for kids to engage in art,” Williams explained. “That’s just one way that the two organizations can work together.”

For Casby, the progression from conception to grantmaking — a process he learned as part of the LEAD Program back in 2014 — to proposal processing development to hopefully construction beginning the summer 2016 marks a decided shift away from the theoretical. He credits the Foundation’s Alfredo Cruz and Matty A. Williams for helping provide the kind of support that brings the Mardi Gras Indian Cultural University from an idea to a reality.

“The Foundation has helped us in understanding the process in how you go about do certain things, like seeking out and securing the property, how to secure the funding, and so on. It’s about training us to better appreciation that it’s more than waking up one morning and getting a building.

“The Foundation has really been a great asset to the Mardi Gras Indian Council.”