Christian Labat is owner and proprietor of THE BUILDING, an art gallery and event space located on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. He’s renovated the first floor of THE BUILDING and transformed it into a beautiful place to attend art shows and watch live music. Over the Summer, Erin McNutt interviewed Christian on several occasions and got to know more about the history of the neighborhood and his plans for the future.
Erin: What made you decide to open your gallery on Oretha Castle Haley Blvd? How did you first come across this place?
Christian Labat: The objective, from the very beginning, was to have our business located on OC Haley Blvd, in essence to support revitalization of the historic Dryades Street commercial district. The gallery is simply a part of our business, along with being a live performance venue and event space. We also hope to present film screenings in the near future.
I probably first noticed this building in the late 1980s. I recall being in the neighborhood late one night to watch a punk show. It was mostly dark up here and I recall thinking that it was such a shame that Dryades Street had come to this. Because it was still beautiful and I could see all of the impressive architecture.
Back in the early 1990s, I first met with the Knights of Pythius and their representative Mr. Williams. They owned this building. I was able to purchase this building from them in 2001.
Erin: How long have you been interested in running a business focused on the arts?
Christian Labat: I personally have been interested for almost 30 years now, ever since the late 1980’s. The initial focus was on music, because of our love for it. As you know, New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz. So we wanted to do something in-line with that. As we evolved, we felt a strong urge to incorporate visual arts because of our appreciation for them.
I always wanted to do something with or related to the arts or visual arts. At the time, I was friends with a guy named Doug Redd who was an artistic director for the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. We came up to this neighborhood and looked at some abandoned properties together. We were brainstorming about what we could do. Doug ended up getting his place in the Venus Gardens building.
Erin: Tell me more about the history of this building and the Knights of Pythius.
Christian: The Knights of Pythius was the men’s section of the organization and and the female section was the Courts of Calanthe. It is a social organization for the African American community. We purchased it from them in 2001.
The Knights of Pythius owned this building from 1977 to 2001. They didn’t use it the last five to eight years that they owned it. It was in disrepair because they didn’t have the funds to fix it. It was in really bad shape. But they were really good people. Very religious and dignified people.
Every month I would personally take the check to their representative, Mr. Williams. And every month he would invite me in and sit down. That went on every month for almost six years and we became good friends.
I was told that this building was built in the 1860s. It was designed and built by the same gentleman who built the Dryades Market across the street. This area was once the center of the Jewish community. I was told that this property was a combination of a saloon on one side and a stove shop on another. Up above was a boarding house.
Then, around 1900, it became a bank. It was the Dryades Street branch of Hibernia Bank. I do have a photograph from 1921 of the Masons next door. They are kind of lined up in front of their building. It’s a wide angle shot, and you can see the sign of the bank on this property.
Then in the 1930s, a gentleman named Sol Katz turned it into his furniture emporium. That store remained until the 1950s. Then it became Barkoff’s Furniture until 1977 when the Knights of Pythius bought it.
Erin: What sets THE BUILDING apart from other art galleries? What’s your vision for its future?
Christian Labat: Our artists and the unique setting of the physical space set us apart from the others. It is our hope that when guests arrive in THE BUILDING, they enjoy what they see and feel upon entering. But we are not just an art gallery. Along with the exhibitions, we also host a wide variety of events and performances. Our goal is to have THE BUILDING serve as a multi-functional space, and we are having success with that. The vision for the near-future, however, is to build-out the 2nd and 3rd floors, in order to add more diversity and space for our guests and clients.
Erin: Do you sense an art movement happening right now in Central City and along the Oretha Castle Haley corridor?
Christian Labat: To be totally honest, I am not aware of an art movement happening now in Central City. As for the OC Haley corridor, from my perspective, I’ve seen new faces and developments arise over the past couple of years or so, which is positive. We welcome the investment in the community.
Erin: What kind of visual art are you attracted to?
Christian Labat: I’m attracted to bold and beautiful things, in general. I’m particularly fond, however, of Danny’s work. He’s our main artist, and most of the work exhibited at THE BUILDING is his. I think he has a very unique, impressionist style of painting. Whenever he does something new, I’m immediately attracted to it.
Erin: How many visual artists do you currently represent?
Christian Labat: Currently there are 3 artists who have their work on exhibit and for sale at THE BUILDING. They are Danny Jupiter, Mark Lacabe and Eric Alugas; all talented artists and New Orleans natives. In fact, we all went to Brother Martin High School together, though Eric was 3 years ahead of me, Danny, and Mark. Danny and Mark studied at Xavier University under John Scott, and they are based in New Orleans. Eric studied at U.N.O. with Calvin Harlan. He also studied and worked in France. He’s based in New York City, where he also teaches. As I mentioned, Danny is an impressionist painter, who works with mixed media. Mark works with mixed-media as well. He’s particularly good with watercolors. He’s also incredible with pen & ink. Eric is a painter whose work can be described as mixed-media, surreal and a bit abstract. His work is on large canvases, which he usually hangs with grommets. The piece we’re showing, however, has been stretched on a frame.
We have had other artists over the past few years. The biggest name we have had is Martin Payton. Martin is a sculptor and he is pretty well known around the country for his public art pieces. Martin’s mentor and friend was the sculptor John Scott. John Scott was a genius. And so is Martin, in his own right.
Martin lives over in Baton Rouge. He is very unassuming and unpretentious. His studio is like an old mechanic’s garage. A cinder block kind of building. He’s got some big pieces in there. So he told me, “Christian, if you want to show my stuff, you’ve got to come and get it.”
I had to borrow a pickup truck. But once we had it in here, it just added a whole other dimension to the place.
Martin only likes to show his work for a limited period of time. Fortunately we were able to sell one of his pieces. So we hope that will convince him to come back. He is preparing for a big retrospective that LSU is having in his honor.
Martin actually taught Danny and Mark. We all went to Xavier University. There are lots of connections.
Erin: Tell me about an event coming up in the next few months you’re looking forward to and why.
Christian Labat: We’ll have a new exhibition with Danny and Mark, which I’m looking forward to because I’m interested in their work. We’re planning the opening for early October. We’ll also try to coax Eric into exhibiting more of his work, which is interesting and beautiful, as well as Martin Payton. Also, we’ll schedule some music performances, primarily modern jazz and original stuff which is always interesting and entertaining. Aside from that, we’ll continue to host private events.