New Orleans Street Gallery Project
Without traffic lights and stop signs, navigating one’s way around New Orleans could be even more hazardous than it is. Often, where there are traffic lights there are utility boxes containing all the transformers, timers and equipment that make a green light turn to red. At their best, these utility boxes are dull, boring and uninspiring and at their worst, they are covered in graffiti, tags and tons of stickers.
But, as you may have noticed around town, these boxes have been blooming into exciting, beautiful and engaging works of community art. And the nonprofit organization responsible for this effort is Community Visions Unlimited (CVU).
Jeannie Tidy, founder of CVU, and a group of her friends and neighbors worked tirelessly cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina — mowing lawns, removing junk cars and planting trees. In 2009, they also got tired of looking at the vandalized utility boxes in the neighborhood and thought turning them into works of art would be a great way to help revitalize the community.
A year later, after letter-writing campaigns, learning many of the city’s codes and with the support of Councilwoman Susan Guidry and an influential citizen, Denise Thorton, the New Orleans Street Gallery Project became a reality.
“Originally, we set out to paint 10 utility boxes, but I would drive around town and see these boxes covered in graffiti and I began making a list of boxes that needed to be done,” Tidy says. “Then neighborhood leaders began calling and wanting to get a painted utility box for their neighborhood.”
Now, the number of beautified utility boxes has grown from 10 to 203, and still counting. They grace neighborhoods in St. Bernard, Jefferson and Orleans parishes. The budget for each box is $750. CVU pays each artist $250 and furnishes them with all the paint they need.
“We also get the boxes stripped and primed,” she says. “We use an expensive primer; it’s almost $50 a gallon. We also use a heavy-duty chemical to strip off the stickers and then we finish with a vinegar solution wash. That’s all done by volunteers. This is truly a labor of love because, except for the artists, no one working with CVU gets paid.”
The organization works closely with each neighborhood to create a brief for the box’s design. For example, the neighborhood might want a certain famous figure to be depicted, or they might want it to blend into the scenery, or feature something unique to that particular neighborhood.
Artists then submit renderings of their ideas for CVA’s art committee and a neighborhood representative to review. Finally, the art committee chooses one of the artists to paint that box.
“I enjoyed painting those boxes,” says artist Erin McKee McNutt, who has painted two boxes — one featuring Freddie King and the other Deacon John. “Both musicians posed for me and I know that they are very proud of their boxes. I also made a few friends when I was out there painting. The Freddie King box is next to a fire station and the firemen are very proud of it. The Deacon John box is close to the St. Louis Cemetery and the police station. A lot of tourists walk by the box every day. Some of the fans travel to have their picture taken next to the boxes.”
Tidy believes her organization’s effort has made neighborhoods stronger and brings people together.
“CVU was started to empower and enhance neighborhoods,” she says. “Whether it’s painting the utility boxes or planting trees and flowers, it all adds up to make a positive difference. There is such talent in this city, and many of our artists have gone on to gallery representation and other commissions in part from their work on these utility boxes.”
Tidy says there’s also another benefit to the boxes.
“Wherever there’s a painted utility box, the litter is much decreased and none of the boxes have been seriously defaced in nine years,” she says. “There’s clearly a respect for the artwork and it’s making a difference in our neighborhoods.”
Community Visions Unlimited
(504) 957-5542 or (504) 957-8716
PO Box 24821 – New Orleans, LA 70184