Opinion Essay: Taking the Reigns
How the Red Stick is rising to the top of the Louisiana art scene
By Chris DiBenedettoPosted Jun 13, 2012
As far back as I can remember Baton Rouge has always been known to be, as the old saying goes, “A drinking town with a football problem.” Weekends without sporting events were deemed boring, the local dives were always packed, and karaoke reigned supreme for live entertainment. However, these days I have personally seen a new wind of change sparking an appreciation for the arts that continues to snowball without any signs of stopping soon.
From the roots of free events, such as Live After Five and Stabbed in the Art that were put into play many years ago, has grown a beautiful community of musicians, visual artists, promoters, and of course fans who are now able to enjoy their passions on an everyday level. Now, the Capitol City is finding itself at the forefront of supporting the state’s artists of all trades and the timing of such a resurrection could come at no better era; we are strong, growing, and now coming together to overcome the obstacles that have bogged down the art scene here for years.
Against the odds
“Making it” in Baton Rouge, or really any town associated with a university, is tough for many disciplines. I know, I know. Being an artist in general or part of the business side seems like a pipe dream to most anyway, but in towns with universities the process can be especially grueling highly due to its unpredictable nature.
First of all, the simple fact is that you can work extremely hard for many years and have success, but at the end of the day much of your fan base graduates every year, ultimately moving away in search of work. On top of that there are several slow seasons throughout the year due to many university students going home on school holidays and weeks when school is too much for students to go out. Plus you’re competing with a wide variety of musical and visual artists springing out of the university constantly with their own dreams of living off their passions.
Local musician Liam Catchings agrees that oversaturation is a challenge in Baton Rouge, but says bands are competing with more than just each other.
“People are here to work or study for the most part. That doesn’t lend themselves to a high degree of mobility… As a band you are competing with Netflix and X-box,” said Catchings.
These are just a few of the complications that arise in living professionally as an artist in college areas, and just a few of the obstacles this new community has overcome partly due to the changing economic landscape of the city.
A desire for change
However, now that more young professionals are settling within the city, creating a more stable fan base, the desire to develop Baton Rouge’s art community has become possible. These young enthusiasts will not only attend events but also will create them and show even more support for them through organizations and committees. Businesses who have not been able to participate in the arts now can since it becomes profitable as more people settle into the growing community by regularly attending events.
Alex Bowen, the new talent buyer at The Varsity Theatre, moved to Baton Rouge recently from New Orleans. A native of Lafayette, Bowen has worked producing shows here for years and is excited to move to Baton Rouge because he feels there is more support for the arts now than he has ever seen.
“There is definitely more of a community vibe” says Bowen. “When I saw people supporting the BR Walls Project, that alone was a statement.”
The simple variety and amount of local festivals being hosted in the downtown area is a testament to such changes. Not only have there been music and food events, but now we are hosting the Third Street Film Festival, as well as the Art Melt. An event put on by a nonprofit called Forum 35, which is made up of young leaders in Baton Rouge, the Art Melt will consist only of Louisiana artists who will be able to display their work in different venues downtown. The Third Street Film Festival is held at the Manship Theatre in partnership with Scene Magazine and is also only comprised of Louisiana filmmakers. It is a two-day event at the end of the year where festivalgoers are able to enjoy food, music, parties, and a variety of films by Louisiana filmmakers, who have the chance of winning the title of Best Picture. “I think we are snapping out of a recent lull,” said Catchings. “The projects people have come up with to counter that lull are really starting to reach critical mass…that is exciting.”
This has developed a wealth of talented new and old artists that call Baton Rouge their home, raising the bar on professionalism in the city.
Local musician of The Stage Coach Bandits and student of economics Drew Varnado had some enlightenment to shed on the subject.
“The community produces a better product. If people like what they do and want to do those things then they do them with more enthusiasm and energy. They’re more fun to watch,” says Varnado. “The community helps the musicians be better…the better the shows, the more people get in the door.”
Many artists are gearing up and are more motivated by the support from their community and to be able to display their utmost talent in a growing market filled with talented people.
“We play with each other and we learn through each other. It’s a pretty open community that encourages growth rather than encouraging competitions…That community structure has produced better bands,” further comments Varnado on the nature of the Baton Rouge artistic community.
Many bands, like New Orleans natives Hopetoun and Austin natives Mobley, are even starting to settle in Baton Rouge in hopes of tapping into the secret well of the Red Stick, along with this growing community involvement. Still Varnado has some last words of wisdom. He feels that since the economy is picking up more people are able to go out on more of a regular basis, which is another factor for the increases in attendance. However, “If we don’t keep doing it then it’ll die. It’s not a one-time thing; it’s an ongoing process and culture,” the local musician says. As is almost always so, this local culture is being influenced by a national culture positively affecting the artistic landscape within the city.
National trends support the local agenda
National acts that used to pass by Baton Rouge on their way to the Big Easy are now pouring into the city. Both Yonder Mountain String Band and Umphrey’s Mcgee came to the Varsity Theatre this year and saved New Orleans for later in their tour, hailing how they love to play in the high-energy setting Baton Rouge has provided. One of the many causes to this rise in popularity is the ever-pressing allure for young people to attend summer music festivals.
Sure, festivals have been around for decades but it hasn’t been until the past several years that you could take your pick of a summer festival to attend here in the Deep South. Wakarusa Music Festival, Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, and The Hangout Music Festival are all very popular festivals for young people to attend for an entire vacation weekend that are no more than 4-8 hours away. Additionally, Voodoo Fest in New Orleans brings in quite the influx of fans. The growing attendance levels show the influence of these festivals. Attending festivals of this caliber is a life-changing occurrence and from what I’ve seen in my experiences typically spurs a musical and artistic interest that will stick in that person. When individuals have these sorts of revelations this further rallies support for the local arts agenda in these sorts of ways. As Varnado puts it “The bands we draw our influences from are starting to infiltrate the culture of Baton Rouge.” The more a genre grows in popularity the more attendance you will have for both national and local shows.
From the growing film industry to increased local support of live local musical acts, the arts community in Baton Rouge has risen above many obstacles to reclaim our state capital as a flourishing sea of creativity. You just have to walk out your door to see it…and hear it.