The Arnaudville Experiment: Creative placemaking and economic development in rural Louisiana

George Marks moved back to his tiny hometown of Arnaudville in Louisiana prior to Katrina in 2005, after 15 years of living as a successful working artist in Baton Rouge. He left home in 1989, earned a Bachelor’s in Fine Art from Louisiana State University, quickly gained gallery representation and would frequently travel for projects and commissioned works. Then his dad died and his priorities changed, so he moved back home to be with his mom and focus on his role in the family.

When he moved back, Arnaudville was no longer the same city he had left. In place of all the old storefronts were drug dens. The only people you saw out walking around were dealing.

“To see that happen in my hometown was horrifying,” Marks says. “I knew if I was going to live there it had to change, and I would have to change how artists were viewed in my community.”

Then Katrina happened.

Marks decided to develop an arts market that would function as his studio and also provide accommodations to artists, many of whom had been displaced or simply wanted to relocate after experiencing the devastation of Katrina. Marks wanted to create a hub for these and all artists right there in Arnaudville, a town of a little over 1,000 people.

The arts market, located inside a vacant car parts store, was called Town Market, and it did serve the purpose that Marks had intended: it became a gathering place for the community, a place where people with artistic and cultural interests would gather to create and have conversations.

George Marks.

Many of the artists who sought shelter in Arnaudville in the immediate aftermath of Katrina have since moved on, Marks says, but “they brought that creative urgency that wasn’t in the community at the time or just didn’t bubble up the way it did until they moved in and we began to see some hope there.”

Marks says he didn’t understand what the “creative placemaking” model was or what the philosophy behind it was or even that it existed all.

“All I knew was that I lived in a little town that was sort of a forgotten area between two parishes that the government didn’t support and tourism didn’t support. I knew that by taking that and rebranding the community, flipping the negative things people thought about the place could turn it into a positive, and that in itself could be an art piece.”

And this is how he became what he calls a “social sculptor,” simply starting with the question of how he could make Arnaudville a more viable place for people to live and visit.

Cultural Development

Eventually Town Market would evolve into the NUNU Arts and Culture Collective, and Marks’s efforts to build and support the creative community would expand to include involvement in full-blown community and economic development projects in addition to the organization’s artist residencies, international exchanges, and educational and cultural programs. And all of this really happened because of potlucks.

“We ply people with food,” Marks jokes. “People around here have always gathered around coffee or food, so we started hosting pot lucks. We had started [NUNU] with an art opening, and folks came in and visited for the first time, but they did it more as onlookers, not participants. We knew that if we really wanted this to stick in the community, the audience needed to participate in the whole event. So we got rid of what may have been misconstrued as being too fancy, and instead of calling it an art opening we called it a potluck – you might not paint or make music, but you can cook something. So people became participants in the event. Our potlucks now average 75-200 people every third Friday.”

Their only rule is that there is to be no discussion of politics or religion at these potlucks – this being the Deep South and a majority red state, representative gatherings of community members could take a less-than-friendly turn if those two topics were invited in. Luckily, though, it seems the community of Arnaudville and its visiting guests from around the world have found a common ground of peace and acceptance.

A great example of this is in NUNU’s international volunteer program. As an all-volunteer-run organization, NUNU also invites volunteers in from around the world, providing them room and board in exchange for 25 hours a week of service. This program is in keeping with NUNU’s cultural goals, which include a dedication to preserving and promoting the area’s French heritage through French language classes and activities. Visitors come from places like Montreal, Martinique, Paris, and Haiti to experience a bit of French-to-French cultural exchange. When these visitors come into town, NUNU introduces them to the community via social media.

“We’re finding that tool very resourceful in getting people to participate,” Marks says. “It also chips at the wall that divides us. There is kindness and a mutual respect, even if we don’t vote the same or worship the same. We really look to identify and celebrate the differences between us.”

Before long, residents of Arnaudville are bringing guests extra meat from hunting trips or items found in a thrift shop that they thought might be useful.

“It’s kind of like they’re adopting all these folks coming in from other countries,” he notes. “Especially since we’re in this climate right now with the current administration and especially since Louisiana is a very conservative state, to have a group of people who would be considered conservative people opening their arms up to ‘outsiders’ [is pretty incredible].”

The French immersion piece is really important to NUNU. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) was one of their earliest organizational partners, assisting them in a rebuild after a fire destroyed their original facility under the stipulation that French immersion would be an integral part of the organization’s programs. NUNU created a French immersion initiative connected to Louisiana State University, which brings 10 students in for a week at a time where they have a number of Creole French immersion experiences, including farming and cooking, through which the townspeople also become the teachers.

“We wanted to add value to the local people,” says Marks. “We wanted them to feel like they were part of something much bigger and part of the process. These were people who were punished for speaking French several years ago when they were in school, and told French is an inferior language. They’re compensated now for speaking French. [This program is] valuing who they are by being a French speaker.”

That program has since grown – they now host students from New York University, University of Arkansas, Tulane University, and University of Southern California.

NUNU also organizes tri-city “cultural exchange” experiences, tying together Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Arnaudville – all Louisiana cities in relative close proximity to one another, yet all drastically different.

“To really understand Louisiana you have to understand all three of these experiences,” says Marks.

Economic Development

Through the efforts of NUNU, Arnaudville was eventually designated as a cultural district, which has made it easier for businesses to sell local art tax-free. NUNU partners with a number of local businesses to sell the works of local artists. Artist-members of the collective also began installing temporary galleries inside the empty storefronts, and now these once-vacant storefronts and buildings that had become drug dens are now home to places like a fiddle shop that holds weekly jam sessions, an international arts market that holds poetry readings and workshops, and a hip bar and restaurant from a chef that had grown up in the area and moved back from New York to open his businesses.

“We started with the idea of using the art piece and culture piece to serve as an answer to common issues and common problems; we started using them as part of an economic development piece,” Marks says.

NUNU is currently working with the investors of Tee Tiny Houses in Arnaudville, providing consultation services to the construction company.

“NUNU will provide free consultation services if the business is able to tick-mark a variety of boxes,” Marks explains. In short, there needs to be an education component (and all the better if it emphasizes knowledge and sharing of the French language); a culinary component (in the case of Tee Tiny Houses, there is a freestanding coffee station where people can gather and speak in French); a social welfare piece (Tee Tiny Houses will build one tiny house every year and donate it to Arc of Acadiana to be given to a homeless veteran); and a sustainability component (there will be a community garden installed next to their facility and are they are also using green practices in their construction). There also needs to an opportunity for everyday folks to have access to the project in some way; for Tee Tiny Houses, there is a DIY construction bay where people can learn how to build their own tiny houses and even do so in this bay.

Marks explains that, as an organization, NUNU does not necessarily build relationships with other arts organizations, but rather identifies a need within the community and tries to address that need in a very practical way, looking at how they can connect both individuals and organizations interested in doing so. This is how the organization has grown far beyond simply an “arts organization” into a development one.

“Since we started, the community has realized the value [of our work] and that what we were doing had such huge economic impact,” Marks says. “Now we have a seat at the economic table in both parishes and in the region, and now they’re helping to fund these initiatives we’re working on.”

The Arnaudville Experiment

The most shocking thing about NUNU is how much they are able to accomplish with how little. The organization – again, it bears repeating, one that is run entirely by volunteers – only gets about $3,000 per year in funding, though it generates about $150,000 through some 250 events held throughout each year.

“We have positioned ourselves as this living sculpture,” says Marks. “We started calling it ‘The Arnaudville Experiment.'”

He explains that by not actively going after arts funding and doing it the way the did instead has brought a lot of attention from the economic development sector, helping them see this creative placemaking as an economic development tool that spurs development in their communities.

“They want to see this model duplicated every 100 miles along the Mississippi in Louisiana,” he says. “We have the culture and the art pieces that come together with the social welfare piece and the economic development piece. If you can have a place where all those things come together, it will have a great impact economically in that region. [Before us], no one was operating in this silo in the region.”

While the efforts of NUNU and its volunteers might sound entirely altruistic, Marks says he has some selfish reasons for doing what he does.

“Ultimately the selfish part of what I’m doing is making the place a better place for me and everyone around me to live. I don’t get paid with money but I feel like I get paid with experiences and feeling good about what’s happening. There’s no amount of money that can outweigh that. I feel like a rich man from that from being able to participate and manipulate [outcomes] in a good way.”

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
The more unlikely the partner the better. Basically I think that for partnerships to work, the ones that work really well are the ones where there’s a certain amount of desperation that exists so they’re open to creative ideas more so than a lot of groups that are already part of the creative economy.

(2) How do you a start a project?
It’s really identifying some kind of problem or issue or something that needs to be righted in some way, something that’s impactful for the entire community. It can be something pretty mundane but there has to be something that’s getting fixed for me to be interested in addressing it.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
In my little tiny universe we have these rules about being kind of everyone, respecting the differences of others, trying not to use the word “I.” The value of something is not so much that monetary piece as it is realizing that the end result, the thing that happens at the very end, the people stepping forward and taking ownership and beginning to lead projects and making connections – you can’t put a monetary value on that because that’s what makes it sustainable. The creative process is an important means to an end. The process of doing things replaces what the monetary value is. The end result is really just the byproduct of the process you’ve been engaging in. The relationship building becomes the thing.

(4) How do you define success?
When I don’t have to be involved in the process anymore, when people feel comfortable enough – especially people who never thought of themselves to be leaders or artists in any way – when those people step up feeling comfortable enough to speak up with their own ideas, when folks realize they have ownership in that universe we’ve all been trying to create…when that happens I feel that right there is success.

(5) How do you fund your work?
We only apply for a small arts grant of $3,000 because it’s what we use to leverage all the other requests and asks, but most of it comes from collected memberships, sponsorships, and a percentage from art sales. We’re working on building a community development portfolio for consultation services because we realize there’s such a want and need for us to come into other organizations and do workshops and training for other groups, so we’re working on developing a portfolio of our projects and using that portfolio to educate others and charging consultation fees. We also set up a 501(c)3 to create a separate arm, kind of like a real estate development arm, that would handle all income-producing revenue of NUNU’s. Basically we will be artist-as-developer for the next five years and that will be the primary revenue-producing arm. We position ourselves on what we can do with very little.