Volume 15, Issue 4 ~ January 25 - January 31, 2007

Stepping Out

Gallery manager Mark Babin lost everything to Katrina but the clothes he wore.

Carmen’s Gallery of Solomons finds no easy time in the Big Easy

by Margaret Tearman

Last April, Carmen’s Gallery of Solomons took a curious leap of faith and opened a sister gallery in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter. “It intuitively seemed right,” explains Carmen Nance Sanders, looking back at an impulse now being tested by hard reality. “I thought I would be able to offer beauty to a city when it needs it most. I wanted to be a part of the rebuilding effort.”

The French Quarter, built on the highest point in New Orleans, was spared the disastrous flooding of hurricane Katrina.

Carmen’s Gallery is prominently located on Royal Street, an upscale shopping district. “There are 12 to 15 galleries around us, in each direction,” says Nance Sanders. “Two or three come and go, but most have managed to stay in business.”

Carmen’s plunge seemed justified when she made her first New Orleans sale — a piece by Prince Frederick artist Stephen Harlan — to actor Burt Reynolds. A few weeks later, from his Beverly Hills home, Reynolds purchased two more pieces from the gallery’s web site. Things appeared to be looking good on Royal Street.

Nance Sanders, a North Carolina native, opened her first business in Solomons, a framing shop, with a small inheritance from her grandfather.

“He left each of his grandchildren $1,000,” Nance Sanders said. “I was determined to use his money to build something he would be proud of.”

Twenty-five years later, Carmen’s Solomons is a thriving art gallery showcasing an eclectic collection created by both local and international artists. The gallery also offers artisan-crafted pieces including fine jewelry and pottery. The New Orleans gallery is expanding its arts collection to include artisan crafts.

New Orleans Ventured

Carmen’s Solomons was still in its infancy when Nance Sanders first visited New Orleans 20 years ago. “I got bit by the New Orleans bug,” she remembers. “I knew that one day I would live here.”

On a visit in early 2006, with the local economy still reeling from Katrina, Nance Sanders saw her chance. She purchased a home, a fixer-upper. Within weeks, the house collapsed — not from Katrina but because an army of termites ate it to the ground.

Laura Howard, Carmen’s Solomon’s gallery manager, and New Orleans gallery manager Mark Babin with Carmen Nance Sanders, seated.

Rebuilding has trapped her in a bureaucratic maze, leaving her no home, no building permit and thousands of dollars poorer.

In the midst of this struggle, Nance Sanders opened her gallery. Since her Burt Reynolds coup, business has slowed to a crawl.

People who have the expendable income to purchase fine art, and who still have walls, “already have them filled with art,” Nance Sanders says.

“New Orleans will be rebuilt,” she believes. “But it will be because the people of New Orleans will make it happen.”

Her gallery manager, Mark Babin, is one of the rebuilders.

“He came to me wearing jeans and a T-shirt, asking for a job. In this neighborhood, gallery managers usually wear a shirt and tie. I had my doubts until he told me his story. He is an artist himself, but he lost everything he owned. Everything, except the clothes on his back, to Katrina.”

Stories like his are everywhere. Nance Sander’s eyes fill with tears as she talks of the people she’s met, the stories she’s heard and the things she’s seen.

“Entire neighborhoods,” she says, “are nothing more than ghost towns. Curtains still hang in windows, but all the glass is gone.”

But in the wake of the destruction, the people of New Orleans are banding together, and some of the old social barriers may have washed away with the flood waters.

Laura Howard — of Scientists’ Cliffs, Carmen’s Solomon’s gallery manager — saw evidence of that change while visiting the New Orleans gallery.

She tells of a teenager on a skateboard on the street approaching a beautiful, older woman, a real grande dame. The teen was all gothed-out with a face full of piercings. He rolled right up to this lovely older woman. She smiled, reached out to him, and planted a kiss on the only unpierced place on his face and asked him how his day had been. “Great.” he said, “we got our electricity back today. She clapped her hands and said, “Oh yes, it is indeed a great day.”

Into the Future

Will Carmen’s gallery be part of New Orleans’ recovery? That’s a story still in progress.

Nance Sanders has no doubt the city will recover, but she fears she may have leapt into the rebuilding a year too soon. City Hall isn’t much help, in spite of the enthusiasm of Mayor Ray Nagin, who Carmen met her first night there. She hasn’t connected with the right people to capitalize on the city’s tourism trade, which is slowly coming back.

February in New Orleans is all about Mardi Gras, and the city is praying for an influx of visitors. Carmen is planning a Mardi Gras show featuring gallery manager and artist Babin and her Solomons gallery framer, Jason Snyder. Nance Sanders hopes her Mardi Gras show will be a feast come Fat Tuesday, not the start of six long, lean weeks of fasting.

© COPYRIGHT 2007 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.