In the early 1990s, owners of the Warehouse District art galleries, centered primarily on or near Julia Street, brainstormed about ways to attract potential art buyers into the area during the normally slow months of the summer.
They came up with the idea of reviving an old New Orleans summer tradition in which men and women wore white linen clothing during the hottest months of the year.
From this concept the first White Linen Night was held on the first Saturday in August 1994. The event was a success and it took off from there. Growing steadily in popularity and attendance, it was attracting an estimated 60,000 people by 2012.
Title-sponsored by Whitney Bank, the 19th annual Whitney White Linen Night will be Saturday. From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., the two dozen or so art galleries on or adjacent to Julia Street will open their doors to art lovers and casual strollers alike, displaying and selling the works of the artists they represent. Those who get into the spirit of the occasion will be wearing white outfits and some wear fashionable white hats.
During White Linen Night, the 300 to 700 blocks of Julia Street will be barricaded off for a New Orleans-style block party.
Three stages will be set up, featuring live entertainment by some of the city’s top bands.
Food stands will be in abundance, selling the cuisine of two dozen of New Orleans’ leading restaurants. Mini-bars will offer their specialty cocktails at reasonable prices.
Proceeds from food and drink sales go to benefit the Contemporary Arts Center and the New Orleans Arts District Association. The featured bands include Ernie Vincent and the Top Notes, Erica Falls, and The Hot Club of New Orleans Quartet.
Immediately following the three-hour block party, the nearby Contemporary Arts Center will host its annual White Linen Night party. Recorded music will be played by Deejay Matty, refreshments will be served and more artwork is on display. There is a $10 admission charge for the event (free to CAC members) and it runs until midnight.
New to this year’s WLN are “block sponsorships.” Lindsay Ross, director of external affairs for the CAC, listed the sponsors confirmed so far as Macy’s, which will be giving free facials; “Visit South Walton” (Florida), which is setting up a simulated beach, complete with actual sand, in the 500 block of Julia Street; and The Advocate, which will be disseminating information about the newest daily newspaper in New Orleans.
Richard Nesbitt, owner of d.o.c.s. Gallery and president of the New Orleans Arts District Association, noted that the evening is more of a fundraiser and promotional tool for the CAC, the NOADA and other businesses in the Warehouse District than it is a showcase for art sales.
“All the money we take in on White Linen Night goes back into advertising the district to get people to come to it,” Nesbitt said. “And we promote not only the art galleries, but the restaurants and bars and entertainment venues that are here also. And most of the restaurants in our neighborhood admit that it is the busiest night of the year for them.”
Nesbitt, who has been involved with WLN since the beginning, has observed the steady upward growth of both the event and the district he has lived in since 1986. This growth has brought both benefits and drawbacks.
Among the drawbacks was the change in the composition of the crowds on White Linen Night about 10 years into the event’s history. Because most of the galleries were serving free wine and cheese and inexpensive alcoholic beverages were available on the street, WLN began attracting more freebie-seeking partygoers than serious art aficionados. However, this has begun to change, according to Nesbitt.
“We’ve heard those complaints about the crowds in the past, too,” Nesbitt said. “And because of that, things have changed in the last two years. The galleries no longer serve beverages because it’s a fundraiser for us. We’ve upped the prices at the bars and food stations out on Julia Street, and it’s kind of discouraging the people who just want to hang out and have a cheap drunk. So it’s not free anymore. I think that’s changed the complexion of things.”
Overall, how does Nesbitt see this year’s White Linen Night shaping up? “You can never judge from one year to the next what the crowds are going to be like,” he replied, adding “but, again, we look at it more as a promotion of the Arts District than anything else. If we sell something, that’s lagniappe.”