On a cold November night, 200 people gathered under the willow fronds of a former bleach factory’s open-air atrium in the Upper 9th Ward to watch a dozen young local rappers and singers showcase on a small stage.
For the past nine months, the performers had come to this place, the Material Institute, to learn and to record their music. This was their graduation ceremony.
One insight they’ve likely gained: the location of Tasmania.
Thanks to an unlikely New Orleans connection, the Australian island state is the source of the millions of dollars spent to build, staff and equip the Material Institute and its ever-expanding creative curriculum.
Specifically, the institute is funded by the Museum of Old and New Art, or MONA, an enterprise as eccentric as its wealthy founder, David Walsh, a professional gambler and art lover.
In 2014, Walsh married artist and art curator Kirsha Kaechele, who has her own colorful history. After Hurricane Katrina, Kaechele bought five decrepit properties on North Villere Street in the St. Roch neighborhood. During the Prospect.1 international art festival in 2008, she turned them into an elaborate art installation. One structure was outfitted with an enormous bank vault door.
Eventually Kaechele left town and landed in Tasmania. Her St. Roch properties fell further into disrepair. They were seized by the city or torn down, a messy conclusion to the New Orleans chapter of her life.
But thanks to her marriage to Walsh, she’s able to underwrite a fresh chapter in New Orleans life — an ambitious, multi-disciplinary arts program in a hardscrabble corner of the city — from the other side of the world.
So far, it encompasses a recording studio called The Embassy and its music residency program, a fashion design school, and a community garden. And after operating quietly for the past three years, the Material Institute is about to ramp up in a more public way.
“I’m so grateful,” Kaechele said recently from Tasmania, “for the opportunity to manifest on the scale I always wanted to in New Orleans.”
The 12 artists selected for The Embassy’s 2019 recording residency — they pay no tuition and maintain all rights to the music they make with Embassy’s producers and engineers — are even more grateful. They include rapper Jasmine Williams, whose stage name is Odd the Artist.
Now 19, Williams was a freshman at Dillard University with no idea how to pursue her musical ambitions when she saw a flyer about The Embassy.
“When they chose me, I was really blessed,” Williams said. Embassy “is like a family. I developed a family.”
The wild-haired Walsh, who has described himself as borderline autistic, made many millions of dollars with a sophisticated algorithm for betting on horse races. He subsequently amassed what is reportedly one of the Southern Hemisphere’s most impressive privately held art collections.
To display it, he built the Museum of Old and New Art, which opened in 2011. With an early emphasis on fertility and mortality, a.k.a. sex and death, it is now a major tourist attraction in his native Tasmania.
Kaechele contributed to the museum’s development and is heavily involved with it. She married Walsh three years after it opened; their daughter was born in 2015.
The California-born Kaechele had first moved to New Orleans in 2000. She never quite got over the city where she generated art world headlines with her post-Katrina endeavors. In addition to the house-sized installations, her initiative called KK Projects staged such happenings as an elaborate outdoor dinner for 250 on a largely abandoned street that attracted the likes of actress Uma Thurman. She also curated contemporary art displays for the Voodoo Experience in City Park.
After moving to Tasmania in 2010, Kaechele maintained her local ties from afar. In October 2014, she conceived of a conceptual art project dubbed “The Embassy” as a satellite Prospect.3 show. The centerpiece was a gun buy-back program in St. Roch, financed by $100,000 from Walsh/MONA.
How to draw the attention of young gun owners?
“The most obvious option,” Kaechele said, “was a recording studio.”
So she installed a temporary studio to offer free recording sessions in a car wash at Franklin Avenue and North Villere. Mr. Serv-On, a rapper previously affiliated with No Limit Records, served as the in-house producer. Locals could record themselves for free.
The original idea to melt down guns and turn them into records proved impractical. But the studio itself was so popular that Kaechele decided to keep it going after the gun buy-back was over.
In 2016, MONA’s Delaware-registered domestic corporation, MONA New Orleans, bought the abandoned former Boilermakers Local 37 union hall on St. Ferdinand Street in the Upper 9th Ward for $90,000. The plan was to move The Embassy studio there.
Instead, it ended up on the second floor of an industrial cinderblock building across Port Street that belonged to Jaohn Orgon, who also has a history with much-discussed art installations. In 2005, he founded the NOLA Art House, a communal artists’ space on Esplanade Avenue. Its most distinctive feature was an elaborate, multistory treehouse. More recently, Orgon hosted underground parties and art events at the Port Street property.
Installing the permanent Embassy studio there was only the start. “From there, it evolved,” Kaechele said. “A recording studio is great, but what else can we offer that is interesting to young people and an alternative to a harsh life in New Orleans?”
One answer: a fashion design school. Assemble, a cutting-edge London design firm, was hired to create a space on the first floor of the Port Street building. Holes knocked in the cinderblock walls for windows and doors were left jagged and uneven at the Assemble team’s suggestion.
Kaechele cites Black Mountain College, an experimental art school in North Carolina in the 1930s and 40s, as a model for what she is building in New Orleans: “Students determine the subjects, and we build a curriculum around it.” Material Institute students will host a fashion show at the facility on Dec. 13.
After MONA New Orleans bought back several of Kaechele’s old St. Roch properties near Music and North Villere streets, she established 24 Carrot Gardens, a community organic garden intended to teach neighborhood kids about growing food and eating healthy.
Since moving to Tasmania, Kaechele has expanded the 24 Carrot concept to 15 Tasmanian schools and communities. The original garden in New Orleans has now been shut down and is being reborn, on a grander scale, on what was the old union hall’s parking lot on Port Street.
“It started (in St. Roch), then went to Tasmania, and now it’s moving to Port Street,” Kaechele said. “We’re building the mother of all gardens.”
The garden is envisioned as the centerpiece of a campus along the 2100 block of Port, tucked between railroad yards and the North Galvez Street overpass. A MONA-owned shotgun house on Almonaster Avenue that backs up to the main building is being renovated as an artists’ residence.
Adjacent to the studio is a debris-strewn yard that is home to a well-tended chicken coop. A partially burned house in the yard is slated to eventually become a clay workshop.
“MONA has a New Orleans branch in the form of this experimental art school that is student-directed,” Kaechele said. “It’s multi-disciplinary, but also inter-disciplinary. It all ties back to the garden.”
Three years ago, MONA hired staffers for the inaugural music residency program at The Embassy. They included studio director Aimée Toledano.
Toledano and Kaechele first met before Katrina as romantic rivals, then became fast friends. They served as back-up dancers for Mr. Quintron, the avant-garde Bywater electronic musician/inventor, and as “flag girls” in Quintron’s offbeat Ninth Ward Marching Band. (Toledano still marches, though she now refers to herself as a “flag lady.”)
Toledano’s background is in film editing and photography; her editing credits include the James Booker documentary “Bayou Maharajah.” Her artistic instincts come in handy around Embassy. She designed the 17 wall hangings that decorate the studio; each bears the outline of one of New Orleans’ 17 wards.
Toledano’s duties range from planning to nurturing, as she looks after both Embassy staffers and artists. During the Nov. 9 music showcase, she danced and cheered as enthusiastically as anyone.
The first three Embassy residencies included 12 artists apiece. The 2020 class will be limited to nine, to free up studio time for two new programs: “walk-in” sessions for neighborhood residents on Saturdays, and a Sunday program for formerly incarcerated individuals.
The Port Street yard sits next to an auto body shop; three small houses across the street are the block’s only residences. Going forward, Kaechele, Toledano and their team hope to work with an under-served community while not becoming a beachhead for gentrification.
“The thing I’m most concerned about is changing the neighborhood,” Kaechele said. “I don’t want the project to displace the people it’s meant for.”
During the Nov. 9 showcase, some neighbors objected to strangers parking in front of their houses. Police showed up, responding to noise complaints.
“I understand it’s annoying, but we only do it once a year, and we warned everybody in advance,” Toledano said. “I can see it from all sides.”
Eleven days after the showcase, Xavier Molina was back at Embassy, holed up in the second-floor studio with staff engineer Preston Holm. As Toledano offered encouragement, Molina fine-tuned recordings that encompass everything from alternative rock to jazz fusion to soul.
Molina, 23, is an Embassy legacy; his mother, a rapper who goes by Mama Fiyah, previously participated. She suggested he apply.
After graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Molina earned a music performance degree from the University of New Orleans. Thus, he arrived at Embassy with considerably more technical ability than many applicants. Proficient on trumpet and drums, he also arranged the three-piece string section on his song “Can We Talk?”
“The community aspect is what I like the most,” Molina said of Embassy. “That’s what gives people such a great feeling about being here. It feels so comfortable. The people in charge really are about making good projects, and what works for you. They’ve put a lot of careful thought into this. It’s impressive.”
Molina is all too aware that his Embassy residency is winding down. “Can I apply again?” he asked Toledano.
“You can be an engineer,” she suggested. “We don’t want to lose our people.”
“You won’t lose me,” Molina replied.
That kind of commitment is indicative of the community, with artists working together with and inspiring each other, that Kaechele and Toledano hope to build.
“It’s taken a while to come to fruition, but that might be good,” Toledano said. “It didn’t start by being big and then not delivering what we promised. Every year, we’ve gotten more ambitious. That it’s grown slowly has been a benefit. We respond to what we see. It’s authentic.”
Kaechele’s vision for her post-Katrina art installations was more grand than her resources at the time. With the Material Institute, she has the funding, as well as the experience, to see it through. “We all have the benefit of an extra decade,” she said.
The plan is for the Material Institute to eventually be more self-sufficient. A new executive director with a background in fundraising will be named soon. Paperwork has been filed to establish the Material Institute as a nonprofit, so that it can solicit funding from philanthropists and corporate sponsors.
“It’s MONA’s goal to diversify our funding,” Toledano said. “We’re optimistic that, as people come to know our work, they’ll be excited to support us.”
Kaechele agreed that “we don’t imagine that MONA will be fully funding it forever. But we’re happy to be the only funding for the moment.”
She keeps tabs on the Material Institute’s progress mostly from afar, returning to New Orleans three times a year. During a trip this summer, she hosted a party for another of her endeavors, a $222 “super-deluxe food and art compendium,” “Eat the Problem,” with recipes that encouraged the consumption of invasive species. But she also spent lots of time around the burgeoning Material Institute campus.
“It was such a pleasure to be there every day, and contribute, and watch it take shape,” she said. “I like to be there. Each action informs the next. There’s a plan, but a lot of it evolves and then takes shape. That’s the fun part of it.”