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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Phenomenal Equality: Students Share a Passion for Creative Arts

The master-apprentice tradition is flourishing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and so are the school's students.
By Brian Gauvin


Narrated and Photographed by Brian Gauvin

On the other side of Elysian Fields, a short distance from the French Quarter, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Riverfront Campus, or NOCCA Riverfront, sits on the east bank of the Mississippi River.

The view from the riverfront windows sweeps across rail tank cars onto the charred remains of a string of burned warehouses. A raging fire consumed them a couple days after Hurricane Katrina waged war on the Gulf Coast. The storm breached canal walls and flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, leaving much of it in ruins. NOCCA, on the rise of the river levee, suffered wind and rain damage but no flooding.

Surviving Katrina's violence and the fire's appetite mirrors the charmed history of NOCCA, a campus that rose up through more than thirty years of decline in the Orleans Parish public school system. Today NOCCA, established in 1973, is recognized as one of the top public arts schools in the world.

In January 2000, NOCCA Riverfront opened its first permanent home in the historic Cotton Press Warehouse. The campus is a splendid blend of historic preservation and modern architecture, in keeping with the character of the Bywater, a nestled neighborhood of old shotgun houses, Creole cottages, and brick structures.


Narrated and Photographed by Brian Gauvin

Today, as described on the NOCCA Riverfront Web site, "this preprofessional arts training center provides intensive instruction in dance, media arts, music (classical, jazz, vocal), theatre arts (drama, musical theatre, theatre design), visual arts, and creative writing to students from public, private, and parochial schools across Louisiana through school-day, after-school, weekend, and summer sessions."

NOCCA Riverfront is now state funded, tuition is free, and enrollment is by audition. There, ability trumps all: money, status, race, religion. "There is a phenomenal equality here," said Richard Read, director of marketing for The NOCCA Institute, which provides supplemental funding for NOCCA Riverfront students. "We serve a broad range of students, both economically and geographically. In some ways, we tend to serve the more financially disadvantaged, because the more well-off students often go to private schools. However, we do have kids from private school, those schools that can accommodate NOCCA's half-day schedule."

The Artist in Residence Program is a major contributor to the success of NOCCA Riverfront and enhances the network the young students will need in building their careers. "We bring in 100 to 150 artists each year who show them firsthand what it is like to be a professional artist, what is expected of them," Read says. "In many cases, they will show them where they ought to go, what their next step ought to be. The time-honored master-apprentice tradition: that's really what it's all about here -- the one-on-one."

Photojournalist Brian Gauvin covers stories of people in relation to their environment. He lives in New Orleans.

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