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This is Personal | Gia Hamilton, Joan Mitchell Center (New Orleans, LA)

This is the age of information.
We are online, on the phone, on newsfeeds, on air, and sometimes on overload. Take a deep breath with us now as we turn off the data streams and make room for some plain old wit and wisdom in This is Personal, a new series of short interviews with directors of artists communities in which we invite them to tell us what's on their minds and ask them how they got here from there.


Since 2011 Gia Hamilton has been working with the Joan Mitchell Foundation to develop a residency in New Orleans. Looking to marry the vision of American painter and printmaker Joan Mitchell with the cultural roots, communities and unique energies of New Orleans, Gia has worked to create space for fearless connection, collaboration and understanding. In this month's This Is Personal Esther Grisham Grimm - Alliance Board Member and Executive Director of 3Arts - sits down with Gia to talk relevance of place, "social magic", and widening the audience for all of our work.

Alliance: What motivated you to leave New York and take on the leadership role at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans?

Hamilton: I am a native of New Orleans, my close relatives are here, and after spending almost 15 years in New York City I wanted to buy property and raise my sons near family. I was working as a consultant in the city, working mostly with nonprofits and social entrepreneurs who were looking at sustainability issues in New York, Detroit, and New Orleans. I originally started working with the Center in 2011 to help design a sustainable residency program.

It was just such an optimal time for me to be back in New Orleans. There were challenges, and from those challenges arose many opportunities for growth and expansion. Being a part of the Center allowed me to blend my two worlds together, to take my roots, knowledge of New Orleans’ inner workings, and the professional network and business acumen from New York and marry them in the role as Director of the Center.

New Orleans is a city that prides itself on tradition and has created exclusive structures in order to maintain those traditions, which is why it doesn’t feel like a typical American city. It feels and sometimes functions more like the Caribbean. As more people come here to enjoy the laissez- faire style and deeply-rooted cultural traditions, they realize that the quality of life can be pretty high here—and many people fall in love with the city.

Alliance: You still maintain a practice as an artist and curator and also as the founder of Gris Gris Lab. Does that work intersect in some way with your work at the Center? 

Hamilton: I started a place-based community center called Gris Gris Lab that served as my experimental space and that focused on art, food, education, healing, and community as the primary components of creating a sustainable community. Gris Gris Lab changed and morphed over five years and ultimately offered live-in cultural exchanges for up to six months, providing living, working, and exhibition space for artists, healers, designers, planners, thinkers, and tinkerers.

Today Gris Gris Lab is a cultural consulting group that offers models, tools, methods, and events that focus on building and engaging community using Social Magic. Gris Gris Lab is in a new phase as I work with the Joan Mitchell Foundation to create a residency Center in New Orleans. I am now working on a book through New Village Press that chronicles the history and impact of the work that Gris Gris Lab is doing throughout the redevelopment period. All of this work allows me to keep current, because it directly involves applied anthropology and using that lens to create solutions and tools for identifying challenges.

Working for a foundation affords me the scale I enjoy. I get to design and develop models almost like a start up and make a real impact on the field in terms of understanding what artists are doing, what they need, and how the landscape is changing.

Gris Gris Lab remains an outlet for my field-work. I also work as a curator and conceptually as an artist. and I usually keep some sort of very personal project going that is just for me.

Alliance: What’s on your mind these days? What are you are thinking about? 

Hamilton: I am thinking about the term social practice. It is the newest buzzword to describe the way in which performing artists have created work for a very long time, but more specifically I am thinking about how we as stewards at the residency create a platform and systems for social practice artists to connect in the city of New Orleans and everywhere that the Foundation has a presence.

I am very interested in how we diversify both the audiences and artists that we host at the Center and how we engage with our local community here. It is a lot of responsibility to be a good neighbor, leader, connector, and conductor of resources.

I am also thinking about the initial residencies we have started and the overall vision for the Joan Mitchell Center. I do know that our theme for 2013-2014 was “Rooted,” and that I would like to explore the theme “Hybridity” in 2015.

Alliance: What do you most want to talk to your peers about at the Alliance’s conference in Charleston this year?

Hamilton: I am excited to talk to my peers about social practice, how to include a wider audience in our discussions, how to keep current with trends and movement on the ground and in the field. I do not ever want to lose touch with what artists are doing. I am very interested in collectives and alternative structures for artists, like artist run spaces and nonprofit galleries, etc. I am also interested in being a part of how to add more voices of color to the conversation and how to adequately train and support young leaders. Finally, I would like to learn more about Charleston’s history and how the Alliance might support the idea of arts administrators visiting or conducting site visits in a more formal way.

Thanks so much for including me in this project and taking the time out to get to know me and my vision for the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans.