1974: The curtain goes up on NOCCA, transforming New Orleans’ arts community
In January 1974, the tuition-free New Orleans Center for Creative Arts accepted its first students in music, theater and visual arts. Dance was added that fall, and a creative-writing program was begun in 1977. The first classes were held in the University of New Orleans’ Performing Arts Building and the basement of the New Orleans Museum of Art. After a semester, it moved into the former LaSalle Elementary School in the 6000 block of Perrier Street in Uptown New Orleans.
Since 2000, the center, better known as NOCCA, has been ensconced in an architecturally distinctive campus at 2800 Chartres St., where Faubourg Marigny meets the Bywater neighborhood. It has achieved national renown as the incubator of such talents as the Marsalis brothers, Wendell Pierce, Terence Blanchard, Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet, Anthony Mackie, Harry Connick Jr., Jon Baptiste and Trombone Shorty.
- NOCCA was the brainchild of Shirley Trusty Corey, a former drama teacher and the Orleans Parish School Board’s superintendent of cultural resources. She went on to lead the Arts Council of New Orleans.
- NOCCA also has programs in culinary arts, media arts, and filmmaking and audio production.
- The training at NOCCA extends far beyond its local campus. For example, In 2009, a group of 14 students from the school were selected to participate in a jazz seminar held in the East Room of the Obama White House. In 2008, four NOCCA students played a club date in Paris as part of a French cultural exchange.
- Admission is by audition only.
- In its first year, 200 students auditioned and 120 were accepted into the program. By 2015, the student body was more than five times that, numbering 636 students from 15 Louisiana parishes, according to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.
- NOCCA grad and Grammy-winning recording artist Harry Connick Jr. — who went on to be a judge on the televised singing competition “American Idol” — said his NOCCA instructors taught him not just how to perform but how to critique. “After you performed, they would say things like, ‘That was a waste of time.’ Not to be mean, but it was. And they would tell you why, specifically, which I think is a huge part of the judging process,”Connick said in 2014.
- NOCCA started under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board, but by the time it moved into its Chartres Street home in 2000, it was an agency of the state.
- NOCCA has its own fundraising organization, the NOCCA Institute, which operates the Press Street Station restaurant, 5 Press Gallery and Press Street Gardens.
- The LaSalle School, a 1901 building that was dilapidated when NOCCA occupied it, has since been transformed into a complex of luxury condominiums.
If you go to a concert or music club in the New Orleans area, chances are pretty good you’ll see a NOCCA graduate onstage. In the 43 years since the center’s opening, its graduates have achieved positions of importance in local and national arts programs. They have spread out to teach new generations of aspiring artists, and they have won Tonys, Grammys and Emmys. The school’s importance isn’t lost on those who experienced the program first-hand. “Everything that I am today as an artist is because of NOCCA,” actor and NOCCA grad Anthony Mackie said in 2010. He added: “Every time I tried to settle for mediocrity, they wouldn’t let me. They were really vocal and focused on making everyone in our program better, even if you didn’t want to be an actor. Even if you just wanted to get out of your regular school, they were all about the kids in that program. … NOCCA is everything to me.”