N.O. arts center makes more room for Academic Studio

When the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts added an academic component to its world-class repertoire of visual and performance arts classes three years ago, its leaders could not have foreseen the spectacular success its Academic Studio would enjoy in so short a time.

The Louisiana Department of Education this past week awarded the school a letter grade of A for its students’ achievements. Now, thanks to the expansion of the campus into a 60,000-square-foot warehouse, the Academic Studio will have more room to breathe.

“When we began researching the possibility of adding the Academic Studio four or five years ago, we knew that if it succeeded we would definitely need more space in a few years,” said Sally Perry, executive director of the NOCCA Institute, a nonprofit fundraising and support group for the school.

“The warehouse space we will renovate into the NOCCA Forum is directly across Chartres Street from the main part of our campus — it stretches along Press Street the length of the block from Chartres to Royal. Habitat for Humanity was the longtime owner, and they generously agreed to sell it to support our expansion.”

Perry said a complex funding package devised by The MCC Group, led by Joe Yaeger, made the $26.6 million project possible.

The financing involves the use of historic rehabilitation tax credits, new market tax credits and a Quality Zone Academy Bond. Of the $26.6 million total cost, $8.8 million must be raised by the NOCCA Institute in addition to $2.9 million it has raised to date.

“I went to meet with Joe to get an idea about how to pull this off, and by the end of the conversation, he told me, ‘I have a better idea for you,’ ” Perry said. “The upshot is a partnership in which MCC is the developer and arranges the financing. The Whitney Bank and Ashton Ryan at FNBC also fully supported the project.”

Used mostly recently as a warehouse for Aunt Sally’s Pralines and as the Habitat ReStore, now at 2900 Elysian Fields, the old warehouse dates back to the 1830s.

It served as a Confederate hospital during the Civil War and a train depot later in the 19th century. The building features thick brick walls, cypress posts and beams and a mezzanine at one end where office space for the NOCCA Institute will be located. John C. Williams Architects and the McDonnel Group will undertake the building’s transformation.

Plans for the renovated building include additional space for the Academic Studio classes, including science laboratories; additional dedicated space for the Culinary Arts program; and more space for creative arts classes. The building also will house the school’s dining hall adjacent to a courtyard, a bakery, a butchery, a gallery displaying works by NOCCA students, a public cafĂ© and about 6,000 square feet of space for a tenant.

NOCCA President and CEO Kyle Wedberg said about 80 percent of Academic Studio classes will take place in the new NOCCA Forum building, but some spaces will be able to do double duty for a variety of purposes.

“What we found was that, even though everyone is on top of each other on campus right now and you might have to walk through a dance studio to get to an acting studio, the kids love that. They love seeing what each other are doing, and they learn from it,” Wedberg said. “In the new Forum, the arts and academics spaces will be intertwined because that is what we have found works best for our students.”

The establishment of an academic curriculum at a school known for its achievements in arts education was undertaken with great care and research, according to Wedberg.

“We looked at 35 schools, at the MIT Media Lab, at what other successful schools are doing, but we did not pattern our program on any of them,” he said. “Instead, we borrowed ideas and then worked them into the pedagogy we established with our arts program to devise something of our own. It relies on elements like team teaching, a blended curriculum, hands-on learning and hiring teachers who practice in their fields. The success of the program means that our seniors get scholarship offers worth an average of $118,000 per student.”

Wedberg stressed that NOCCA accepts full-day students regardless of grades or test scores as long as they pass their audition in their chosen artistic endeavor.

“There is no academic screening, yet we have been able to provide an environment for students to be supported and become successful,” Wedberg said.

At a symbolic groundbreaking at the old warehouse on Wednesday afternoon, shovels used at the original groundbreaking for the Chartres Street school 15 years ago, plus a few new ones decorated by the art students, will plunge into piles of confetti instead of the traditional dirt.

“Our goal is to have the Forum building open for the 2014-15 school year,” said Perry. “That will be the senior year for our first class of full-time Academic Studio students and NOCCA’s 40th anniversary.”