Brian Boyles, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities' director of public relations and programs, had developed several successful panel talks and lectures since taking on management of the LHC's programming in 2006, including series of discussions on media in New Orleans, the city's mayors, and live interviews with brass bands. With People Say, which started in February, Boyles shifted the focus and the form of the traditional live artist interview.
For one, the talk is a conversation in the truest sense of the word. Although Boyles serves as moderator, each event features a pair of local artists who probably didn't know each other before sharing the stage. Spanning multiple genres - 2011's talks have featured filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, venue managers and exotic dancers - each talk includes one veteran and one up-and-comer, working in the same field but separated by decades.
The other, and key, component, fairly uncommon in discussions of art-making, is how the bills get paid. (Thus, the full title of the series: The People Say Project: Conversations on Culture and Money.)
The theme began to interest him, he said, when he returned to New Orleans in 2006 to hear the buzz-phrase "cultural economy" on everyone's lips. Those using it the most, it seemed, were coming from government, arts administration and tourism marketing. What was happening on the ground among the laborers in that economy, and how had it changed - or not - over the years?
"The original idea was to look at culture and money and ask if all the talk that we've heard about cultural economy and different business models for artists ... hasn't in a way been putting the horse before the cart," Boyles said.
In other words: There seemed to be an awful lot of politicking about the arts, and not a lot of talking to artists. The LEH wanted to change that.
"We started thinking about guests and a way to make it more original, and that's when we hit on the idea of intergenerational connections," Boyles said. "Because this is a city where traditions are passed forward from generation to generation, and it's also a city that's had a lot of different people and new energy injected into it in the last five years.
"So the idea was that bringing these people together might give a fuller picture of what artists face when they're trying to make a living."
Often, Boyles says, the cross-generational conversation reveals surprising things about what has changed and what's stayed the same in the business of creating culture in New Orleans over the decades.
"We find that people have more in common than you might think," he said, "and also, the learning can go both ways."
Tonight, George Porter Jr. and rapper Dee-1 will talk about, among other things, taking New Orleans-honed music to a larger audience. Dee-1 appears to be on the cusp of a national breakout; Porter has been touring the world for more than 30 years.
The LEH's sponsorship of People Say ends in 2012, which Boyles believes is an opportunity for the series to grow outside of the academy setting. Tonight's event doubles as a holiday party and fundraiser for future People Say talks, with a buffet dinner and DJs spinning afterward. He hopes that this approach - a nightclub setting and relaxed, festive atmosphere - will be what the new People Say looks like, effectively making the context a part of the conversation.
The organizers considered choosing a permanent new home for the series, he said, but ultimately decided to let the theme of each talk reveal the appropriate venue. Bars, artists' studios, theaters and even retail spaces may play host to the series in 2012.
"There are historic spots and venues for music, and other organizations and festivals, that would be well served to have these kind of conversations in their programming," Boyles said.
"By taking it to other places, we're hoping to reach broader audiences, but we're also hoping to talk to artists in the settings that they work in. The idea is to put the conversation into different contexts and not limit it to a strict lecture setting. I really want to be able to take the conversation around the city."
PEOPLE SAY PROJECT
What: "Holiday Shakedown," featuring musicians George Porter Jr. and Dee-1, is the final installment in the 2011 series in which artists from different generations talk about the business of creating art and culture in New Orleans. A buffet dinner will be served, and DJs Maximillion and Yojimbo will spin after the discussion.
Alison Fensterstock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more music news at nola.com/music. Follow her at twitter.com/AlisonF_NOLA .
© 2011 NOLA.com. All rights reserved.