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New Orleans’s cultural creators help attract people to the city and keep them here, but these creators don’t benefit like they should. What’s being done to change this?


At the heart of New Orleans’ economy is a diverse and thriving cultural sector that encompasses music, food, art and heritage.

This cultural economy, though intangible in many ways, forms an essential part of the city’s identity and economic backbone — providing countless opportunities for local residents to showcase their talents and traditions to the world while driving economic growth.

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“It’s clear that New Orleans culture is a massive driver in the economy of New Orleans,” said Ethan Ellestad, executive director of Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO). “It is the center of the multi-billion-dollar tourism industry, and for better or worse, right now that’s what’s driving our economy.”

One of MaCCNO’s primary missions is to advocate for artist rights, including fair wages, proper contracts and affordable access to performance venues. By providing legal resources and support, MaCCNO empowers artists to protect their interests in the world of business and finance. The organization acts as a bridge between cultural entrepreneurs and financial institutions. By fostering partnerships and advocating for the unique financial needs of cultural businesses and creators, the organization helps ensure that these enterprises have the financial support they need to thrive.

But Ellestad also said there’s a caveat to the premise that culture drives the economy here.

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“Despite the billions the culture brings, we don’t see a lot of money actually coming down to the community itself,” Ellestad said. “A lot of that money is brought into the city, but [it is] not hitting the people that are actually creating the culture that brings people here. And so, for us, I think the key is how do we make sure those benefits really flow back into the people? And how do you make sure the people that are creating their culture are really going to be the ones that drive the economy themselves?”

One way MaCCNO helps direct money produced by the cultural economy flow down to the creators is through the New Orleans Tourism and Cultural Fund, or NOTCF. MaCCNO partners with them as a fiscal agent. As a nonprofit, NOTCF can’t award grants to individuals, so they send the grants to MaCCNO, which then works to distribute the funds to the individuals who apply for it .

“We’re trying to support the cultural community in a larger sense, not just musicians and group culture bearers, but also artists and street performers — anyone who’s self-identified as a cultural creator.  The goal is to make sure that they’re able to meet some of their basic needs and stay here in the city.”

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And while efforts to put more money into the hands of the people who drive the culture that drives the economy, Ellestead also said it would be beneficial to have more official representation of the cultural community in the city and in institutions designed to support the culture.

“There aren’t a lot of people that are cultural creators in leadership roles in a lot of these larger organizations,” he said. “You don’t have musicians. You don’t have small-venue owners. You largely have big hotel owners and legacy restaurant owners in the leadership roles. New Orleans really needs to start to change that paradigm and getting people that are in these small businesses and the culture creators into leadership roles so they can direct the funds and make the industry more equitable.”

Drew Hawkins is a writer and journalist in New Orleans. He’s the health equity reporter in the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among public radio stations in Louisiana (WWNO and WRKF), Alabama (WBHM) and Mississippi (MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting) and NPR. He’s also the producer and host of Micro, a LitHub podcast for short but powerful writing.


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