Asante Saalam is the Director of The Helis Foundation John T. Scott Center. Credit: Othello Carter

“I remember [at Xavier University’s Art Department] somebody handing somebody something and they said, ‘Thank you.’ But the response was not ‘You’re welcome,’ the response was ‘Pass it on.’ I have never forgotten that. [And] the reason is that the philosophy there was the only way you can thank me for giving you something is you have to give it to somebody else.” — John T. Scott

The legacy of the late New Orleans visual artist John T. Scott will be passed on for generations to come at the new Helis Foundation John T. Scott Center at the Louisiana Endowment for Humanities’ historic Turner Hall building at 938 Lafayette Street.  The work of the Xavier University professor, who won a  MacArthur Fellows “Genius Grant” in 1992, is displayed in a stunning 6,000-square-foot interactive space funded by The Helis Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Louisiana. It will open to the public on Saturday (Sept. 10).

“Urban Warrior: Swaddling Close” by John T. Scott. Credit: Othello Carter

Visitors will see a vast collection of Scott’s work including sculptures, prints, multimedia paintings, and woodcuts. The Louisiana Endowment for Humanities also plans to publish a book about Scott’s life called, “Passing It On: The Art of John T. Scott,” co-authored by his wife, Ana Rita Scott, and local historian Freddi Williams Evans.

“The John T. Scott Center is a remarkable display of Scott’s brilliance,” Evans said. “It showcases his mastery of multiple genres demonstrating that he was more than just a sculptor or just a printmaker. Scott defied efforts that would have restricted his ways of creating art. He resisted critics who tried to label and categorize him, which would have altered how writers described his work and talent. The gallery is stunning. It’s a fitting tribute to Scott as well as to the New Orleans community.” 

A son of the 9th Ward, Scott began his formal pursuit of being an artist at Xavier University.  He would eventually become an esteemed professor there for more than 40 years.  His art spans the city and can be seen at the gates of the  New Orleans Museum of Art’s courtyard.  “Spirit House,” which he collaborated with his former student Martin Payton, can be seen at the intersection of St. Bernard Avenue, Gentilly Boulevard and DeSaix Boulevard.  “Street Windows” can be seen inside New Orleans City Park and “Ocean Song” can be viewed in Woldenberg Park. 

Visitors can explore the John T. Scott Center’s installations and exhibitions and engage in community learning and programming based on Scott’s artistic themes through the lens of humanities. 

New Orleans native and artist Asante Salaam, the John T. Scott Center’s director, sees the facility as a place of inspiration for future artists.

The mural, “Lessons” painted by Ayo Scott graces the outside of the building that bares his father’s name. Credit: Othello Carter

“Having the center means that the next generation of New Orleans artists — especially Black and BIPOC and native New Orleanian artists and culture makers — have a place where they can experience, co-create and witness reflections of themselves and our truths in a center of possibilities,” she said. 

Salaam, a former interim director for the City of New Orleans’ Office of Cultural Economy is a multidisciplinary artist and a seasoned arts director. She has been a strategic arts leader in the city and beyond including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation, the Louisiana State Museum, Ashé Cultural Arts Center, KIDsmART, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Salaam, daughter of celebrated New Orleans writer Kalamu ya Salaam, sees her position at the center as legacy work that helps preserve authentic New Orleans culture and community wisdom. “Upon learning about the center and the position, I was immediately and deeply inspired to do this legacy work and make my ancestors proud,” Salaam said. 

Because her father and Scott, who died in 2007, were friends and contemporaries, Salaam grew up intimately knowing the importance of Scott’s art in New Orleans and is uniquely positioned to curate the center’s ambitious mission.

“Our elders and ancestors prayed and pray that our lives are beyond their bold, expansive, blessed imaginings. I represent so many who stand on the shoulders of greatness, conjuring visions, faith and courage,” Salaam said. 

John T. Scott’s signature piece, Dancing At The Crossroads.” 1996; painted aluminum. Credit: Othello Carter

Scott’s legacy was also passed to his son, Ayo Scott. Like his father, some of the younger Scott’s work occupies public spaces in New Orleans. His mural of the late Leah Chase in her kitchen is prominently featured in the restaurant’s airport location. He also painted “Lessons,” a mural on the side of the Louisiana Endowment for Humanities’ building that serves as a visual ode to his father.  Ayo Scott also co-curates an open mic poetry series in New Orleans, fittingly called, Pass It On.

But it was the late Scott’s work that helped pave the way for public art opportunities from which marginalized artists reap benefits today. His visual commentary on life through the lens of a New Orleanian makes the center a must-see experience and a necessary homage to Scott’s creative lifetime.

The abundance of work Scott produced to pass on is remarkable and is worthy of scholarship and celebration. Themes in Scott’s art, such as honoring ancestors, displacement of people, jazz and civil rights, and urban life are the foundation for the Center and provide an opportunity for everyone to pass it on.  

A glimpse of the 6,000-square-foot Helis John T. Scott Center. Credit: Othello Carter

Grand Opening Events

The Helis Foundation John Scott Center, 938 Lafayette Street

Grand Opening Celebration 

Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022 – 10:00 a.m.-3 p.m.
Open house and family fun including live music, food trucks, art workshops, snowballs and more.

Constitution Day Event 

Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 – 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
The Eye of the Beholder: Why New Perspectives On Historical Documents Open Old Wounds: A Constitution Day lecture, in partnership with LEH Public Programs Division, featuring 2022 Humanities Book of the Year awardee Fatima Shaik.

Collaboration at the Crossroads 

Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 – 4:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m.
A moderated panel discussion with an introduction to Scott, the center and programming partnership opportunities. 

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Kelly Harris-DeBerry

Kelly Harris-DeBerry is a poet and freelance writer. "Freedom Knows My Name" is her debut book. Her website is www.kellyhd.com