- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Baseball-sized French glass Mardi Gras beads still dangle on live oak trees outside the New Orleans Museum of Art. Somehow, they defied Hur-ricane Katrina’s fury.

The Degas, Monet and Gauguin paintings, the jeweled Faberge eggs and the Ansel Adams photographs are all safe inside. Even though storm winds uprooted 60-foot-tall trees nearby and 8-foot-deep floodwaters surrounded the museum like a lake with an island castle, the art treasures were spared.

The museum wasn’t, however, and its scars are just beginning to show.

The New Orleans Museum of Art has been forced to lay off most of its 86 workers; it must raise millions of dollars to survive the next few years; and it will not reopen for months. That’s just for starters.

“It’s going to take years to get back to where we were,” says Jackie Sullivan, the museum’s deputy director. “The toughest time is definitely now.”

The museum’s plight typifies the dilemma a cultural institution here — especially one dependent on city dollars — faces in the post-Katrina era. New Orleans has no money, no sizable number of tourists and no crystal ball to predict when all will change.

Then there’s the matter of priorities.

In a city where hundreds died, thousands of homes were destroyed, jobs are gone and schools and businesses closed, preserving an art museum doesn’t rank at the top of the must-do list.

Nevertheless, E. John Bullard, the museum’s director, argues that art must be part of the city’s revival.

“Obviously, the people have to have houses to live in,” he says. “They have to have hospitals. They have to have schools. I think museums … are on the same level. You can’t live in a cultural desert. Especially in New Orleans. You just can’t.”

The 94-year-old museum, a neoclassical white stone building set on a circle, is important, too, because it attracts out-of-town visitors — and that means money.

The museum will need $15 million in the next three years and is trying to raise money to make up for losing visitors (about 150,000 a year) and fees from its 10,000 members, many of whom have fled New Orleans.

The museum’s crisis came after the storm. Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced in October that New Orleans was broke and had to lay off as many as 3,000 people, about half the city’s work force. That had a dramatic impact on the museum because 60 percent of the staff are civil servants, including most curators. One of them, Dan Piersol, suddenly found himself out of work after 25 years.

“If there’s anyone expendable, it’s got to be museum people,” says Mr. Piersol, who was curator of prints and drawings. “I feared that, and it came true.”

Mr. Piersol says even as the flooding, looting and chaos that enveloped the city were unfolding in horrifying TV images, he was determined to return. “The more I watched, the more I thought this is not going to work,” he says.

Friends, he says, urged him to look for a new job, and he did even before his layoff notice arrived. He was hired quickly as deputy director at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson.

“It was self-preservation,” he says. “Everyone did or will get to that point.”

Miss Sullivan, the deputy director, says the museum had to pare its staff to 14 workers and that with the doors closed, there’s no need for people such as education curators or a volunteer coordinator.

She’s also aware that there will be permanent losses. “The void is tremendous,” she says. “It’s hard to replace someone who was a curator with 30 years of experience.”

Mr. Bullard worries, too, about the obstacles in reopening: Will workers want to return? Where will they find housing? How will his museum compete with other places offering fatter paychecks?

“How many people will want to come to New Orleans at the salary we pay? … When we go to rehire people, it’s going to be hard,” he says.

Many staff members had worked at the museum for a decade or more, and they were a close-knit group, working as a team even as they prepared for Katrina. They took paintings off the walls that were near skylights and put others on wooden blocks in basement storage areas. Some sculptures were brought inside, and some others — including the Mardi Gras beads — were tied to trees.

Several workers — maintenance and security crew members, along with their families — took refuge in the building and stayed there in the turbulent first week after the storm. They were so determined to protect the treasures from possible looters that they refused to leave when they had the chance.

Some stayed downstairs, while others kept vigil on the main floor. They already had stocked up on food and filled giant garbage cans and ice chests with water. They watched the news on a television powered by a generator until they finally were ordered out by the National Guard.

On the Saturday after the storm, Miss Sullivan finally made her way to the building in a harrowing nine-hour journey in a two-boat convoy, passing floating bodies along the way. She was accompanied by M-16-rifle-toting security guards, mostly former New York City police working for a firm that had been hired by the museum’s insurer.

The security force remained there for six weeks. Two Orleans Parish sheriff’s deputies now guard the museum.

Miss Sullivan says she was thrilled at what she found. “I could have just screamed,” she says. “Everything was pristine.”

Although there was no flooding in the galleries, the ground floor had cracks that caused some water to seep into the storage and office areas. Only one sculpture, a piece of furniture, two Kachina dolls and a pair of Japanese screens were damaged, but the inventory is still being taken.

Only a fraction of the 40,000 or so pieces in the museum’s $250 million collection is normally on display. The museum also remains a temporary home to about 1,000 works from private collectors.

The museum needs to make repairs valued at more than $6 million, including fixing the huge freight elevator, waterproofing the basement, landscaping, instal -ling new outside lights and making other improvements in the sculpture garden. Most of those costs will be covered by insurance or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The public will be able to walk around the sculpture garden next month, but the museum won’t be open until March 1, Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bullard plans a fund-raising campaign, making stops in such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago and Palm Beach, Fla., to encourage more people to open their checkbooks.

Already, there are signs of good will. French officials recently announced that they’ll loan some 50 paintings from their institutions, including the Louvre, to be displayed in a special exhibition late next year or in early 2007 at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The museum also will bring some works to a New York gallery next year to raise money and pay tribute to the security force that guarded the building.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide