Museum celebrates a century of bringing art to the masses
Next weekend, the New Orleans Museum of Art is throwing itself a marathon 100th birthday party with concerts by Irvin Mayfield and Amanda Shaw, a roaring midnight DJ set by Mr. Quintron in the Great Hall, a second-line, yoga classes, movies and tours of some of the museum’s 35,000-piece permanent collection.
That’s a far cry from the 1911 opening of the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art — as NOMA was known before 1971 — a well-attended, but seemingly staid celebration of the institution. The museum’s modest permanent collection consisted of nine unremarkable paintings and objects, supplemented by the loan of 400 artworks mostly from the homes of the Crescent City’s elite.
The 31-hour anniversary celebration that starts Friday at 10 a.m. and continues until Saturday at 5 p.m., gives the museum a chance to show off “NOMA 100: Gifts for the Second Century,” a special 110-piece exhibit of birthday presents given by benefactors in honor of the centennial. The show includes artworks by everyone from Kathe Kollwitz to Matthew Barney, plus an otherworldly black-light installation by Louisiana master Keith Sonnier.
On that blustery afternoon in 1911, visitors arrived at the just-completed Beaux-Arts building in City Park from the northwest end of Esplanade Avenue via a freshly shelled roadway, flanked with newly planted shrubs and saplings. A Daily Picayune writer described the structure, designed by Mississippi-born architect Samuel A. Marx, as “a magnificent building, with its marble terrace, great pillars, heavy cornice and frieze, … like a picture of some temple of Rome or Greece, conjured up from the past.”
The museum, as originally built, was considerably smaller, since it lacked the large expansions that were grafted on in 1971 and 1993. The huge stone vases that stand sentinel on each side of the museum entrance arrived too late to be in place for the 1911 opening ceremonies.
Of the estimated 3,000 New Orleanians who attended the opening, there was a notable absence. Isaac Delgado, the Jamaican-born sugar industry magnate and philanthropist who financed the new museum was reportedly too ill to attend.
According to accounts in Prescott Dunbar’s book “The New Orleans Museum of Art: The First Seventy-Five Years,” Delgado is not remembered as a great art lover per se. Instead, he used his fortune to help provide his adopted home with the amenities that he believed would make it a great 20th-century city, including Charity Hospital and Delgado Central Trades School, now known as Delgado Community College.
In a Feb. 26, 1910, letter, Delgado stated his intentions for a museum succinctly: “My desire is to give to the citizens of New Orleans a fireproof building where works of art may be collected through gifts or loans and where exhibitions can be held … I propose to spend on such a building the sum of $150,000.”
Adjusted for inflation, Delgado’s gift would be roughly $3.5 million today.
‘What they most needed’
Ironically, as Delgado’s palace of visual art was coming into being, the 72-year-old benefactor was practically blind, according to Dunbar’s book.
As gentlemen in derbies and women in wide-brimmed Sunday hats stood by, Mayor Martin Behrman took a place on a speaker’s platform erected on the new museum steps and thanked Delgado for a perfectly appropriate addition to the cultural attractions in the artistically inclined Queen City of the South.
A Daily Picayune columnist put a finer point on the matter of appropriateness: “Isaac Delgado, if he had followed the beaten track pursued by others of our city’s munificent public benefactors, might have endowed hospitals or schools or funded libraries. All of these we have, and with far-seeing sagacity and intelligence he gave our people what they most needed.”
Inside the new museum, the balconies of the great hall were decked with palms and other foliage. Paintings with titles such as “Snow and Flood in Flanders,” “Morning on Bayou Boeuf,” and “Shrine of Venus” hung on long picture rods. Weary visitors could rest on pew-like wooden benches arranged before the closely spaced canvases.
At the climax of the opening ceremony, poet Rixford J. Lincoln read a six-stanza dedication to the new museum that included the lines: “Long will this art museum stand in pride, While throngs will daily pour into its door, The Muses to live and speak out from the paint, And spread her mystic light from dome to floor.”
Mention of a dome in the museum architecture seems to have been poetic license.
On Jan. 4, 1912, just weeks after the opening, Delgado died. The next month, the museum held its first exhibit of French Impressionism, including works by Manet, Renoir and Monet. In keeping with the custom of the time, the museum’s Great Sculpture Hall was home to plaster duplicates of famous statues from antiquity, so that art students and others could study classical ideals.
An evolving museum ‘spirit’
Speed ahead 100 years and the tone of the museum’s Great Hall has changed drastically. In June 2010, New Orleans flamboyant glam band Jean-Eric performed in the echoing space, with tattooed go-go dancers on pedestals where, long ago, classical sculptures once stood.
In October 2010, conceptual artists Matt Vis and Tony Campbell smashed plates and wine glasses on the floor of the great hall in artistic protest of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
In June 2011 a celebrated 33-year-old street artist known as Swoon created a huge sculpture made, in part, from debris, and hung it from the ceiling of the Great Hall like a giant jellyfish with tentacles cascading to the columns below.
Susan Taylor, who has been NOMA’s director since 2010, said that one of her goals when she took the reigns of the museum, was to “activate” the large entry space. In 1911, she said, the museum-going experience was different. The predictable European museum plan may have validated educational goals of the time, but the spirit of museums has evolved.
“Activating the space is emblematic of activating the whole museum,” she said, “and engaging the museum more completely in the cultural life of the city. In any space, first impressions are important. The Great Hall is the point of departure.”
In the case of Swoon’s commanding sculpture, Taylor said, people walked through the door and were struck with “a sense of engagement and wonder.” Today, she said, a museum is ideally “a laboratory for cultural engagement.”
“The beginning of NOMA’s new century is marked with new approaches to education, opportunities for encounters with great works of art — both in the collection and in special exhibits — and the museum’s clear commitment to being open and accessible to the people of New Orleans,” Taylor said.
Now, a museum ideally is “a laboratory for cultural engagement,” she said.
Ready for renovation
To enhance the opportunities for interaction, in addition to traditional educational aids, NOMA visitors can look forward to more high-tech exhibit accessories that will allow them to “drill down” into topics more deeply than ever before.
Six years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood that closed the museum for seven months, Taylor said that the NOMA administration is still finalizing FEMA claims. The several million dollars she expects the museum to receive will provide long-needed renovation of the heating and air conditioning system and other maintenance needs.
“Katrina forced the museum to operate at its leanest, most essential levels,” Taylor said, “and to rebuild in a regular, deliberate way. It’s forced everyone to think of priorities.”
Taylor credits her predecessor, E. John Bullard, who served as director for 38 years, with cementing NOMA’s position as one of the finest regional art museums in the county. The collections of African art, photography, Japanese art, fine art glass and decorative arts are among the best anywhere, she said.
In the near future NOMA’s permanent installation of African Art will be redesigned based on curator William Fagaly’s well-received recent exhibit “Ancestors of Congo Square,” she said. A new installation of NOMA’s trove of Spanish colonial painting and sculpture is planned, “reflecting New Orleans’ strong links to that history.” And, she added, “look for enhanced education spaces in the museum in the coming year.”
Doug MacCash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3481. Follow him at twitter.com/DougMacCashTP.
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