Like most of the rest of the country in late August 2005, I was glued to images of New Orleans on my television screen as the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfolded: people desperately perched on rooftops awaiting rescue, families crowded into the Superdome, houses threatened by the catastrophic failure of the levee system. Public safety was clearly the highest priority, but as the days passed, we at the Getty began to wonder whether we could play a part in the recovery of one of the country’s most iconic historic cities.
Not long after the disaster, Getty Foundation director Deborah Marrow spoke to the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., a longtime Getty partner. That conversation resulted in a $100,000 grant to the National Trust to establish a field office in New Orleans, the aim of which was to assess damage and convince local officials that hundreds of historic structures “red-tagged” for demolition, including many in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the lower Ninth Ward, could be saved.
The grant to the National Trust was the starting point for the Fund for New Orleans, a Getty Foundation initiative that eventually awarded $2.9 million in grants to help the city’s cultural organizations on the difficult road to recovery. Two months after the storm, when the first hotels in the city finally reopened for business, Deborah sent a team of five staff members representing all four Getty programs to New Orleans to better understand how we might assist cultural organizations and help safeguard collections and historic buildings.
What We Found in New Orleans
Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw: Long stretches of rubble more than 20 feet high, with water-soaked furniture, clothing, and children’s toys tossed willy-nilly; houses in low-lying flooded zones marked in front with a large “X” and listing the number of live and dead bodies found inside; cars in treetops and many roads barely passable.
As we traveled to cultural organizations throughout the city, we heard stories of trauma and resilience. At the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), a staff member found herself alone at the museum as the waters started to rise; she manned a boat, protecting the collection from possible looters. Less than two months after Katrina, staff at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art organized an exhibition of photographs documenting the first weeks after the storm, providing the community with a place to gather, grieve, and share. At Longue Vue House and Gardens, a National Historic Landmark, remedial equipment snaked out of the windows and doors, mitigating the water that had flooded the basement level, which held the mechanical systems that protected the museum’s collections.
Making our way to cultural organizations across the city, we were able to carry news along the route. Most institutions were operating with minimal staff; key personnel had evacuated the city and funds were often scarce to pay those still there. Executive directors struggled to reopen their organizations’ doors even as they coped with personal loss and displacement. None of them, though, doubted that their organizations—and their beloved city—would come back.
What Was Needed
No one questioned the challenges of what lay ahead, but Getty staff were compelled to do what we could to help our fellow arts organizations. Back in Los Angeles, we identified two areas where Getty Foundation grants could make a difference: conservation of collections and built heritage damaged in the aftermath of Katrina, and transition planning grants for key museums and cultural institutions.
Urgent conservation work was needed on several collections that had been submerged and exposed to high humidity. But there were equally important needs, such as updating conservation and emergency preparedness plans, and identifying technical expertise and facilities for a region that lacked them.
Additionally, it was clear that post-Katrina New Orleans was going to be a very different place. The Foundation’s transition planning grants were designed for cultural institutions to have the time and the resources to find thoughtful ways forward, to strengthen senior leadership, and to increase collaboration across a range of arts non-profits.
Ten years on, the accomplishments of our grantees are impressive. Important collections were safeguarded, such as the African collections of the Center for African and African American Studies at Southern University of New Orleans, which had suffered water damage and had been subjected to high humidity for an extended period of time. Volunteer teams organized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation assessed damage, distributed critical recovery information, and saved 150 buildings from the city’s demolition list. The St. Louis Cathedral began an extraordinary series of archaeological discoveries about the early history of the site and eventually restored the Cathedral’s gardens to their historic origins.
The Contemporary Arts Center is now expanding its gallery space and helps other organizations, mostly nonprofits, through its financial services program, which was supported with a Foundation transition-planning grant. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, acting on a recommendation of a grant-funded study, has catalogued and rehoused their archival collections, including moving parts of the collection to climate-controlled, off-site storage. These outcomes and more are captured in a new summary report issued by the Foundation.
Even with these positive outcomes, there is always more work to be done. There is still no conservation facility serving the Gulf Coast, nor adequate climate-controlled storage that could help protect collections should another storm hit the region. But the inspired arts leaders in the city, and their dedicated staff, have created one of the most vibrant art scenes in the country, situated in an historic built environment that preserves the city’s distinctive mix of cultures.
And for those of us who took that trip to New Orleans in 2005, we have fallen in love with the city, returning as often as we can.