By Kristin Kelly and Joan Weinstein
Arguably the most debilitating disaster ever to befall a major American city, Katrina brought with it an incomprehensible loss of life and major devastation to the urban fabric of New Orleans, often called the most unique city in the United States. The cities of the U.S. Gulf Coast—Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Gulfport, and Biloxi among them—were similarly affected.
In New Orleans itself, a number of cultural institutions were severely damaged by flooding and high winds, though many located on the city's higher ground survived physically. But all cultural institutions, whether physically damaged or not, were faced with the fact that post-Katrina New Orleans would be a very different place—one with a different demographic and with reduced tourism, and a place where previous methods of operation were no longer viable. The survival of the museums and cultural and historic institutions of New Orleans would depend on their ability to adapt.
Disaster Planning on the Gulf Coast
Cultural institutions situated on the U.S. Gulf Coast live with the constant threat of disaster during the hurricane season. When Hurricane Katrina struck, many of these were in the midst of strategic planning processes, several of which highlighted the need for a disaster preparedness plan. Post-Katrina, these planning processes were rethought, and in many cases, they have become the outline for the survival of the institutions.
In August 2005, the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Mississippi, was in the middle of a major expansion. Devoted to the presentation of the cultural heritage of the Gulf Coast and inspired by the innovative work of George Ohr, "The Mad Potter of Biloxi," the museum had commissioned architect Frank Gehry to design a new six-building complex—the opening of which would have focused national and international attention on Biloxi and the cultural community of the Gulf Coast. By the end of the day on August 29, the framing for the new structures had been crushed by a casino barge that was lifted from the waters just offshore and deposited on the construction site. Other structures on the site were completely destroyed.
The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, however, had an excellent disaster plan in place. The staff was able to secure the pottery collection in situ on the second floor of the museum building. No part of the collection was harmed, despite the fact that approximately three feet of water entered the first floor. But there was one aspect the disaster plan never addressed—the aftermath. While the collections were unharmed, security guards hired to protect them left to be with their families. Staff and board members obtained permission to store the collections at the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama. Almost a year after Katrina, the Ohr-O'Keefe museum's physical plant was still uninhabitable, and the collections were moved again to a secure vault at Mississippi State University, where they remain. The museum is currently working to update its disaster plan, including comprehensive plans for action during and after a disaster and the establishment of a written chain of command. The staff is also searching for long-term storage sites well north of the Mississippi Gulf Coast that can be shared with other cultural institutions in the region.
The National Historic Landmark Longue Vue House and Gardens in New Orleans is the former home of Edgar and Edith Stern, liberal philanthropists who supported causes from the United Negro College Fund to the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. The historic property survived Katrina but not the breach of the Seventeenth Street Canal less than a mile away, an event the disaster plan did not anticipate. The basement flooded to a depth of ten feet, and all mechanical, electrical, and original HVAC equipment was destroyed. Polluted waters also heavily damaged the site's historic gardens, designed in the 1930s by Ellen Biddle Shipman. When Executive Director Bonnie Goldblum gained limited access to the site two weeks later, she found temperatures from 89°F to 90°F in the building—and humidity levels to match.
Temporary climate control and dehumidification began in late September 2005, followed by emergency repairs to the heavily damaged HVAC and electrical systems. Two years after Katrina, Longue Vue staff and board members are now completing a long-range conservation management plan that will guide the future use and interpretation of the eight-acre site. The plan seeks to highlight the inspirational beauty of Longue Vue's superb design and the outstanding philanthropy of its donors. With the legacy of the Sterns in mind, the goal is to make Longue Vue a key educational and cultural resource in the rebuilding of the city. These efforts have been supported by a grant from the Getty Foundation. "Getty support, following Hurricane Katrina, has given Longue Vue House and Gardens—and many of the other cultural organizations of the city—the opportunity to re-envision our mission, goals, capacity, and relevancy, which is vital to our growth and sustainability, as well as to the revitalization of the city," says Goldblum.
When the levees broke, the African artifact collection from the Center for African and African American Studies at the Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) was submerged in salt water for over four weeks before staff could reach it. The high levels of heat and humidity in the building and the lack of electricity resulted in extensive mold growth—even for objects stored on the highest shelves. Following their emergency plan, staff eventually moved the entire salvageable collection, more than seven hundred objects, to a storage facility forty miles away, where it was placed in containment using anoxic fumigation to arrest mold growth. Conservation treatment on the SUNO collection, begun just recently, will take several years. In the interim, the university will plan for the future storage and display of the collection, keeping in mind the difficult lessons learned from Katrina.
Museum collections that were subjected to less flooding generally fared much better, as staff were able either to move objects to safekeeping or to maintain them in situ. The larger issues for all these institutions were protecting their collections in the general chaos that reigned after the hurricane, as well as figuring out if they could survive in a city where their audiences had disappeared overnight.
A New Model of Cultural Collaboration
Cultural tourism—whether for the internationally famous music, the distinctive food, or the city's historic landmarks—has always been an important part of the economy of New Orleans. After Katrina, with no audiences remaining, traditional revenue streams for cultural institutions all but vanished, necessitating massive staff layoffs—more than two-thirds of the personnel at most institutions. Cultural leaders in the city quickly realized that past operating methods would not work for the foreseeable future—and that any future they might have would depend upon collaboration.
They were encouraged in this belief when local audiences responded enthusiastically to the first post-Katrina cultural offerings, which included concerts and other collaborative events by the museums and cultural organizations in the city's Warehouse Arts District. This response signaled a renewed and expanded role for cultural institutions in rebuilding the city, and the cultural community was asked to prepare a report as part of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission. This report detailed the situation in New Orleans at the beginning of 2006 and made recommendations in five broad areas—rebuilding New Orleans's talent pool; supporting community-based cultural traditions and repairing and developing cultural facilities; marketing New Orleans as a cultural capital; teaching cultural traditions to the next generation; and attracting new investments and building information resources. Each of these areas had specific, targeted recommendations. The full text of the report can be found online.
Led by the Contemporary Arts Center and its executive director Jay Weigel, eight organizations are engaged in ongoing strategic planning that will benefit each of the institutions individually. More importantly, however, this planning will bring the organizations together to work across institutional boundaries to benefit the whole of New Orleans. They began with a study of their past and current audiences and of the major demographic shifts in the city that will impact the role of the arts in the community. They are also exploring strategies for collaboration, from joint programming to merging organizations. Weigel states, "Since Katrina, our arts community has been at the center of the New Orleans recovery, due in large part to the collaborative spirit that has emerged between art institutions, artists, and funders dedicated to Gulf Coast recovery." Their efforts have been aided by a grant from the Getty Foundation's Fund for New Orleans, which has provided $2 million to arts organizations for historic preservation and transition planning in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Kristin Kelly is a principal project specialist with the GCI. Joan Weinstein is associate director for grants programming at the Getty Foundation.