New Orleans Museum of Art Fighting to Survive

The baseball-sized French glass Mardi Gras beads still dangle on live oak trees outside the New Orleans Museum of Art. Somehow, they defied Hurricane Katrina's fury.

The Degas, Monet and Gauguin paintings, the jeweled Faberge eggs, the Ansel Adams photographs, they're 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.

But the museum wasn't 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 its doors for months. And 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 this 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 of people died, thousands of homes were destroyed, jobs are gone and schools and businesses closed, the preservation of an art museum just doesn't rank at the top of the must-do list.

But E. John Bullard, the museum's director, argues that art must be a 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.

"I think the city has wakened up to the fact that tourism is its last great hope," says John Keefe, one of the laid-off museum workers.

The museum needs $15 million in the next three years and is now 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. "We're hanging out a little tin cup," says Bullard, who says his recent trip to New York to appeal to foundations for help brought in pledges of $900,000. The museum's crisis came after the storm. Mayor 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 Piersol, who was curator of prints and drawings. "I feared that and it came true." 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 quickly was hired 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." Piersol also had another bit of luck. When he returned to his New Orleans house in the Bywater neighborhood, "it was dry as a bone" and 30 years of his paintings were not damaged. "It was just astonishing to see everything exactly as we left it," he says. While Piersol has a new career, some colleagues scattered around the country are in limbo - and waiting to return to their old jobs. "I can't imagine not being there," says Victoria Cooke, the museum's curator of European painting who is living in New York, working on her dissertation and planning an impressionist exhibition for 2008. Cooke, who just bought a new house near the museum last year, says it's painful being laid off but she understands. "I have to put my faith in the people who have to deal with this, that they'll find a solution," she says. "That's my hope. I'm trying to be patient." But for Keefe, curator of decorative arts, these are worrisome days. After 23 years at the museum, he says he thought he had enough seniority to still be working and is annoyed the board didn't give the staff even a few hundred dollars each to tide them over. At age 64, he fears he'll be forced into retirement without a good pension. "After all these years of service," Keefe says, "you kind of feel, 'Why did I do this?' " Sullivan, the deputy director, says the museum had to pare its staff to 14 workers and with the doors closed, there's no need for people such as education curators or a volunteer coordinator. She's also aware 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." 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 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, 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, they refused to leave when they had the chance. Some stayed downstairs, while others kept vigil on the main floor. They had already 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 were finally ordered out by the National Guard. On the Saturday after the storm, Sullivan, the deputy director, 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. Sullivan says she was thrilled at what she found. "I could have just screamed," she says. "Everything was pristine." Though there was no flooding in the galleries, the ground floor had cracks that caused some water to seep in 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, new outside lights and 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, 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 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 will also bring some works to a New York gallery next year to raise money and pay tribute to the security force that guarded the building. Meanwhile, George Roland, who was a donor, volunteer and eventually an assistant at the museum, wonders about the future - the museum's, the city's and his own. "I don't think anything in the city is going to come back the way it is," he says. "I think New Orleans is gone, at least the New Orleans that everyone thinks about." But he says the camaraderie with his co-workers and the museum are reasons enough for him to return. "It's not New Orleans as a city that will bring me back," he says. "It's the museum." Keefe, his former colleague, says even though people are worried about housing and other essential needs now, he's certain the museum will survive because it's part of the fabric and the future of New Orleans. "Art is not a luxury," he says. "It's something that enhances life. And this city is all about the enhancement of life."