I remember going to the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1977 when The Treasures of Tutankhamun came to town. It was a big family expedition. Dad piled us into the old ’68 Ford Country Squire station wagon, the one with the V8 engine and fake wood paneling on the sides that got about eight miles to the gallon. We traveled over the waters of the Mississippi—we lived in Algiers—to the Blue Nile that Lelong Drive had become, its blue-painted pavement flowing from General Beauregard atop his mount at Wisner and Esplanade straight to the heart of NOMA like a psychedelic tributary of Bayou St. John.
Maybe because we visited towards the end of King Tut’s reign over the city, or maybe it was the weather—I remember it being cold, either the fall or the winter—but it did not take us too terribly long to get in, unlike many who had waited eight or more hours for admission at some points during the exhibition. Maybe Dad had bought a museum membership that year; members didn’t have to stand in line.
“It made the politicians and businessmen realize that a big exhibition could generate as much money as a Super Bowl, over a longer period of time, and with upscale visitors.”
The museum had been transformed into a tomb-like interior, with plywood paths taking you from priceless artifact to priceless artifact, ultimately leading to the pharaoh’s 25-pound solid-gold death mask. The sight of that mask up on a pedestal in its glass display case still comes to my mind when I hear the word “priceless,” no matter in what context the word has been uttered.
It was my first trip to NOMA and I’ve thought of King Tut and the Blue Nile with every visit since then. It also marked the first big blockbuster exhibition brought to NOMA after John Bullard became director in 1973. Bullard has now taken a bow and is making his final curtain calls after 37 years as the museum’s director. Although the reins passed to the new Montine McDaniel Freeman Director Susan M. Taylor on Sept. 1, Bullard will remain on as director emeritus through 2011, which is also the year the institution celebrates its 100th anniversary. I talked with Mr. Bullard as NOMA was opening its latest exhibition, Great Collectors/Great Donors: The Making of the New Orleans Museum of Art, 1910-2010, the first of many events to celebrate the museum’s centennial throughout 2011.
“King Tut and Katrina were the two bookends of my directorship,” Bullard says of the blockbuster exhibit that changed the museum forever at the beginning of his career and the blockbuster storm that nearly ruined all. In between, Bullard shepherded the museum through a period of tremendous growth, sparked in no small part by The Treasures of Tutankhamun.
He recalls how King Tut came to NOMA. At the time, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was looking for some extra PR for his country during the Camp David peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel. The exhibit was presented as a gift to the American people in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial. A New Orleans businessman had heard about Egypt’s plans, and the lobbying for New Orleans began.
Bullard says, “Verna Landrieu was head of the local bicentennial commission, so she got Moon [Mayor Moon Landrieu] to go to Washington, D.C. to see the Egyptian ambassador, and we had our congressional delegation going to see him, as well. They did want a specific geographic distribution—Washington, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles—and then they wanted somewhere in the South. I was somewhat skeptical this would happen; surely it would go to Houston or Dallas or Atlanta, where they had a bigger resident population.
“We made a good case. We talked about the two great delta cities in the world, and the Mississippi and the Nile, and they selected us. That was before we expanded in 1990, so the museum was not quite half the size it is now. We didn’t sell tickets in advance, so we had bleachers for people to wait in.”
The exhibit’s impact was enormous. “In a normal year before Tut, we would have had maybe 100,000 visitors,” says Bullard. “In the four months of Tut, we had 900,000 visitors—it was a transforming experience for the museum. Our membership went from 3,000 to 25,000. Remember, [members] didn’t have to stand in line; they got immediate admittance. So we had lots of Texas members for a year.”
There were far-reaching economic consequences for the city, as well. “It made the politicians and businessmen realize that a big exhibition could generate as much money as a Super Bowl, over a longer period of time, and with upscale visitors,” he observed. The exhibit thus paved the way to a greater awareness of the impact the cultural economy could have on our region.
Years of Growth
Under Bullard’s direction, the museum’s collection expanded from about 5,000 items to more than 35,000. “The great majority have come from gifts. We’ve been able to increase the money we have for purchases; that’s the fun part of being in a museum. As my mentor said, ‘Nothing beats collecting art with other people’s money.’ But it’s still very small compared to donations [of items].”
Collections that blossomed at NOMA during these years include photography, one of the first areas Bullard influenced. Soon after he arrived, the board asked him to formulate an acquisitions policy to guide future growth. With limited cash to acquire new art, Bullard recommended the museum begin a comprehensive photography collection as the most cost-effective course of action. It paid off; the hundreds of master works purchased each year during his first five years as director were obtained at what soon became bargain prices as collectors took notice of the art form in the years following.
The Native American, Asian, African, Oceanic and decorative arts collections all grew considerably and are now among the finest in the country. The establishment of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden was a milestone of Bullard’s directorship. Set among City Park’s live oaks, magnolias and lagoons, the garden is a five-acre preserve featuring 57 sculptures, 44 of which were donated from the Besthoffs’ own collection. “The sculpture garden has been one of the great accomplishments. It’s done great things for the museum and the city,” Bullard says.
The northshore, in no small measure, has benefited from Bullard’s involvement. The museum has a special membership group NOMANS (NOMA North Shore) organized by local members, including Charles and Sherry Snyder, Mike and Brenda Moffitt, Bryan and Jackie Schneider and Scott Chotin. “The idea was to share the museum’s collection with some of our sister institutions on the northshore, to not only help them with their exhibitions, but also to introduce the museum to the people living over there and maybe attract them to coming over to New Orleans and the museum.”
After some one-weekend shows at two private galleries (Picasso in the Pines, William Woodward, an American Impressionist in the French Quarter), a show was put together in conjunction with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the First Baptist Church in Covington. The museum, however, wanted to exhibit with non-profit organizations and for a longer period of time than what had essentially been “one-night stands.” “We have identified and developed a nice partnership with Slidell Cultural Center, where we had the Blue Dog Days of Summer, a big success. We just had a show of contemporary Louisiana women artists at the St. Tammany Art Association. Our other partner on the northshore is the Hammond Regional Arts Center. We feel comfortable with putting things in those three venues. They have climate control and security; they can be up for a month or six weeks, and it’s worth the effort,” Bullard says.
In April of 2011, NOMANS will be at the Hammond Regional Arts Center. “It’s going to be an exhibit that focuses on three iconic artists from the ’70s and ’80s: Ida Kohlmeyer, George Dureau and Robert Gordy,” he notes.
A Century of Art
When it opened on Dec. 16, 1911, The Isaac Delgado Museum of Art owned only 11 works of art. Founder Isaac Delgado, a sugar factor, had given the city $150,000 for its construction. While Delgado’s handsome neo-classical portico remains the face of the museum, additions over the years have increased its exhibition space to 13 times the original size. The museum was renamed The New Orleans Museum of Art in 1971.
Although not an art collector, Delgado’s colleagues convinced him that a city of New Orleans’ size and importance deserved a great art museum. Response by the city’s residents was enthusiastic. Local collectors lent or donated more than 400 works of art for its first exhibition, and works donated by collectors continue to form the backbone of the museum’s inventory.
NOMA is celebrating this legacy with the first exhibition of the centennial season, Great Collectors/Great Donors: The Making of the New Orleans Museum of Art, 1910-2010. Mr. Bullard was curator of the show, which highlights the gifts of 27 of the more than 74 patrons whose donations have built NOMA’s collection into one of the finest in the South. The exhibit runs until Jan. 23.
Arranged chronologically, it first celebrates early donors such as Eugenia Harrod, Morgan Whitney, Mr. and Mrs. Chapman Hyams and Alvin Howard who gave or bequeathed their collections in the first decade of the museum’s existence. These benefactors established the museum’s collections of Chinese art, French painting and sculpture, Louisiana art and the decorative arts.
Bullard notes that a nearly 40-year drought in major acquisitions followed.
Director Ellsworth Woodward abhorred modern art and alienated major collector and board member Hunt Henderson, who had taken an interest in artists such as Picasso, Braque and Georgia O’Keeffe. The museum thus lost out on Henderson’s otherwise (to Woodward) acceptable collection of French impressionists, including Monet, Renoir and Degas. After Woodward’s departure, the remainder of the 1930s saw a city mired in the Great Depression, which was soon followed by the turmoil of World War II.
Five-and-dime store magnate Samuel H. Kress, an avid collector of Italian Old Masters, donated three paintings to the museum in the 1930s. In 1953, the museum received 29 more from his collection, representing more than 400 years of European art. A major collection of over 3,000 pieces of glass dating from ancient Egypt to the 19th century came from Melvin Billups during the ’50s and ’60s. During the 1960s, major additions in contemporary art were given by donors such as Mr. and Mrs. Frederick M. Stafford and Edith Stern. The Stafford collection was so geographically and historically comprehensive it inspired the name of the 1966 Stafford exhibit, Odyssey of an Art Collector: Unity in Diversity, Five Thousand Years of Art, and to the museum’s annual gala, the Odyssey Ball.
Bullard’s directorship saw an explosion of philanthropy, as major collectors entrusted the fruits of their life’s passion to NOMA. One of the most significant was New York financier Victor Kiam. (He was the father of the Remington Shaver CEO Kiam, whose famous commercials touted he liked the shaver so much he bought the company.) A collector of modern paintings and sculpture, Kiam also had a significant collection of Oceanic and African art. Bullard recalls that although Kiam was pursued by New York institutions who wished to be his beneficiary, Kiam wanted his collection to go to a smaller museum where it would be of major importance and more likely to be on permanent display.
“We went to New York to meet with Kiam. One of our trustees owned a brownstone in the city where she kept a great deal of her art collection. There was going to be a cocktail party; we were going to show Mr. Kiam that his collection would go along well with the trustee’s, and so on. After an hour, he hadn’t shown up, and after a couple of hours we called and were told Mr. Kiam would not be coming; he had dropped dead in the street.”
Unbeknownst to everyone, Kiam had changed his will six months before, bequeathing his entire collection to NOMA. Almost half the paintings had to be relinquished to his heirs, unfortunately. However, 17 works—four by Joan Miro, three each by Picasso and Jean Dubuffet, two each by Alberto Giacometti and Georges Braque, plus works by Americans Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock and Sam Francis—transformed NOMA’s collection of modern art to one of national importance. Kiam’s collection of 180 Oceanic and African sculptures that NOMA received elevated the museum’s importance in these areas, as well. Bullard says a Hawaiian statue in this collection, gathered during Capt. Cook’s third (and fatal) visit to the islands in 1779, may be the rarest piece in the entire museum.
The comprehensive exhibition continues with stunning displays of significant additions made to NOMA’s decorative arts, photography and non-European art collections made during Bullard’s tenure. Generous donors include Dr. Kurt Gitter, a major collector and contributor of Japanese art; Mercedes and Thomas Whitecloud’s collection of Native American art; Siddharth Bhansali’s collection of Indian art; and Perry E. H. Smith’s Haitian art, among many others.
After speaking with him about his career and the exhibition, I asked Mr. Bullard, a native of Los Angeles, what, outside of NOMA, he liked about living in New Orleans. “The ambience of New Orleans, the architecture, the trees and the people—it’s a great place to live,” he says, adding, “But I’d have to say the food. I weigh a hundred pounds more than when I came to New Orleans, keeping in mind that I’ve lost 50 pounds four or five times.”
He’s grateful for the top-notch talent on NOMA’s staff, which grew to 95 employees before Katrina, when it was reduced to 15. Now it’s at 55, only enough to be open five days a week. “[During Katrina], one of our staff died in her house; she drowned. I would say half the staff had serious damage, if not total loss, to their houses. We were never able to rehire many that we laid off; they left the city. We were lucky we didn’t lose any art, but we had about $6 million in damages to the garden and the building.”
Bullard notes that NOMA was spared the worst of the catastrophe. “There was some water flooding in the garden, but not as high as the rest of the park.” There was also a silver lining: “Katrina’s actually had an incredible positive effect on City Park. It’s been transformed, which is great for the museum, because we’re really like the jewel in the setting. They have the money now to employ people to keep the grass cut and trimmed and the park really looks nice.” The museum has pulled off some major exhibitions since the storm: Femme, femme, femme: Paintings of Women in French Society from Daumier to Picasso from the Museums of France in 2007, George Rodrigue’s Louisiana: Cajuns, Blue Dogs, and Beyond Katrina in 2008 and Dreams Come True: Art of the Classic Fairy Tales from the Walt Disney Studio in 2009-2010.
Much of Bullard’s retirement will be spent up north. He’s owned a summer home in Maine for most of the time he’s lived in New Orleans. He explains, “When I came here, a trustee said, maybe jokingly, ‘John, you know, it’s so hot in New Orleans in the summer the board doesn’t meet in July and August. We all go away, and you should go away, too.’ Well, you don’t have to tell me twice. I’ll probably spend four or five months [in Maine] now and the rest in New Orleans.”
I asked him to name his favorite work in the museum—the one, if banished to a desert island and only allowed one piece of art, he would take into exile. It was probably an unfair question, and it was difficult for him to answer. “One work. Oh my. They’re like my children,” he says. “It probably would be a painting from the Kiam collection, since I’m painting-oriented. Maybe one of the Miros. That small Miro, Personages in the Presence of a Metamorphosis, might be the one.”
He offered a final thought on the city. “There are a lot of wonderful art museums much greater than ours that are in cities I wouldn’t necessarily want to live in. Toledo, Ohio; Kansas City; Minneapolis; or Cleveland—Cleveland has one of the great art museums in America. In New Orleans, everyone wants to come and visit you. When you travel, people know jazz and the food. It’s a place you can be proud of, even with all of our problems.”
The exhibit Great Collectors, Great Donors will be on display through Jan. 23. Check NOMA100.com and NOMA.org for more centennial events and information.Filed under: Arts, Front Page News, January-February 2011