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Hurricane Katrina and the Arts
by Walter Robinson
 

More than three weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, information is still fairly sketchy on the damage to the vibrant art scene in the city and neighboring areas along the Gulf coast.

It seems almost certain that many artists have lost their studios, and that wealthy art patrons with homes along Lake Pontchartrain have suffered damage to or loss of their collections.

On the other hand, the city's museums and the gallery district in the French Quarter have been very lucky, making it through the disaster with limited injury from either the storm or the subsequent looting.

Ordinarily, the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and about 50 art galleries welcome the fall art season with an "Art for Art's Sake" festival on the first October weekend. This year, of course, that welcome may have to wait.

Like many in the city, New Orleans' artists have hurricane tales that are dramatic and inspiring. Dawn Dedeaux, a digital artist who shows with Arthur Roger Gallery, said that she expects that her barnlike studio is "completely blown out -- it's under six feet of water. Much of my work is destroyed. I just hope the slides are okay -- they're up high."

Dedeaux said that she had gotten the evacuation news on Saturday, two days before the hurricane hit, and spent several hours securing her building, packing up her animals, her computer and some of her artworks and waiting in line for gas.

"But I live in a mixed neighborhood," Dedeaux said. "And people were stranded." So out went some of the art cargo and in went the people. Because of the traffic, Dedeaux evacuated to the east and ended up in a house in Gulfport, Miss. -- which was also whacked by the storm. "I went from the frying pan into the fire," she said. Dedeaux spent 10 days in the house, more or less trapped, with the five neighbors she had brought with her from New Orleans.

Now Dedeaux is in Fairhope, Ala., staying in a tree house in a cyprus beside a river, on property owned by her brother, who is a scientist. "I've landed in a magical place," she said.

Hurricane Katrina was an event of Biblical proportions, Dedeaux said. "You're humbled before the force of nature, and you feel very, very blessed to be able to help and be able to make art. In spite of the horror of it all, I'm finding some solace in taking pictures to document some things before it's all bulldozed." Some of her photos can be seen, under the title "Collaboration with Katrina," at www.dawndedeaux.com

In the meantime, some New Orleans dealers are doing business on the web. Aldridge-Leatherman, the gallery operated by Donna Leatherman and Mary Helen Aldridge that shows Biff Elrod, Robert Gordy, Frances Swigart and other artists, hopes to keep its profile high with print ads and its Artnet website.

Aldridge, who is staying with family in Madison, Miss., noted that they had been "really lucky." The studio of the late artist James Louis Steg, whose estate is represented by the gallery, was spared and is "locked up tight," Aldridge said.

Others were less lucky. George Dunbar, an abstract artist who lives on the bayou in Slidell, La., and who showed last year at Hollis Taggart Galleries in New York, is said to have lost his entire studio in the storm, though he and his family are safe. And the New York Times recently reported that sculptor John T. Scott, who recently had a retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art, thinks he has lost his house and studio. 

Joshua Mann Pailet, a photographer and longtime New Orleans resident whose A Gallery for Fine Photography is located in the French Quarter, said that his gallery had come through without damage. "The entire French Quarter is safe and untouched," he wrote in an email after the storm, noting that the neighborhood "just needs to be swept [and] looks less dirty than a typical Mardi Gras day."

Like many New Orleanians, Pailet is currently staying in Baton Rouge -- the city has doubled in size, to perhaps 600,000 people -- but he said that he planned to return to New Orleans soon. He had made "a couple of sales" through his online presence (at www.agallery.com). In the meantime, he's confident that the art in his gallery, including his archive of several hundred thousand of his own negatives, is perfectly safe. "Ventilation is the key to avoiding mildew in this damp climate," he advised.

"The New Orleans Museum of Art is like an oasis in the middle of a lake," Pailet reported, noting the by-now-famous story of the museum staffers who camped out in the museum, standing off FEMA officials who wanted them to evacuate. Generators were used to provide power, lights and climate control.

Though NOMA came through the hurricane with flying colors, other private collections weren't so lucky. Assessments of art losses are only now beginning. Indeed, when NOMA curator William A. Fagaly was reached by cellphone last week, he was at the home of a museum patron, trying to check on the status of the artworks inside.

Other New Orleans dealers are relocating, at least temporarily. Arthur Roger Gallery, which has a gallery on Julia Street and a separate project space, escaped the storm with no damage to artworks. "We are profoundly fortunate," Roger writes on the gallery website. Roger is taking tenancy of a 4,000-square-foot space in Baton Rouge's Warehouse District and plans "a spectacular group exhibition" in early October.

Jeanne Cimino of Heriard-Cimino Gallery, which represents Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt, Carlos Betancourt, Margaret Evangeline, Hunt Slonem, Keith Sonnier and many other artists, is now working from Houston and Baton Rouge. The gallery's current exhibition when the hurricane hit was of mixed media paintings by Carlos Villasante, and the schedule called for shows by Joan Duran in October and George Dunbar in November. Some details can be seen on the gallery website

The people Artnet contacted were optimistic about New Orleans' future. "The historic parts of the city, the French Quarter and the Central Business District, are ready to go, once we get power," said Pailet. "New Orleans will be back, sooner than people think."

But Pailet did sound a cautionary note. "The hurricane has been devastating for many artists," he said. "We have to rally 'round and get them some funding." But he added, "These people are strong people, and when they start making art again we're going to see some extraordinary work."


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.