Exhibition at Cantor Center features masterpieces spared from Hurricane Katrina


Painted in New Orleans, Portrait of Estelle Musson De Gas (1872), top, was the last in a series of portraits Degas made of his sister-in-law.

COURTESY OF THE NEW ORLEANS MUSEUM OF ART 2008 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Picasso

Woman in an Armchair (Jacqueline Roque Picasso) (1960) by Picasso.

No one will ever know exactly how many billions of dollars Hurricane Katrina cost. Nearly 2,000 people died, hundreds of thousands were left unemployed and a million were redistributed across the nation. Thousands of homes were destroyed.

In such a catastrophe, preserving art did not rank high on anyone's list of priorities—with the exception of a few dozen people at the New Orleans Museum of Art, who risked their lives to preserve the museum's collection.

Some of the results of their efforts are on view at the Cantor Center for Visual Art's current exhibition, Spared from the Storm: Masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art, from June 4 through Oct. 5. The exhibition comprises 80 paintings, drawings and sculptures from the European and American portion of the museum, including some of the most influential artists of the 17th through mid-20th centuries—Baroque master Luca Giordano, impressionist Claude Monet, inventive modernist Pablo Picasso and surrealist René Magritte, to name a few.

The museum has one of the finest and most comprehensive collections in the American South. The exhibition is only a small fraction of the roughly 40,000 pieces in the total collection, which is valued at more than $250 million.

It is a collection to die for. And some of the museum staff were prepared to do exactly that as Hurricane Katrina lowered on the horizon in the summer of 2005. Before the storm, staff brought sculptures inside and tied others to trees. Art in the basement was put up on blocks. Paintings under skylights were moved. Plastic garbage pails and wastebaskets were emptied, washed and filled with fresh tap water for drinking. Thirty people, including museum engineers, maintenance and security crew, a secretary and their families planned to wait out the storm and its aftermath inside the museum.

When Katrina slammed into New Orleans in the early hours of Monday, Aug. 29, it knocked out the museum's electrical power. Plumbing and cooling systems went dead, leaving only a small generator for alarm systems and emergency lights. The wind howled all night. On Tuesday, the levees broke and a new nightmare began.

In the following days, the new community of museum-dwellers rolled out bedrolls in makeshift bedrooms adorned with masterpieces. They foraged for food in the museum café.

Sixty-foot trees near the museum were uprooted, and 8-foot-deep waters surrounded the building. But the treasures of the museum were spared from the storm and from looters, thanks to those who refused to leave when the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered. When the National Guard returned days later, however, the group was airlifted out by helicopter.

On the Saturday after the storm, deputy director Jackie Sullivan made her way to the museum in a treacherous nine-hour journey in a two-boat convoy, passing floating bodies in the toxic waters above the treetops. She was accompanied by New York City police officers armed with assault rifles and a pilot from the Florida Everglades (both retained by the museum's insurers).

Although she had communicated with museum staff by cell phone, she was not sure what she would find when she arrived. Around the museum, 80 percent of the homes and businesses were filled with water. Then she saw the museum on a hill above the city park, a small neoclassical temple on what was suddenly an isolated island. "I could have just screamed," she told the Associated Press. "Everything was pristine."

Thanks to advance preparations, all the art was safe except for a pair of Japanese screens and a pair of Native American Kachina dolls, which suffered minor water damage and could be restored.

To Veranda magazine, Sullivan recalled, "To get down in the basement and see almost no water was unbelievable. You know there is a God." The officers established a beachhead to secure the building.

The true crisis came after the storm. New Orleans had paid museum salaries. With the city in ruins, 70 of the museum's 87 employees were laid off, including most of the curators. With a pre-Katrina operating budget of $5.5 million, the museum suddenly had no revenue flow. The tourism that had brought 150,000 visitors a year to the museum was gone, and a web of cracks had appeared in the cement slab under the building.

Not counting art restoration, the museum was facing an estimated $3 million in structural damage and another $3 million in damages to the sculpture garden.

Museums may not be high on everyone's list of needs, but three months after the storm, museum director E. John Bullard voiced a different set of priorities: "Obviously, the people have to have houses to live in," he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. "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 museum reopened its doors in March 2006.

Spared from the Storm: Masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art is a fundraiser for the museum. Although admission is free for visitors, its appearance at Stanford is supported by the Clumeck Fund and Cantor Arts Center members.

The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday until 8 p.m. Docents lead free exhibition tours on Thursdays at 12:15 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. The center is on the Stanford campus, at Lomita Drive and Museum Way. Parking is free after 4 p.m. and on weekends. For more information call 723-4177 or go online to http://museum.stanford.edu.