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Storm exacts a cultural toll

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The human toll of Hurricane Katrina has been so great that it feels almost indecent to point out that no previous disaster, natural or otherwise, has destroyed so much of America's cultural and artistic heritage over such a wide region.

Museums were damaged or looted. Historic houses were blown away. Private art collections were flooded or shattered. Aquariums lost all their fish. Artists lost their studios or their work.

With more than 1,000 people dead and 1 million displaced, survivors might be too overwhelmed to get worked up about damage to paintings and pottery.

But the Katrina zone is one of those places where attachment to history and culture is in the locals' DNA.

"This is the greatest damage to and loss of cultural institutions and cultural patrimony in the history of the country," says Ed Able, president of the American Association of Museums.

Hurricane Katrina was especially brutal along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where wind and storm surges wiped out entire communities. In Biloxi, a waterfront casino barge was blown into a wing of the unfinished Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, the $30 million showcase designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry.

The museum was to open next year to display works by late-19th-century art potter George Ohr, the "Mad Potter of Biloxi," and of African-American art and ceramics. Now that has been postponed, and director Marjie Gowdy is trying to find money to repair the damage.

Her first glimpse of the scene after the storm was "very emotional, very tough. The barge looks like an aircraft carrier."

Happily, the pottery collection is safe; it had been stored in the public library in downtown Biloxi and now has been moved to the Mobile (Ala.) Museum of Art. The same casino barge also smashed two historic house museums nearby, including the Tullis-Toledano Manor, an 1856 Greek Revival mansion, and the Pleasant Reed House, an 1887 house built by a descendant of slaves.

They are just two of an estimated 250 historic structures that were demolished by Katrina in Mississippi alone. And that doesn't count those that were severely damaged, such as Beauvoir, home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

"I personally manage seven historic sites in Biloxi. Two are left," says Bill Raymond, Biloxi's historical administrator. Seeing what was left of Tullis-Toledano Manor "was the lowest moment of my life."

Some structures, such as Beauvoir, might be repairable, especially if archival documents survived to guide restorers. But many are gone forever, he says; restorers can't fix something that no longer exists.

It also could be difficult to rebuild structures in private hands, such as Shearwater Pottery, the Ocean Springs family compound of famed painter/sculptor Walter Anderson, who died in 1965. The nearby Walter Anderson Museum of Art survived, but Katrina destroyed 15 buildings, inundating Anderson's archives. Friends and art-world admirers are trying to pay for conservation of his damaged works, but some might not be salvageable.

"It was one of the most significant art colonies in the South," says Ken P'Pool, director of historic preservation for the Department of Archives and History. "It's a tragedy."

Museums in New Orleans fared much better, but water and mold damage is the major threat. Before the flooding, at least four private collectors moved their artworks to higher ground at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

"Some prominent collectors sustained substantial damage," says E. John Bullard, the museum's director. "Some people had no flooding but were worried about looting and fire and environmental damage."

The major damage at the museum was to Virlane Tower, a 45-foot metal sculpture by Kenneth Snelson, which was twisted by the wind and dumped in a lagoon. Bullard says it's repairable.

Other museums, such as the Degas House and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, also remained dry, but the New Orleans African American Museum, located in a heavily flooded area, was damaged and is closed. So is the National D-Day Museum, on high ground not far from the convention center; it was looted, but not of artifacts.

Meanwhile, New Orleans' artists and art dealers have been trickling back to the city where the famous joie de vivre has been drawing creative people for decades. "This town is so attractive for art types," says painter George Schmidt, 60, born and raised in the Big Easy. "It's the easygoing lifestyle with a cultural cast to it."

Schmidt's home/studio on Julia Street wasn't flooded, but he knows of at least one artist friend who lost several dozen works to flooding. The Arts Council of New Orleans estimates that at least 1,200 visual artists live in the city.

Shirley Trusty Corey, head of the council, says at least two dozen artists have told her they have nothing left. "A filmmaker told me he lost 400 hours of work and all his editing equipment. Doesn't that just tear your heart out?"

There are about 130 commercial galleries in the city, many of them in districts on high ground. But some stored works in buildings in the flooded neighborhoods. The Arthur Rogers Gallery had more than 1,000 artworks stored in the Egg Building in Mid-City, which lost its roof.

"Once they started to air-dry, they started bouncing back," Rogers says. "It wasn't a total loss, but they'll have to be restored."

Portrait miniaturist Thomas Sully tucked most of his works-in-progress in a box to take when he evacuated before the storm. There was some flooding in his neighborhood but not in his house.

He is determined to return to New Orleans, and he says other artists will be, too.

"This won't kill the local arts -- the culture is resilient and strong. This is only an interruption."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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