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State of the Art

Worth the risk

October 01, 2005

ART IS LONG, LIFE IS SHORT." Hippocrates made that observation more than two millenniums ago, and his works are pretty tough to get through these days unless you're a Latin scholar fueled with heavy doses of caffeine. But a group of low-level museum employees in New Orleans knows exactly what he meant.

During Hurricane Katrina, eight employees at the New Orleans Museum of Art, along with about 30 of their family members, showed their appreciation for art by risking their lives to save it. Starting on Aug. 27, with the hurricane bearing down on New Orleans and local officials issuing evacuation orders, they occupied the museum, taking paintings off the walls and protecting artwork in underground storage areas susceptible to flooding.

On Aug. 31, when officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency came to the museum and urged them to leave, they refused, fearing looters would make off with an art collection valued at more than $250 million.

Living on food from the museum cafe, they were finally ordered to leave by the National Guard on Sept. 2. Two days later, one of the museum's top officials arrived with armed guards hired by the museum's insurer, and the collection was secured. Without the dedication of those employees -- three engineers, two maintenance workers, two security guards and a secretary -- there is no telling what might have happened to some of the city's greatest cultural treasures.

One hundred thirty-three years ago, Edgar Degas painted the final portrait of his cousin and frequent subject, Estelle, while visiting New Orleans. Today it hangs in the city's museum of art, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. As long as people continue to treasure those splashes of colored oil on canvas as much as they do now, it will doubtless hang there long after our short lives are over.

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