New order 

Lisa Rotondo-McCord

Lisa Rotondo-McCord didn’t intend to become one of the nation’s leading experts on post-disaster museum management. Her work could easily be called on-the-job training.

It is a highly specialized skill set, one learned from experience. Before Hurricane Katrina, Rotondo-McCord was the curator of Asian art at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). When Katrina swept through New Orleans in August 2005, nearly destroying everything in its wake, she learned firsthand the true value of art within the community.

The Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center–sponsored lecture, titled New Orleans Museum of Art: Restoring Hope After Hurricane Katrina, hopes to illustrate how art is a key part of a vital community. Rotondo-McCord might, in fact, provide the most compelling evidence about the transformative power of art within a community.

The museum staff started its efforts within a week after the hurricane.

“When I came back to work, the primary concern was the care and preservation of the collection,” Rotondo- McCord said.

The museum staff of 300 had been reduced to 12.

To compound the city’s problems, another hurricane hit Louisiana only one month later.

“It was a huge blow, psychologically. That was when the public started with, ‘Should we rebuild, or should we abandon?’” Rotondo-McCord said.

For NOMA museum director John Bullard and his tiny team, there was never any question whether the museum would rebuild.

“There were three of us working in the museum,” Rotondo-McCord said. “We came in, devised a plan, and we did what needed to be done.”

Bullard insisted that it was not a matter of if they reopened; it was a matter of when. It was around that time that Rotondo-McCord and the others noticed something happening on the five acres of sculpture gardens and landscaping around the museum.

It is a beautiful, quiet space for reflection. In the month following the hurricane, the museum employees saw a group of volunteers and former employees of the garden working to restore it.

Even though it had yet to be restored to its former beauty, people recognized it for what it represented. That image is what stays with Rotondo-McCord when she talks about the necessity of the arts in a community. “When we reopened, we knew that we couldn’t ask people to pay, not in those circumstances,” Rotondo-McCord said.

The museum asked for donations instead.

Erin Oldfield, the director of education and public programming for Oklahoma Contemporary, said the story of NOMA and its role in the community will resonate with Oklahomans.

“We’ve been through our share of tragedy,” Oldfield said, “and that’s why I think this is so important [for Oklahomans] to hear.”

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