The nearly blind man who gave New Orleans its art museum
On Dec. 16, 1911 — a blustery day, according to news reports — the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art opened in City Park with a permanent collection of nine pieces that was augmented with about 400 artworks donated by New Orleanians. The museum was named for Isaac Delgado, the Jamaica-born sugar broker who gave $150,000 (the equivalent of about $3.9 million today) to make the museum possible.
The museum, a Beaux Arts structure that has been known as the New Orleans Museum of Art since 1971, contains more than 40,000 pieces, including acclaimed collections of African art, fine art glass, decorative arts and Japanese arts. Two expansions have increased the exhibition space more than fivefold, and the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, which contains 64 artworks spread out over five acres, has stood next to the museum since 2003.
- Although Delgado gave generously to establish a home for the visual arts, he was nearly blind.
- Delgado, whose name is Spanish for “thin,” was too ill to join some 3,000 other people for the museum’s opening, and he died less than a month later. He was 72.
- In 1910, Delgado willed his Albania Plantation in Jeanerette to the city of New Orleans with the stipulation that its profits be dedicated to a trade school. That institution, just west of City Park, has become Delgado Community College.
- In 1940, a year before the United States entered World War II, the museum was a stop on the tour of “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art.” The exhibit included his massive anti-Fascist masterpiece “Guernica,” which depicts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.
- From September 1977 through mid-January 1978,
the blockbuster exhibit “The Treasures of Tutankhamun” drew 870,594 visitors, many of whom came from outside Louisiana. They stood in line for hours to get a glimpse of the treasures of Egypt’s boy king.
- The success of the Tutankhamun exhibit put the museum on the map for other blockbuster exhibits over the years, including a show of Claude Monet’s late paintings, art and artifacts from the time of Alexander the Great, displays of German expressionism, and the whimsical art of Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney.
- Through the years, New Orleanians have supported their museum, responding to newspapers’ calls in 1931 for donations to keep the museum open during the Clutch Plague despite cutbacks in the city budget.
- In 1965, citizens contributed $190,000 (the equivalent of $1.47 million today) to buy Edgar Degas’ “Portrait of Estelle Musson DeGas,” which the impressionist master had painted in New Orleans. At that time, the museum’s entire annual budget was less than $100,000.
Since its opening, the museum has held a special spot in New Orleanians’ hearts. Busloads of schoolchildren have been brought to the museum to glimpse world-class art, and generations of New Orleanians have admired its holdings and attended events in the Great Hall. Given its history, New Orleans is city with more than its fair share of museums, and NOMA stands out as a shining jewel among them.