The New Orleans Museum of Art remains closed, but its Sculpture Garden is open on Fridays and weekends. And while its landscaping has been restored and most of the sculpture survived intact, the feel of it is somehow different. If you haven't been there lately, you owe it to yourself to go. These days it has a diamond-in-the-rough kind of luster, accentuated by the chaos that lingers all around it. One of the five biggest urban parks in the nation, City Park is also the most under-funded, relying on donations and fees to an unhealthy extent, a situation that always left it slightly ruinous around the edges. Today, that holds true many times over. While the landscape that leads up to the museum and sculpture garden is as pristine as ever, an exploration of its farthest reaches reveals some startling, even shocking, vistas.
My original intention had been to take stock of its wonderful examples of WPA-era architecture as well as the numerous sculptures by the late Enrique Alferez, who during his century-long life was about the closest thing to a sculptor laureate that this city ever had. Most of the distinctive art deco bridges and neoclassical pavilions came through in fine form, but many of the Alferez pieces were in inaccessible areas that were closed off for repairs. Further on, the Alferez-designed hub of Pop's Fountain was apparently intact, but could only be seen from a distance as the gates were closed there too.
The startling part was getting there. Just under the I-610 overpass was what at first suggested a gypsy camp but was actually part of the makeshift tent city built by out-of-state workers on Marconi Meadow. It's a rather squalid, Third World touch, as are the inexplicable rows of abandoned, silt-covered cars lining the access road that wends by the fountain on its way to the park's nether regions.
Presumably, this is all somehow necessary, but it's a disorienting, oddly apocalyptic vision that would have been unthinkable prior to Aug. 29. There were also lots of fallen trees everywhere, but compared to the migrant-worker camps and auto graveyard, they, at least, were natural, if overly plentiful, phenomena.
It's been said that art is really all about context. Change the context and the art's implications change with it. That may help explain why the NOMA Sculpture Garden seems so new again despite being much the same. George Segal's painted bronze Three Figures and Four Benches has always been emblematic of this collection going back to the days when it was located at a streetcar stop by the K&B Plaza on St. Charles Avenue. Today the figures appear freshly cleaned, and -- is it my imagination?-- their stoic expressions look more impatient somehow, as if waiting for insurance adjusters or one of those FEMA trailers. And Rene Magritte's The Labors of Alexander sculpture of a large tree stump with roots engulfing an abandoned axe has never seemed more surreal and philosophical now that it appears amid the actual severed stumps of recently felled trees.
But few gained more resonance than Alison Saar's Travelin' Light, a hollow bronze sculpture of a black man hanging by his feet, a memorial to victims of terrorism. He, too, appears to be waiting, a reminder that those who remain in limbo are mostly African Americans. It also recalls the Hanged Man of the Tarot deck, a symbol of sacrifice and renewal, traits that broadly characterize the city as a whole. These days, the Sculpture Garden is a symbol of beauty that survived tragedy -- and that is the most profound beauty of all.