Rescuing Art From the Rubble of the Quake

Published on 10 May 2010

Author(s): New York Times/Kate Taylor

Type:  Feature

The Smithsonian Institution organizes a rescue mission to conserve all kinds of art objects from the rubbles. They will work side-by-side with Haitian staff

Susan Blakney, a paintings conservator from New York, scrambled up a mound of rubble left by the collapse of the Episcopal Holy Trinity Cathedral here, searching for small shards of the cathedral’s murals. The cathedral is a cherished part of this country’s cultural heritage and most of its murals were destroyed in the earthquake that struck here in January. Two from the north transept, though, one depicting the Last Supper and the other the baptism of Christ, remain largely intact. “It looks like there are some chunks underneath here,” Ms. Blakney, 62, yelled to colleagues working with her last Thursday in an effort to save thousands of works of art damaged in the quake.

The rescue is being organized by the Smithsonian Institution, which is to open a center here in June where American conservators will work side-by-side with Haitian staff members to repair torn paintings, shattered sculptures and other works pulled from the rubble of museums and churches. Haitian artists and cultural professionals have been conducting informal salvage operations for the past four months. But the Americans are bringing conservation expertise — there are few if any professionally trained art conservators in Haiti — and special equipment, much of it paid for by private money.

The initiative, in its swiftness, its close collaboration with a foreign government and its combination of private and government financing, represents a new model of American cultural diplomacy, one that organizers believe stands in stark contrast to the apathy Americans were accused of exhibiting during the looting of Iraqi artistic treasures in 2003. “Mistakes have been made in the past, in times of great tragedy or upheaval, by not protecting and prioritizing a country’s cultural heritage,” said Rachel Goslins, the executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which has been involved in finding money for the project. “I think this is a huge opportunity for us to say, ‘We get it.’ ”

The initial financing is coming from three federal agencies and the Broadway League, the trade group for theater owners and producers. Smithsonian officials say the project will cost $2 million to $3 million over the next year and a half, after which the center is expected to be turned over to the Haitian government. Ms. Blakney traveled here last week with two other conservators, a museum curator, and a group of engineers and planning experts from the Smithsonian. The conservators’ task was to assess precisely what kinds of damage the art had sustained, not just from the earthquake but from subsequent exposure to rain and sun and from improper storage both before and after the quake. Based on that information, they will decide what specialized equipment that they, or whoever the Smithsonian ends up sending to work at the center, will need.

Restoring the most compromised art will not be a job for beginners. If the Episcopal Church decides to save the surviving murals from Holy Trinity, which were painted in the early 1950s by some of Haiti’s most famous artists, they will probably need to be removed from the damaged building — a feat of engineering as much as conservation that would involve gluing a piece of fabric to the face of each mural and attaching the mural to a secondary support structure of plywood or steel before chiseling it away from the wall. In her search through the rubble, Ms. Blakney found some small pieces of painted concrete that have now been brought to the Smithsonian for an analysis that will help to determine the right adhesive to use.

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A portion of a renowned mural depicting the Last Supper at the Episcopal Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince (Maggie Steber for The New York Times)

The American conservators will spend part of their time training Haitians in conservation, in preparation for turning the laboratory over to them. The rescue operation came together largely because of the efforts of Corine Wegener, a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and a retired Army major who served in Iraq shortly after the looting of the Iraqi National Museum, and Richard Kurin, the under secretary for history, art and culture at the Smithsonian Institution. Three weeks after the earthquake, Ms. Wegener convened a meeting of art professionals and State Department officials in Washington about how to provide cultural assistance, and invited Mr. Kurin, who already had ties to Haiti from organizing programs on Haitian art and culture for the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival in 2004.

Ms. Wegener, who also made the trip last week, said she had been horrified by what had happened at the Iraqi National Museum, where she worked as a liaison between staff members and American officials during her deployment. “It was so disturbing for me as a museum professional to see the staff so completely in shock,” she said. “How would I feel if I came to work one day and found 15,000 objects had been looted?” She was determined not to see history repeat itself in Haiti, she said, and believed that the sooner conservators arrived on the ground, the more artworks could be saved.

Mr. Kurin conveyed the need for help to Ms. Goslins of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, a group that includes the heads of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as well-connected art patrons like the Broadway producer Margo Lion, who is a co-chairman of the committee. The three agencies ended up committing $30,000 each, while the Broadway League, of which Ms. Lion is a member, contributed $276,000. As for the rest of the money that’s needed, Ms. Goslins expressed confidence that it would materialize once the center was operating.

“We’ve been having conversations with both the federal and the private sector about further support,” Ms. Goslins said, “and I’m optimistic that once we get through the initial urgent phase of getting this up and running, we’ll be able to see the project through.” The conservators and Ms. Wegener spent four days here, visiting museums, churches and libraries, accompanied by Olsen Jean Julien, a former minister of culture and communication, who is acting as an intermediary between the Smithsonian and the Haitian government.

They visited the ruins of the Musée d’Art Nader, a private museum that before the earthquake housed 12,000 paintings and sculptures by 20th-century Haitian masters like Hector Hyppolite and Préfète Duffaut, thousands of which were either destroyed or badly damaged when the museum collapsed. They also saw what was left of the Centre d’Art, a workshop where many of those artists trained in the 1940s and 1950s, which also collapsed. In the weeks after the earthquake, volunteers pulled thousands of paintings from the wreckage, which were stashed inside two storage containers parked in the sun in front of the ruined building.

Some of the Haitian officials and cultural professionals with whom the group met were hearing about the conservation center for the first time, and responded with relief and many questions, like when it would be open and how much money was being set aside. The American aid is “fundamental for us,” said Patrick Vilaire, a sculptor, who took the lead in saving the collections of several damaged libraries after the earthquake. A few, however, expressed frustration that aid had not come sooner and a worry that foreign experts were better at conducting visits and assessments than providing real, practical help.

At a meeting with Daniel Elie, the head of the government agency in charge of preserving Haiti’s national heritage, the discussion in front of the plywood shack from which he and his staff have operated since January turned momentarily tense when his colleague and translator, Monique Rocourt, said she was fed up with hosting visiting advisers who came and did nothing. “If I bring another team of experts to Jacmel,” she said, referring to a city in southern Haiti that was seriously damaged in the quake, “we will look in front of the population like we’re just bringing foreigners to look at disasters. It’s cynical, but that’s what people will think.”

Ms. Wegener is sensitive to such concerns, she said on another occasion. She noted that this was her third trip to Haiti since the earthquake. “We’re showing a constant presence,” she said, “and now we’re bringing people who are specialists.” At the same time, Ms. Wegener and her colleagues appeared anxious not to seem like cultural imperialists, frequently repeating that they wanted to know first what the Haitians wanted to do.

Occasionally, their efforts clearly seemed like overkill to some of the people they encountered. When Ms. Wegener suggested to two members of a foundation that supports voodoo art that they write a proposal outlining what the Americans could do to help, one of the two practically rolled her eyes. “Everyone is coming here and asking us for a proposal,” the woman, Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique, said. “You write us a proposal.” Ms. Wegener, anxious to explain, said that they did not want to create the impression “that we’re telling you what you want.” “Don’t worry about that,” Ms. Beauvoir-Dominique’s husband, Didier Dominique, interrupted, adding with a smile, “We know what we want.”

For the Slide Show Art in the Rubble by Maggie Steber for The New York Times click on the picture below...

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