Shirley Trusty Corey & Mary Len Costa:
Learning from New Orleans (2008)
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 13 September 2011
This interview was previously published in Sculpture, 27(7), September 2008, pp. 60-3.
Kenneth Snelson’s Virlane Tower at the Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art, bent by Hurricane Katrina.
While images of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath are well known, other behind-the-scenes aspects of the devastation have not received much media attention. For instance, what happens to an art community when a disaster like this occurs? What precautions can art professionals take now to lessen the impact? Near the third anniversary of Katrina, R.J. Preece, a New Orleans resident in the mid-1980s, interviewed Shirley Trusty Corey, the former CEO/president of the Arts Council of New Orleans (1991-2007) and Mary Len Costa, the interim president and CEO of the organization, and former director of public art for the city.  Their experiences and efforts offer important, common-sense lessons for everyone involved in the arts. As New Orleans continues to rebuild its communities and its cultural life, the city is marking its steps toward recovery with “Prospect.1 New Orleans”, the largest biennial of international contemporary art ever organized in the United States. The exhibition, together with associated special events, will be on view November 1, 2008 through January 18, 2009.
R.J. Preece: Where were you both during Katrina— and what were your first thoughts when you learned about the levee failures?
Shirley Trusty Corey: I had evacuated to a relative’s home in Shreveport in the northern part of Louisiana. I remember watching TV and seeing the water come over the levees— for me, it was emotionally, and intellectually, incomprehensible.
Mary Len Costa: I evacuated to outside Montgomery, Alabama, thinking I’d be home in two days. Then when I saw what was happening, I was worried about people who I knew were not able to get out. I could not convince some elderly people to leave. Seeing the water and then the chaos made me worry all the more.
R.J. Preece: After locating family and friends, what were the first few days like for you both professionally? What sorts of things were you dealing with?
Shirley Trusty Corey: Professionally, and personally, my first concern was for my staff and board. Where were they? How were they? The whole thing was so overwhelming. The most frustrating thing was the complete lack of communication. Everyone had cell phones, but the entire New Orleans area code of 504 wasn’t functioning. I immediately began contacting my colleagues at the state level in Baton Rouge. I also was in contact at the national level, with the National Endowment for the Arts. This three-way contact was at least a means to focus on trying to bring some order out of the chaos.
One key task was figuring out how I could pay my staff. This had been set up with direct deposit, but the bank computer system had failed. I kept calling and calling the bank at different numbers and locations. In the end, I learned that having the bank account numbers with me was extremely important.
Mary Len Costa: At that time, I was the director of public art in New Orleans. Professionally, I was thinking about what had happened to all the public artwork. But what mainly occupied my thoughts were people, individuals, and trying to communicate with as many people as I could.
 The Arts Council is a private, nonprofit organization designated as the city’s official arts agency. Now in its 32nd year, it serves as one of eight regional distributing agencies for state arts funds and administers municipal arts grants and the Percent For Art program for the City of New Orleans.