Shirley Trusty Corey & Mary Len Costa: Learning from New Orleans (2008)

R. J. Preece
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 13 September 2011
This interview was previously published in Sculpture, 27(7), September 2008, pp. 60-3.

Shirley Trusty Corey & Mary Len Costa: Learning from New Orleans

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. [1] 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.

R.J. Preece: When you got back to New Orleans, what practical work issues did you face?

Shirley Trusty Corey: It took two months for me to get back. At that time, I felt that I could accomplish more outside of New Orleans than in it. Our home had no electricity and no water. The high-rise building where our office was located, on the 17th floor, was closed. In fact, it still hasn’t re-opened because water got into the elevator shaft and the below-ground electrical system. I’m grateful to the Shreveport arts council—they offered an office, a computer, and a telephone. I put my cell phone number on the Web site. Then telephone calls started pouring in.

I started to rebuild the information database from scratch, locating funding sources and setting that system up. Also, I had to find out the detailed needs of our arts organizations and our artists. In time, building engineers were able to get a temporary elevator set up, but access was very limited and tight security measures were put into place. Ultimately we found out that our databases were okay, but they were 17 floors up. I made several trips to Baton Rouge, Washington, DC, where I lobbied on Capitol Hill, and even New York. But other people were also fundraising at foundations, so we ended up competing with a number of organizations. When I got back into New Orleans, I had to find a space for operations and determine the fiscal reality. Board meetings started two months after the flooding to determine next steps. In January 2007, we finally got a more suitable space for working.

It should be clearly noted that in the months after Katrina, the needs of the community were so overwhelming that it was next to impossible to address the needs of arts and culture in any specificity. It was about basic human survival—housing, food, health care.

Mary Len Costa: I have a similar story. Yes, I did operate out of my car. For a while, you couldn’t stay in New Orleans overnight, so I made arrangements with a friend to stay outside of the city. In the early days, I’d drive in and try to reconnect with city officials in person, because their pre-Katrina phone system wasn’t working. City Hall departments and emergency agencies were set up in a hotel ballroom on banquet tables— staff worked at their computers, some were even sitting on the floor.

The Arts Council is under contract to manage the New Orleans Percent For Art program. We are responsible for approximately 250 wall-hung pieces of art in libraries, police and fire stations, recreation centers, court houses, and City Hall— and also, approximately 45 exterior pieces, including sculptures in neighborhoods throughout the city. So I needed to get access to damaged buildings to get the artworks out.

With limited staff and over-extended departments, I often had to go into buildings myself or with a custodian, even crawling through broken windows at times. We recovered a lot of artworks, but a number were damaged beyond repair. Some buildings were too badly damaged for entry, and the National Guard just wouldn’t let us go in. Driving around and seeing the loss— street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood— was very depressing. I was in contact with Shirley, and when the office re-opened in January, we were ready to get back to work and do something really productive.

R.J. Preece: What sorts of challenges have you faced since returning to New Orleans?

Mary Len Costa: With the aftermath of the levee failures, Shirley and I have witnessed and heard a lot of stories that we could tell you; every time I tell them, it makes me hurt. It makes me hurt all over, just to remember what people have gone through. We have had artists lose all evidence that they ever created anything. They lost their homes, their studios, the schools where they taught. Their collectors lost artwork— in some cases, the Arts Council’s artist registry held the only slides of the work available. We offered to scan and put images on a disk and return the original slides to the artist. We will still do that if asked.

I don’t think that anyone outside of New Orleans can fully understand the daily, fundamental challenges that we faced and, in many cases, are still facing. And the bureaucracy wears you down. One artist we know committed suicide because there was another delay, a day, in receiving a FEMA trailer. He just couldn’t take anything more. Yet other artists have been masterful in creating cathartic and joyful work.

Although we faced these challenges, we have also been very fortunate to receive a wide variety of support from around the world— and we are very grateful. Artists residencies have been made available around the country and in France. The Alliance for Artists Communities was able to get funding through the James Irvine Foundation to place 25 artists in six locations in California— even producing a publication. There were also some in New York City and in New Mexico. And the French government, through the Minister of Culture, was able to do remarkable things. For example, more than 50 museums in France gathered to put up a show in New Orleans.

Shirley Trusty Corey: From January 2006, it’s been a matter of rebuilding an organization with half of the pre-existing sources, among other organizations with their own needs. What was most challenging was that you couldn’t make long-term decisions. You try. But you need to make short-term steps, and you have to communicate this.

Mary Len Costa: Yes, you had to be content with little steps; some people just couldn’t handle that.

R.J. Preece: What did you learn from your experience of disaster? What would you advise other arts organizations to do now to avoid some of the problems you faced? Many of the challenges will be similar whether the situation arises from flooding, fire, earthquake, or a manmade upheaval.

Mary Len Costa: We’re working with other nonprofits to consider national standards and advised guidelines. The top things we’d suggest are to have an offsite back-up system for your databases—in another city. Also, organizing a black box to contain banking information, payroll—all necessary contact information, including out-of-town emergency contacts where your staff might be found. We also advise having an emergency plan that coordinates with relevant city and state government agencies.

R.J. Preece: I fondly recall what I’d call the New Orleans spirit—a pride in doing things a little bit differently, and a little bit defiantly. Do you think this kind of spirit is driving New Orleans and your organizations today?

Mary Len Costa: Absolutely, 99 percent of our arts agencies and artists are back. There has been great success with our larger organizations working together and marketing together, with new creative venues for performances since the traditional facilities were damaged and remain closed. The symphony has performed in churches, university auditoriums, and in public parks. The ballet and opera are both now performing in smaller auditoriums on the Tulane University campus. We’re also working with smaller organizations and supporting them in new ways. They are often working with only one staff member or volunteers and need encouragement as much as they need patrons and funds.

Also, there have been thousands of volunteers from around the world who have done remarkable things—many returning over and over to see projects through. Without them, we would still be suffering, and their help has been the bright spot of any cloudy day. We are most appreciative of their goodness and kindness.

Shirley Trusty Corey: I think the unique spirit of New Orleans is still here, but we’re now feisty and we’re fighting back. I’m now focusing my time on completing the Louisiana Artworks project. Personally and professionally, I feel more alive today. You learn a great deal from an experience like we’ve had. Most of all, I’ve learned that you can’t take anything for granted.

[1] 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.