Sunday, September 21, 2003
New Orleans One of the French Quarter artists who paints in Jackson Square couldn't help but be amused by what the wind had done.
An advertising banner draped over the facade of one of America's most historic buildings -- the Cabildo -- had been blown back and tangled, obliterating the word "discover" so the banner appeared to read, "cover Louisiana's culture."
Some preservationists say that is precisely what's happening with banners touting corporate sponsors of state museum exhibits and events for the Louisiana Purchase bicentennial.
"It's the Louisiana repurchase," says painter Lee Tucker, who was dismayed when museum officials decided to offer the space for corporate logos in exchange for donations of $50,000.
Opponents of the banners say they're sensitive to the matter because the ads obscure the architectural detail of the Cabildo and Presbytere, with their old-world facade of arches, fan windows and other fine detail.
The two buildings, which flank the multispired St. Louis Cathedral, were built in the late 1700s. Joined by the square's symmetrical French-style landscaping and the neighboring, double-balcony-lined Pontalba buildings, the Cabildo and Presbytere are part of one of the more photographed panoramas in the country.
"I won't take collectable photos now with those billboards there," Tucker says. "I get a beautiful morning or perfect evening light, and then I look over there and say, 'Oh, forget it."'
Museum director James Sefcik makes no apologies, pointing out that when the state budget is so tight that massive hospital cuts have been made, he can't expect legislators to augment or even maintain museum funding.
"I've lost over a million dollars from my budget in the last two years," says Sefcik, now in his 16th year on the job. "I'm anticipating massive cuts next year. Self-generated revenue helps my bottom line, and it helps the people of this state if less state money has to be appropriated."
Sefcik says that if the museum's endowment were much higher than its current $1.75 million, or if he had other equally effective means of raising tens of thousands of dollars, he'd be happy to consider that instead. But Jackson Square offers the best exposure for corporate donors, he says.
A group called Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates -- the French Quarter was formerly known as the Vieux Carre -- believes Sefcik may have violated the law by failing to consult the Vieux Carre Commission, a city agency that regulates exterior architectural work, signs and the like in the historic neighborhood.
"Our position is there's no transparency with the museum board. We don't know what they're going to do or when they're going to do it," says Stuart Smith, one of the property group's attorneys. "A crane appears in Jackson Square and they have no permits. They're making everybody nervous."
The state also has been buying other buildings in the French Quarter. Smith, who lives in a historic home near the square, is concerned that the state's position is that it can buy up property and do as it wishes.
Sefcik says Smith is right in a sense. He believes state officials' authority is greater than any city agency, a view he contends was upheld in court when the museum put up an iron fence in front of the Cabildo against the Vieux Carre Commission's wishes.
But lawyers for the property group say that ruling was specific to the fence and avoided the issue of whether the commission -- which is a state-created agency placed under administration of the city -- has jurisdiction over state buildings. So a lawsuit on that matter is probable.
The commission initially expressed concerns about the banners, but not recently. Critics suspect the change is because Ralph Lupin, whose family's Lupin Foundation appears on one of the banners, sits on both the museum and Vieux Carre Commission boards.
"These banners are temporary and (the Vieux Carre Commission) really doesn't have jurisdiction," says Lupin. "We really didn't want to anger anyone or do anything wrong. We're just trying to raise money -- and it worked."
The Lupin Foundation gave $50,000 for its banner, he says.
Sefcik adds that his critics -- he calls them self-appointed preservationists -- are misguided because the state has only improved the condition of the historic buildings it owns.
"It costs money to do all of this," Sefcik says. "It's not like we sit back here totally oblivious" to preservationists' concerns.
"We take all that into account, and then a decision is made by people given the authority to do so."
Sefcik notes that the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City routinely place banners on their buildings. But Smith says that's not an appropriate comparison.
"Those were built as museums," Smith says. "The architectural value of the Cabildo and Presbytere far exceeds the value of Mardi Gras masks and other exhibits therein. These are two of the most important buildings in the Mississippi Valley."
Tourism and Culture Undersecretary Matthew Jones told The Associated Press that the museum board has done well to raise money on its own and has taken excellent care of its buildings.
"It's always a balancing act when dealing with limited public resources," Jones says.