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Art for Its Own Sake

The Delgado Art Museum

A WPA 1936 image of the Delgado Art Museum, before palm trees were removed. The City Park Commission designated a circular piece of land with a 315-foot diameter for the museum. Located at the end of a 100-foot-long palm-lined avenue leading from the Esplanade Avenue entrance, it was elevated eight feet with soil dug from creating the nearby lagoons. An open competition was held for the design of the building. The rules were that it cost no more than $125,000, be fireproof and must include office space, exhibit areas and a statuary hall. The winner was Natchez, Mississippi native Samuel A. Marx, partner at an architecture firm in Chicago.

Image provided courtesy of New Orleans Public Library

In the year 1910, New Orleans was a prosperous city with a busy seaport, a thriving arts culture and a bustling social season. What it was lacking, however, was an art museum. Thanks to the generosity of Isaac Delgado, that would soon change.

Delgado, born in Jamaica in 1839, immigrated to New Orleans in 1853 and joined his uncle to form Delgado and Company, a sugar and molasses business. He amassed a great fortune and was a prominent society man.
There was no indication that he was a great lover or collector of art, so his motivations for donating $150,000 to build an art museum are unclear. Some speculated he wanted his name to be remembered. Others cited his cherished aunt’s love of art; a museum could house her collection upon her death. Many claimed he was simply a generous man. When asked in early 1910, his comment was: “The gift speaks for itself and further than that I have no inclination to say anything.”

The dedication for the Delgado Art Museum occurred on March 22, 1911, with Mr. Delgado present. A time capsule was placed in the cornerstone, containing Delgado’s letter offering the donation for the museum and his photograph, among other items representing the era.

The grand opening was held on Dec. 16, 1911. Three thousand people attended as Mayor Martin Behrman officially opened the museum. The museum’s opening collection was mostly borrowed, with only nine items in its permanent holdings. Sadly, Delgado was too ill to attend, and he passed away a few weeks later.

A $2 million expansion in 1970 restarted a conversation about changing the museum’s name. Since Delgado’s donation was a one-time contribution rather than an endowment, and the maintenance of the building, all expansions and art acquisition was funded by the City of New Orleans through tax revenue as well as donations from people and associations, the board felt the new name, the New Orleans Museum of Art, was more representative of the museum’s mission and support.

 

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