To be considered a great American city, Gilded Age New Orleans needed a great art museum like those in New York and Philadelphia. That was the opinion of aging sugar industry magnate Isaac Delgado, who donated $150,000 to build a Beaux Arts temple in City Park near the northwest terminus of Esplanade Avenue in 1911.
In the beginning, the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art could claim to own only 9 unimportant artworks. But a century later, the museum is home to an encyclopedic 35,000-piece trove including collections of African art, fine art glass, decorative arts and Japanese art that are among the finest in the country.
To house its ever-growing collection, the museum expanded in 1971 and 1993, increasing its original space more than fivefold. With the first expansion, the museum was renamed the New Orleans Museum of Art. In 2003, the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, studded with 40 artworks, opened in an elegantly landscaped wetland area beside the museum. The garden includes pieces by Claes Oldenberg, George Rickey, Louise Bourgeois and others from the Besthoff collection.
Over the years, NOMA has hosted milestone exhibits of works by Pablo Picasso in 1940 and Vincent Van Gogh in 1955, plus an experimental exhibit of artworks selected from the museum's vault by pop art master Andy Warhol in 1970. But to most New Orleanians, the museum's most memorable show remains 1977's blockbuster "Treasures of Tutankhamun," which drew a staggering 900,000 visitors who stood in long lines to view relics of the legendary Egyptian boy-king.
The 2005 flood that followed Hurricane Katrina swamped the Besthoff sculpture garden and surrounded the museum, stranding staff members. The museum suffered $6 million in damage and was closed for seven months, retaining a mere 16 employees after 80 were laid off. Over the next five years, popular exhibits including "Femme, Femme, Femme: Paintings of Women in French Society" in 2007, a solo show by Louisiana artist George Rodrigue in 2008 and a selection of works from Walt Disney Studios in 2009 aided the survival and recovery of the landmark.