History of the New Orleans Museum of Art

The institution now known as the New Orleans Museum of art began in 1910 when local businessman Isaac Delgado offered $150,000 to the City Park Commission for the purpose of creating a “temple of art for rich and poor alike.” One hundred years later, Delgado’s temple has become the premier art museum in the Gulf South and ranks in the top 100 art museums nationally.

Delgado’s selfless act remains shrouded in mystery. A Jamaican immigrant who became a millionaire sugar broker in New Orleans, he was not as a patron of the arts prior to his donation. Speculation remains that the childless Delgado offered to build the museum because he worried about the fate of the art collection amassed by his late but beloved aunt, Virginia McRae Delgado. Indeed, many of her collected treasures were displayed in the museum for years. But when asked about the donation, Delgado merely replied, “The gift speaks for itself and further than that I have no inclination to say anything.”

For all his desire, Delgado had no land for a museum. He approached the governing body of City Park, a 2,000-acre tract open to the New Orleans public. An agreement was made, and the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art opened in 1911.

The neoclassical building was designed by Chicago architect Samuel Marx, selected in a national competition. The setting was at the end of a tree-lined avenue surrounded by lagoons and majestic oaks. The young architect planned a building “inspired by the Greek, but sufficiently modified to give a subtropical appearance.”

Delgado, unfortunately, was too ill to attend the December, 16 1911, opening of the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art. But how proud he must have been when on December 10, 1911, the city newspaper Times Democrat declared “Delgado Museum Superb: The City’s Splendid Possession.”

The generous gifts of art from the people of New Orleans, as well as museum purchases made possible through financial gifts, made it apparent during the following years that the museum building would have to grow with its collection. An expansion that tripled the size of the Delgado Museum opened in 1971 with three new additions: the Wisner Education Wing, the Stern Auditorium and the City Wing, containing galleries for the permanent collection and special exhibitions. In recognition of support from the city and its citizens, the Trustees voted to change the institution’s name to the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).

The increased size of the facility allowed NOMA, for the first time, to host such major international exhibitions as The Treasures of Tutankhamun (1977-78), The Search for Alexander the Great (1982) and The Art of the Muppets (1981). The 1971 expansion resulted in further generous donations and greater regional importance.

Within decades, NOMA was ready to grow again. Through a group of donors joining the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana, nearly $23 million was raised for expanding the museum. New space totaling 55,000 square feet was constructed, and the original 1911 Beaux-Art Delgado building and its 1971 additions were renovated to provide a state-of-the-art facility with a total of 130,850 square feet.

Today NOMA visitors will find Isaac Delgado’s dream thriving, with galleries to house its outstanding permanent collection, which contains nearly 40,000 works. There are three special areas within the 46 galleries at NOMA: the Lupin Foundation Center for Decorative Arts, a suite of galleries dedicated to NOMA’s extensive collection of glass, ceramic and silver; galleries dedicated to the development of Louisiana art during the past 200 years, from colonial portraiture to contemporary art; and galleries for NOMA’s outstanding African collection. The museum also has three galleries for traveling exhibitions. Two other additions are the Museum Shop and Café NOMA by Ralph Brennan.

The 5-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden opened November 2003 and now includes over 60 sculptures. On March 20, 2010, the Garden reopened after a multi-million dollar renovation. It is now open seven days a week and is always free and open to the public.

A century later, the New Orleans Museum of Art and now the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden remain “The City’s Splendid Possession.”

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