The Man Who Brought King Tut To NOLA

I remember in 1977 when The Treasures of Tutankhamun came to NOMA. It was a big expedition; it may not have been my first visit to NOMA, but it certainly was the first one that stuck. One evening Dad piled us into the old 1968 Ford Country Squire station wagon—with the big V8 engine and fake wood paneling on the sides that got about 8 miles to the gallon. We traveled over the waters of the Mississippi (for we were Algerians living on the W’ank) to the Blue Nile that Lelong Drive had become, its blue-painted pavement flowing from General Beauregard atop his mount at Wisner and Esplanade straight to the heart of NOMA like a psychedelic tributary of Bayou St. John.

Now, if I’d known
They’d line up just to see him
I’d trade in all my money
And bought me a museum

From Steve Martin’s blockbuster hit of the 70’s, King Tut, inspired by the exhibition touring America

I remember it being towards the end of King Tut’s NOLA reign, it was either in the fall or winter; I remember it being cold. Maybe that’s why I also remember not having to wait too terribly long in line to get in—or maybe my dad had bought a museum membership that year because members were admitted immediately—unlike many who had waited 8 or more hours for admission at some points during the exhibition.

The museum had been transformed into a tomb-like interior, they had constructed plywood paths taking you from from priceless artifact to priceless artifact, ultimately leading to the pharaoh’s solid-gold death mask. The sight of that mask up on a pedestal in its glass display case still comes to my mind when I hear the word “priceless,” no matter in what context the word has been uttered.

Now, when I die
Now don’t think I’m a nut
Don’t want no fancy funeral
Just one like ole King Tut

(Steve Martin)

I’m telling you all this not just because of the impact it made on me (I rattle on like Grandpa Simpson every time I’m in front of NOMA—”King Tut came here and they painted this whole drive blue. Blue, I tells ya!!!”—to anyone within earshot) but because it marked the first big blockbuster exhibition brought to NOMA after John Bullard became director in 1973. He’s now Director Emeritus, having passed on the reigns to Director Susan Taylor, a passionate art lover and veteran museum administrator.

I had a chance to talk to Mr. Bullard as NOMA was gearing up for its latest exhibition, Great Collectors/Great Donors (links to Doug McCash’s article for more details), the first of many to celebrate the museum’s centennial in 2011. He told me the story behind King Tut’s arrival in New Orleans in 1977.

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was looking for some extra PR for his country during the time of the Camp David peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel. The exhibit was presented as a gift to the American people in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial. A New Orleans businessman had heard about Egypt’s plans, and the lobbying for New Orleans began.

Mr. Bullard recalled, “Verna Landrieu was head of the local bicentennial commission, so she got Moon [Mayor Moon Landrieu] to go to Washington, D.C. to see the Egyptian ambassador and we had our congressional delegation going to see him as well. They did want a specific geographic distribution—Washington, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles—and then they wanted somewhere in the south. I was somewhat skeptical this would happen; surely it would go to Houston or Dallas or Atlanta, where they had a bigger resident population.

“We made a good case, we talked about the two great delta cities in the world, and the Mississippi and the Nile, and they selected us. That was before we expanded in 1990 so the museum was not quite half the size it is now. We didn’t sell tickets in advance, so we had bleachers for people to wait in, and sometimes it was an 8-hour wait.”

The exhibit’s impact was enormous, and had far-reaching economic consequences for the city. “In a normal year before Tut, we would have had maybe a 100,000 visitors,” said Mr. Bullard. “In the four months of Tut we had 900,000 visitors—it was a transforming experience for the museum. It made the politicians and businessmen realize that a big exhibition could generate as much money as a Super Bowl, over a longer period of time, and with upscale visitors.”

Many big exhibits were to come. During his tenure, NOMA’s permanent collection expanded from just under 5,000 items to over 35,000 today. The latest exhibit, and the first to celebrate the museum’s 100th year, is called Great Collectors/Great Donors. It is a history of the museum as seen through the works of art donated by patrons since NOMA opened as the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art. The name change to New Orleans Museum of Art came in 1971.

Mr. Bullard gives a thorough run-through of those great donors in the museum’s publication Arts Quarterly. (Click to download a pdf). It’s a fascinating tale that reaffirms our city’s interest and support for the arts.

John Bullard talks about the upcoming NOMA centennial and the Great Collectors/Great Donors exhibit. In the background, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is either contemplating the occasion or planning on whose ass to kick next at City Hall.

Mr. Bullard walks us through Great Collectors/Great Donors. Looking on are two delightful ladies, Margarita Bergen (left) and Wendy Rodrigue. Margarita writes for and is in attendance at every event I have ever covered. Wendy is a NOMA board member and is married to George Rodrigue, whose work warranted its own mega-exhibition at NOMA back in 2008 (here is a post on the Blue Dog exhibit, and a little story about an encounter I had with Mr. Bullard then). She writes the blog Musings of an Artist's Wife, a must-read for any Blue Dog fan and a great place to see George's art, with the added bonuses of George's reminiscences about and Wendy's insight into the images he's produced over his career.

Mr. Bullard with what he said may be the rarest item in the museum, a Hawaiian god collected during Capt. Cook's ill-fated third visit to the islands.

The exhibit runs until January 23 and is a great chance to see all the best works that are in NOMA’s permanent collection. It’s a visual telling of how NOMA grew by donation to donation over the last 100 years. Many of the items are often on loan to other museums, so go while you have the chance! Check and for events, times and admissions policies. It’s free from noon to 8pm on Wednesdays and always free for members, so that’s a great reason to join. Centennial exhibits and activities continue through 2011.

6 Responses to The Man Who Brought King Tut To NOLA

  1. Blathering on November 22, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    I remember learning what lapis lazuli was and loved the color. My parents were members and we waiting on the preview day for members only for several hours but we were all mesmerized. I was in the 5th grade and we studied Egyptian mythology in school. I can still remember many of the myths, gods & goddesses. And E said that until Katrina, if you looked in the right spots, you could still see the blue of the Nile.

  2. Sphinx Ink on November 23, 2010 at 6:17 am

    Really cool entry! I remember the Tut exhibit — what a great event. I waited in line for several hours on the blue Nile and was simply charmed by everything. It was all amazing. I haven’t visited NOMA a lot over the years since then, so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    John Bullard did wonderful things for NOMA and for the City of New Orleans. What synchronicity, to see Bullard in a photo with Mitch when he had worked so closely with Moon many years before. Thanks, Pete.

  3. Wendy Rodrigue on November 23, 2010 at 7:59 am

    This is great, Pete! Tut (and Mr. Bullard) made a lasting impact on me as well. My mother and I stood in line for eleven hours on the day after Christmas, and I was the hit of my 6th grade show-n-tell back in FWB for the next six weeks! For you it was the mask, and for me it was Selket, the golden guardian of his tomb.

    It was good seeing you during the Great Collectors/Great Donors Press Conference. And I thank you for your kind mention here of my blog. You might enjoy this as well, NOMA’s 100 site, celebrating the museum’s centennial:

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours! Wendy

  4. Pete on November 23, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Thanks, Wendy. I don’t know how I missed the NOMA 100 website. I’ve put it into the post and will have to include it in my print piece coming out in January. Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Pete on November 23, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Good to see you again. It’s nice knowing I have a loyal visitor despite my lack of regular posting. And who better to comment on King Tut than Sphinx?

  6. More Tut | Pontchartrain Pete on January 6, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    […] some more Tut stuff I ran across after my previously posted article on E. John Bullard and NOMA’s coup of an exhibit back in 1977 of The Treasures of […]

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