The woman at the welcome counter suggests I begin at the bottom of the museum and work my way up. She presses a brochure in my hands and guides me past the elevator and a hallway and gestures to the back gallery. I appreciate suggestions like this as I am always craving logic, order.
I glance at the gallery, taking in nothing.
I like order on my terms. I watch this greeter walk away, and as soon as she busies herself with something at her counter, I hop on the elevator. It takes me to a terrace where I can view the city: the arts center across the street, the surrounding historic constructions, two large cranes rising above the buildings in the immediate vicinity, and the Crescent City Connection at a drastic angle, taking cars away to the West Bank against a gray, humid sky.
Two large metal statues repose on the terrace as well. Contemporary or modern, neither move me, so I walk inside to the special exhibit, “Big,” a showing of large pieces from the museum’s collection. This seems to be the only common thread other than, of course, their Southern origins, as this museum is a museum of Southern art. The most impressive: a multimedia concoction by a New Orleans artist that seems reminiscent of both shotgun home and swamp shack, falling apart, a jumble of post-Katrina debris. It is three dimensional. Two rag-and-straw dolls sit on a railing. I don’t stay too long as other patrons, a couple I assume are European tourists, crowd me while I look upon the display.
I escape to the floor below.
Here, there is photography: portrait, landscape, architectural, composed, manipulated, blown up, printed on tin, shrunk down, colors added, taken away. It runs the gamut. The pieces of religious influence and confluence affect me the most, in particular the work of a man which is explained to be inspired by the baroque images in his family bible, and which bears titles of specific quotes like “You Always Resist the Holy Spirit, Just as Your Father Did” and “A Flame Came Up Out of the Rock.” The titles seem to be non sequiturs, but upon further analysis and inspection, they are precise descriptions of the images. These feel real and true to my own experience with the church.
Another floor below, and I find an exhibit by children. An artist asked children to draw bees. The walls are lined with children’s drawings of bees, which individually look like typical child-artist renderings, but taken in full scope provide a pleasing tile-effect that impresses upon the viewer the subjectivity of art and also the beauty with which children see the earth.
I begin to feel a bit fatigued from taking in so much. In saturation, art all starts to look the same, despite obvious differences. Like reading the news every day, suddenly everything is a tragedy, and nothing stands out and we grow indifferent. Even art can be in surplus.
The second-floor landing has only a door that reads “staff,” but I twist the handle. I am curious to see the offices of the museum employees. It opens. I look up the stairs and see a docent staring at his phone. I slip inside. I find a carpeted hall, fluorescent-lit, which leads to a breezeway over the first floor. I look down at the entrance and the museum shop with its appealing colors and less appealing price tags that sit in wait of suckers like me.
Through the breezeway I find a row of office doors. Between each door more photographs hang on the wall, all displayed in uniform black frames with white mats. They are portraits and action shots: blues musicians, quinceañera celebrations, Zulu kings, and drag queens. So, for the employees: walls, not unlike the museum, but more sterile, more industrial, and this collage of the city’s intersection.
I look inside one office window. No one is there, and I can see a typical office desk with a few family photos framed. If I could just see the photos, I would know this person. I think that a family photo in an art museum might itself just be art. This office has a small window beyond the desk. I look through the window on the door to the window in the room and cannot see much, except that the outside light is gray and dim. I peer at that gray square of light.
A wave of water smacks the glass. I jump back and look around, expecting a tidal wave to engulf the building. But I am alone in this hallway, and I cannot rhyme this with the sudden surge of water. I step away from the office, and at the end of this hall: another door with a sign indicating more stairs. This is a museum of doors.
Down again, to the first floor. To my right, the gallery I ignored earlier. To my left, the entrance and gift shop. Ahead, another hallway that leads away from the main floor. This is a museum of stairways and hallways.
I walk ahead. The walls fade from painted sheetrock to painted brick to crumbling brick. A railing runs along the wall, more chipped and worn the further I follow it down the hallway. On one side, the brick has completely crumbled away revealing a cavernous hole in the wall. At the top of the hole, pipes lead from my safe hallway and disappear into the ceiling. Below the hole, a large painting of a carnival parade leans against the wall. The colors are bright and seem to melt down the canvas. I see drops of paint on the frame. Though I am tempted to get closer and look behind it, the hole makes me uneasy, so I continue down the hall into an alcove that displays more photographs, architectural and typical of New Orleans photography. The bright colors of the shotgun homes glow under sunny skies. The wrought iron balconies of the Quarter, shot at impressive angles. At the bottom of each building or home, water seems to lap at the foundation.
In one corner, another staircase, and I walk slowly toward it. No other patrons have ventured to this back room, and I don’t see any signs indicating which exhibit or gallery this might lead to. I pull the museum brochure out of my bag and it says nothing of below-ground galleries. Perhaps this is simply storage for the collection backlog. Perhaps it is a janitorial area. I do not resist. I take the stairs. More photographs of New Orleans architecture with water: now lapping at the thresholds.
I descend further, reaching a landing that turns and reveals more steps. The lighting remains steady. Sconces light the stairwell every few feet and illuminate the framed photos. Further, still, I noticed that the water in the photos rises the deeper I go into the museum’s cavernous depths. On this photo, the water breaches a threshold. On this photo, the water taps a doorknob. On this, the Jesus behind St. Louis cathedral dips his feet in the water. On this one, the eaves of the Cabildo peak out over a murky sea. On this one, the city is recognizable only by the bridge that once crossed the Mississippi, its two peaks rise, undeterred, from the gulf.
Runner-up for the 2020 Barry Hannah Prize for Fiction
ALLIE MARIANO’s writing has appeared in CutBank, Philadelphia Stories, Another Chicago Magazine, New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune, and other places. This past fall, her short story collection, Dead Women and Other Stories was a finalist for the Hudson Prize at Black Lawrence Press. When she’s not writing or teaching, she can be found biking in the Ouachita Forest.