Seven modern sculptures appeared in January on the broad, grassy neutral ground between West End and Pontchartrain boulevards in the Lakeview neighborhood.
The abstract iron designs by local artists were meant to call attention to the Hibernian Memorial Park, a patch of earth that honors the Irish laborers who built the New Basin Canal that once flowed there.
But now, some critics want them removed.
In the 1830s, thousands of Irish immigrants died from diseases such as cholera and other causes while digging the bygone shipping canal that once stretched from Lake Pontchartrain to downtown New Orleans. The canal had become obsolete and was filled in by 1950.
Forty years later, the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans erected a Celtic cross carved from Irish stone near the lake-end of the former canal at approximately 40th Street. In 2017, another Irish heritage organization, the Louisiana Hibernian Charities, received $250,000 from the government of Ireland to produce a memorial park at the site of the cross.
With the permission of the Lakefront Management Authority that governs the ground where the cross is located, the Hibernians began landscaping the new 4-acre park.
They elevated the cross 4 feet with a gentle earthen mound and installed concrete pathways leading to it. Behind the cross, they built a raised semicircular area meant to someday hold a display of historical information panels. They created a raised terrace in the shape of a cross and a shallow trench in the ground to illustrate the contour of the long-gone canal.
The features of the park can be easily seen in satellite photos on Google road maps, but they’re difficult for passing motorists to discern.
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Last year, the Louisiana Hibernian Charities embarked on a $500,000 fundraising campaign to improve the park further with benches, a butterfly garden, a topiary labyrinth and information panels.
To kick off the next batch of upgrades, a board member suggested adding a contemporary sculpture garden, with eye-catching works of art that could be easily seen from the road.
The government of Ireland provided $15,000 for the sculpture project and, with the help of well-known artist Erica Larkin, the Hibernians invited several area sculptors to lend large, sturdy sculptures to the park for a period of two years.
The artists were paid a stipend to cover the transportation of the heavy artworks and their installation on custom-cast concrete bases. Plaques placed near each sculpture included the titles of the artworks, the artists’ names and contact information in case anyone cared to purchase one of the works.
As Larkin explained, most of the art symbolically refers to the Irish laborers who built the New Basin Canal to one extent or another.
Her own sculpture, titled “Mother and Child — Past, Present and Future Interwoven” is a three-dimensional Celtic knot design, made of steel and coated in gold leaf. The sculpture titled “New Basin Canal,” by Larkin’s husband Mitchell Gaudet, includes ghostly translucent tombs to symbolize the Irish laborers who lost their lives.
The “Hammer of Neart (Irish for strength),” by Mississippi sculptor Earl Dismukeis, is a huge steel cube that seems poised to pound into the earth. Larkin said the sturdy nature of all of the artworks was meant to reflect the toughness of the immigrant Irish laborers.
The suite of works, titled “Forging Strength: The Art of Labor” was unveiled at a ribbon cutting on Jan. 17.
And that’s where the trouble began.
Roy Arrigo, a member of the Lakefront Management Authority board of directors and Lakeview neighborhood resident said he was surprised when he noticed “something odd in the park” as he passed by.
“I was dumbfounded,” Arrigo said. “I knew there was no authorization” to add modern sculpture to the park. Arrigo said he didn’t find the artworks to be either attractive or appropriate for the site, though at first he didn’t speak up. But soon enough, other area residents complained to him about the new additions to the neutral ground, which one onlooker called “hideous.”
So Arrigo began calling for their removal.
Arrigo said he holds the Louisiana Hibernian Charities in high regard, but he’s certain that if the directors of the organization had proposed the abstractions to the board of the Lakefront Management Authority, they would have been denied permission to install them in the first place. Asking for forgiveness afterwards isn’t enough, he said.
“The only reason to keep the sculptures is that they’re up already,” he said, “and that’s not a reason.”
Jim Moriarty, president of the Louisiana Hibernian Charities, acknowledges that his organization hadn’t kept the Lakefront Management Authority in the loop when they set out to add the modernist sculptures to the park.
“We didn’t think we were breaking any rules,” Moriarty said, “but looking back, we didn’t follow the letter of our contract with them. We apologized that we didn’t give them more information, but we didn’t try to sneak anything past them.”
After the sculpture was put on display, Moriarty said, he learned that the loaned works of art were offered for sale in violation of a regulation against commerce on the neutral ground, so the plaques that included sales information were removed.
He hopes the sculptures themselves won’t be.
The Louisiana Hibernian Charities has a champion in another Lakefront Management Authority board of directors member, Wilma Heaton.
Heaton said the Irish history boosters could have made their plans clearer, but she’s not in favor of making them remove the art. She believes that if they’d presented their plan to the Lakefront Management Authority, the 14-member board of directors would have approved it in the first place.
After all, she said, the sculpture display was always supposed to be temporary and the Louisiana Hibernian Charities hadn’t spent “a penny of public money,” to produce it. Heaton believes they should be given a pass for proceeding to install the seven sculptures without explicit permission.
“They weren’t trying to hide anything,” she said. “I have empathy for them.”
Heaton said that this is one of those “no good deed goes unpunished situations.”
“If I had to stand on my head upside down on the Superdome and spit wooden nickels to help the Hibernians do a tribute to those Irishmen that lost their lives, I would,” she said.
Neighborhood residents presented their views for and against the sculpture during a monthly Lakefront Management Authority meeting in February. Moriarty said he’s not sure when the Authority’s board will decide whether the sculpture stays or goes.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that currently the Louisiana Hibernian Charities doesn’t have money set aside to remove the sculpture, he said.
Ironically the sculpture project was a success in that it has “made people aware” of the park, he added, “but maybe for the wrong reason.”
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