Cultural Rescue

Public and private U.S. sources unite to help Haiti's art community recover from the earthquake.

Hitoshi Kimura, a conservator at Art Conservation of Central Florida, treating a painting from the Musée d'Art Nader.

Hitoshi Kimura, a conservator at Art Conservation of Central Florida, treating a painting from the Musée d'Art Nader.


This summer, amid the rubble still left from the January earthquake that devastated Haiti, a new conservation center opened in Port-au-Prince where American specialists have started the laborious task of repairing thousands of artworks damaged in the disaster. The effort, led by the Smithsonian Institution and funded by a mix of public and private money, is believed to be the most ambitious attempt by the American cultural community to respond to an international disaster.

“The highest priority of the Haitian government and the international humanitarian communities has rightly been to save lives and provide food, water, medical care, and shelter,” said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art, and culture, when the Haitian Cultural Recovery Project was announced in May. “However, Haiti’s rich culture, which goes back five centuries, is also in danger, and we have the expertise to help preserve that heritage.”

Although Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, it has one of the Caribbean’s richest artistic traditions, in part an outgrowth of the country’s voodoo culture. The earthquake exacted a heavy toll on Haiti’s art, ripping holes and gashes in paintings, reducing sculptures to fragments, and exposing fragile artworks to rain and sun.

Among the hardest-hit cultural institutions was the Musée d’Art Nader, a private museum owned by longtime Haitian-art dealer Georges Nader. Many of the museum’s 12,000 artworks were destroyed or damaged when the 35-room mansion that houses the collection collapsed. At the Musée d’Art Nader, a workshop and cultural hub founded in the ’40s by California artist DeWitt Peters, employees sifted through debris to pull artworks from the building’s ruins. Now some 2,000 paintings from the center are being stored in shipping containers, which become overheated under the Caribbean sun. The earthquake also leveled parts of the city’s Episcopal cathedral. What remains of a highly regarded series of murals painted by a number of Haitian artists was left open to the elements.

News of the disaster moved Corine Wegener, associate curator of architecture, design, decorative arts, craft, and sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, to take action. Wegener, a retired army major, had witnessed firsthand the effects of a disaster—albeit a man-made one—on a country’s cultural heritage when she served as a liaison between the U.S. military and Iraqi officials at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad following the museum’s looting in 2003. She was frustrated by the international cultural community’s lack of response to the crisis.

“You have to help the people first,” says Wegener, who founded and now heads the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, a nonprofit formed in 2006 with the goal of protecting cultural artifacts affected by armed conflict. “But often culture doesn’t come second, third, or fourth. It doesn’t come at all.”

In February, Wegener met with other art professionals in Washington, D.C., including the Smithsonian’s Kurin, who had contacts in the Haitian government and arts community. With the approval of the Haitian government, plans for setting up a conservation center were soon under way.

Initial funding came from three federal agencies—the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services—contributing $30,000 each. But the largest amount by far was given by one seemingly unlikely private source: the Broadway League, which represents Broadway theaters and producers.

The league donated $276,000 in funds it had raised from its members in the weeks following the earthquake. At first it planned to give the money to a humanitarian relief organization, but the league learned of the conservation effort through Margo Lion, a producer whose credits include the musical Hairspray. Lion serves on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which has become a clearinghouse to raise funds for the project. Although the conservation effort is not directly related to the theater world, “it’s art and culture, and that’s part of our world,” says the league’s executive director, Charlotte St. Martin. “At the end of the day, art is art, so we thought it would be great to help Haiti preserve something that is so critical to its culture.”

The league’s donation is being used to rent a former United Nations building to serve as the headquarters of the conservation project. The 7,500-square-foot structure is large enough to provide lab space for painting, object, and paper conservators as well as climate-controlled storage areas for artwork.

Stephanie Hornbeck, a Miami conservator who speaks French, is overseeing operations at the conservation center for the Smithsonian, and volunteer conservators are being recruited by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. The goal is to have at least two conservators at the center at all times, according to institute executive director Eryl Wentworth, who notes that, although the organization has an emergency team to respond to domestic disasters, this is the first time it has taken part in an international operation.

Finding local sources for some of the synthetic materials and specialized solvents that conservators use has been a challenge. On one early trip to Haiti, a team of museum officials and conservators loaded up their suitcases with art supplies. Among the items in their luggage were several vacuums with variable suction, used to gently clean delicate surfaces. “Everything—everything—is just covered with concrete dust,” says Hugh Shockey, objects conservator at the Smithsonian, who made several trips to Haiti to help set up the center.

Among the first objects to be repaired after the conservation office opened in June were a colorful painting by Celestin Faustin, two small sculptures by the indigenous Taino people, and a 19th-century military document that once belonged to Alexandre Pétion, a leader of the revolution that resulted in the country’s independence from France in 1804.

The recovery project is expected to cost at least $3 million and last until the end of 2011. But it has been designed to leave a more enduring legacy, too. As part of the project’s mission, American conservators will be training Haitians to take over when they leave.

“Eventually, everyone will have to come home,” Shockey says. “But we hope to leave an enhanced ability for Haitians to care for their heritage going forward.”

Stevenson Swanson is a New York–based writer who covers culture and the arts.

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