Art as Activism: Behind the Scenes of Newcomb Art Museum’s Fall Exhibit

Delaney Connor was a recipient of the Changemaker Catalyst Award. This summer she worked with a multidisciplinary team to create Newcomb Art Museum’s fall exhibit “The American Dream Denied: The New Orleans Residents of Gordon Plaza Seek Relocation.” Delaney is a rising senior majoring in public health and minoring in social innovation and social entrepreneurship (SISE).

Tok, Tok, Tok, Tok. Ominous bangs echo down the pothole-ridden streets, from no discernible source. The sound ricochets between abandoned homes and off the looming graffiti-plastered elementary school. The Gordon Plaza neighborhood has a post-apocalyptic feel, like a scene out of The Walking Dead. No one walks outside, as if there is an omnipresent threat keeping them sequestered in their homes. Chain linked fences plastered with signs that read “keep out” and “do not enter” frame entire blocks, looming in the graves of white picket fences. Ms. Shannon, one of the last remaining residents of the Gordon Plaza neighborhood, steps out of her home to greet us.

The three weeks leading up to this visit I spent immersed in learning the histories that complicate the Gordon Plaza neighborhood. The neighborhood is located in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans East, built in 1981 using funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Gordon Plaza was constructed for and marketed to working class Black and African American New Orleanians as an opportunity to realize the American Dream of home ownership. In the few years that followed, residents began digging up garbage in their gardens and it was revealed that their homes were built atop the historic Agriculture Street Landfill. From 1909 to 1958 the land below their floors served as the primary waste disposal site for the city of New Orleans. Cancer rates and other health issues occurred at rates which clearly indicated the harms of their toxic environment. Yet, in 1987 the newly constructed Moton Elementary School (also located on the footprint of the Agriculture Street Landfill) opened its doors. In 1994, the EPA completed a thorough site investigation that revealed high levels of arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals in the soil. Gordon Plaza was deemed a Superfund site and in the following 10 years over 20 million federal dollars were spent on remediation projects. It is critical to note that, from the start, Gordon Plaza homeowners requested only 12 million dollars from local officials for relocation. Hurricane Katrina further degraded the built environment, permanently closing Moton Elementary school in its wake. Even after winning a class action lawsuit in 2006, lawyers walked away with millions of dollars while residents were left with a few thousand dollars each after fees and the division of the remaining settlement. Today, roughly 50 residents remain in Gordon Plaza. Most cannot afford to leave. And some remain in hope that a city official will right the wrongs made by their predecessors and grant the Gordon Plaza residents the fair and fully funded relocation they deserve.

So, now that I’ve briefed you on the key points of Gordon Plaza’s struggle for relocation, I can explain my role. When I described my initial impression of Gordon Plaza a few paragraphs ago, I failed to mention the massive bags weighed down with cameras and audio equipment resting by my side. And I was not alone. I came to Gordon Plaza with my research group, known as the Critical Visualization and Media Lab (CVML). Led by Tulane sociology and environmental studies professor Dr. Christopher Oliver, CVML is a coalition of undergraduates, graduate students, and adjunct professors. In a nutshell, CVML facilitates community engaged research with a liberal arts approach to social and environmental justice. Newly formed, our project with Gordon Plaza was the take-off point for CVML.

I sought involvement with CVML after encountering a blog post on the Taylor Center’s website featuring Dr. Oliver. It detailed the Professorship in Social Entrepreneurship he had recently been awarded and explained his plans with CVML. The project with the NAM was not mentioned in the posting, however I reached out because Dr. Oliver’s Louisiana environmental justice work felt pertinent to my academic career in public health.

As for our project: we spent the summer months designing a social history exhibit on the Gordon Plaza community for Tulane’s Newcomb Art Museum (NAM). The exhibit, entitled “The American Dream Denied: The New Orleans Residents of Gordon Plaza Seek Relocation,” examines the lived experiences of the Gordon Plaza community. Similar to NAM’s spring exhibit (Per)Sister (for those who visited), our exhibit utilizes a combination of digital and creative mediums to shed light on Gordon Plaza’s path to isolation and neglect. Three sub themes–the role of women in activism, the effect on day-to-day living, and the frustrations of the “promised” American Dream–chronologically divide the content. Each section is populated with multimedia approaches to visual storytelling (ie. info graphics, videos, newspaper clippings) to illustrate the toll of living atop toxic land.

After committing to join his team for the summer, I was thrilled when Dr. Oliver explained the creative direction our research was to take. Prior to this experience, I had given little thought to the museum curation process. Though my tasks as an intern were ancillary, I witnessed all phases and challenges of the exhibit’s development. No straightforward approach to museum curation exists. Therefore, significant flexibility, collaboration, vision, and creativity was required of our team. Or as Dr. Oliver liked to say “we are building the plane as we fly it.”

The gravity of our work’s importance did not hit me until my first visit to Gordon Plaza. After spending so much time immersed in archives of old EPA reports and newspaper clippings, I was energized to meet the people our work intended to help. However, what I did not anticipate was the degree of exhaustion and frustration the community felt. When resident Sam Egana read our prepared questions for his video interview, he bitterly stated that he had answered similar questions dozens of times before. Sam elaborated that Gordon Plaza’s circumstances have attracted countless academics and reporters over the years. Yet, their projects consistently capitalize on his community’s struggle, propelling careers while the residents’ situation remains stagnant. Because of Dr. Oliver’s long standing relationship with Shannon Rainey (charismatic leader of the Residents of Gordon Plaza, Inc) and the unique circumstances of the Newcomb Art Museum partnership, the residents agreed to collaborate on the exhibit. Their willingness to cooperate can be attributed to CVML’s capacity to gracefully navigate community partnerships. In my future career as a changemaker in the field of public health, I will work alongside communities disadvantaged by circumstances beyond their control. As a professional entering these communities, I will rely on the humility and openness my experience with Gordon Plaza taught me.

CVML will continue to seek involvement in environmental justice projects around Louisiana. The communities of Colfax and St. John Parish face different yet equally pressing toxic conditions. Dr. Oliver and his team will provide leaders of these communities with CVML’s expanding resources and network. Ultimately, they hope to design a website that makes these tools digitally and remotely accessible.

The exhibit is free and open to the public from August 21 – December 14, with an opening reception held September 5, 2019 from 6 to 8 pm. For more information on the exhibit, follow this link to the Newcomb Art Museum’s website.