At Home with the Man Who Helped Bring African Art to New Orleans
Photographs by Michael Adno
Photographs by Michael Adno
It was the light, the promise, and the magnolias that first drew William Fagaly to New Orleans 53 years ago. The sense that he could make a life here seduced him, but when he was hired to build an New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) in 1966, there was little sense that he would become inextricably bound to the city’s future through his interest in its past.
When Fagaly took the job, the museum’s collection held almost no African art, which is to say it poorly reflected the heritage of this place and its history, because arguably, New Orleans was and remains culturally America’s most African city. But in the span of Fagaly’s 50 years as the museum’s African art curator and, later, its assistant director, NOMA assembled one of the most impressive African art collections in the country, alongside its standout collections of contemporary and self-taught art—which Fagaly also helped form. Following his interests beyond African art, he’d become haunted by the self-taught artists of south Louisiana, and eventually played a role in self-taught art spilling into the mainstream. Through his interest in place and in those who lent it character, Fagaly helped stake out New Orleans as one of the most important artistic centers in America. He became endeared to the city through his reverence for the things that make New Orleans so distinctly, inexorably New Orleans.
In the French Quarter, where the streets hum with the energy of centuries past, it’s only fitting that Fagaly’s home seems as eclectic and coded as the city to which it belongs. “I instantly loved the city,” Fagaly said as he sat surrounded by books, masks, and artworks. “I felt like this is the place I want to live.”
That lovestruck moment came in 1966, after an interview at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, went poorly. In his hotel room, Fagaly saw an open position for a registrar at what was then called the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art. He looked up the director’s number, gave him a ring, and in the span of a few minutes, the course of his life took shape. After an interview, Fagaly was offered the registrar job, with an annual salary of $4,500.
Later that year, Fagaly left Bloomington, Indiana, in his lime-green Mercedes, and headed south. As he crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, the character of the country in the midst of the Civil Rights movement was cast in sharp relief with the medley of murder, protest, and marches. As Fagaly pushed through Tennessee and into Mississippi, the moral compass of the American South became visible. This was decidedly a different world than the Midwest.
As soon as Fagaly nestled into New Orleans, he took every chance to venture out and get a sense of the places at the city’s edges. “I wanted to get to know where I was,” he said. The spirit of this city at the confluence of the Mississippi Delta, Texas, and Arkansas belonged just as much to Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean Basin, maybe even more than to America. The laissez-faire atmosphere quickly seeped into Fagaly’s bones.
Fagaly was born in March 1938 in Greendale, Indiana, along the banks of the Ohio River, where it wends its way toward the tripoint of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Unassuming buildings that stretched back to when the town was settled in 1803 stood next to Victorian river houses and mansions, bordered by a levee that solemnly evoked the flood that tore through the neighboring town, Lawrenceburg, just a year before Fagaly’s birth. His paternal grandfather and father were both general practice doctors, and at the time he was born, they accounted for two-thirds of the GPs in town.
After a fishing trip in Canada, Fagaly’s father brought home some earthworms to plant in the family’s yard, hoping he could generate a consistent source of bait. Fagaly tended to the worms, watering the uneven, perforated lawn, and eventually started selling them. That’s when the “WORMS FOR SALE” sign appeared in the front yard. Soon, all throughout Dearborn County, folks got word that the Fagaly home was the place to buy your bait, earning the family multiple mentions in the local papers. Fagaly would lay on the ground at night and wait for the worms to surface, catching them one by one and moving them to bins in the family garage for eventual sale. Decades later, as Fagaly recounted the story to his dear friend, artist Dawn DeDeaux, she christened him “The Nightcrawler King.”
When Fagaly took the job, the museum’s collection held almost no African art, which is to say it poorly reflected the heritage of New Orleans.
When Fagaly went to Indiana University, he broke family tradition, straying from medicine and toward chemistry. But when organic chemistry overwhelmed, he walked next door to the art building, where his sister, Pat, had been a student. There, he decided he’d like to work in a museum—despite only visiting a museum once in his entire life up to that point. When he told his mother, she warned him: “Well, you know, you will never be rich.”
After a mix of studio and art history courses, Fagaly found himself in graduate school with a weary set of advisors pushing him to decide whether he’d be an artist or an art historian. Then, in the course of a semester, the decision was made for him.
When the teacher of his Italian
In his first few years at NOMA, in the late 1960s, Fagaly strung together shows drawing from local collections, loans, and a few acquisitions. At that time, U.S. museums’ programming of African art was thin at best. In 1968, Fagaly’s first solo curatorial effort, “New Orleans Collects: African Art,” opened with work that he described to me as “an uneven accumulation” assembled from local collectors. There was even, as the museum discovered later, a fake in the show.
In drips and drops, African art made its way to New Orleans, but at this point, there was little programming anywhere in America regarding African art. Seven years into Fagaly’s tenure at NOMA, in 1973, John Bullard became the museum’s director, and the first sign of promise for the African collection arrived on a little powder blue note, in a blue envelope, with the name Victor K. Kiam at the bottom. After Bullard and Fagaly asked around about the mysterious figure, turning up little information, Bullard accepted an invitation to visit Kiam in New York City. In Kiam’s Park Avenue duplex, Bullard discovered an extensive collection of African and modern art.
Fagaly followed soon thereafter, and found himself in a small room hemmed in by African masks. Kiam turned out to be Texan by birth and had spent a chunk of his life in New Orleans; he strode in and asked Fagaly about his background and with whom he had studied. When Fagaly mentioned his mentor, Sieber, Kiam huffed: “Terrible man.” With every answer, the curator seemed to miss the mark.
Finally, as Fagaly resolved to leave, Kiam pointed to a mask on the wall and asked what he knew about it. Fagaly noted how it belonged to the Senufo peoples from the Côte d’Ivoire, how it was worn, and what distinguished it. The next one that Kiam indicated was from Mali, and he kept quizzing Fagaly until the curator had identified each piece. Pleased, Kiam asked: “Would you like to see some more?”
Through a set of French doors, works by
“I had all these masterpieces just dropped into my lap, so to speak.”
Sometime later, Bullard visited New York and invited Kiam out to dinner for a follow-up. When the collector didn’t show, Bullard called his house and learned he had died that day. Soon after, he got word that Kiam had left instructions in his will that half his collection go to NOMA and the other half to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then, shortly before his death, Kiam had added a codicil: All of the collection would go to NOMA.
“That changed the complexion of my African collection,” Fagaly said, “because now I had all these masterpieces just dropped into my lap, so to speak.” Two Fang figures from Gabon were maybe the most significant, along with many of the masks that Fagaly saw at Kiam’s duplex in New York. There was even a Hawaiian figure collected by Captain James Cook on his third tour of the Sandwich Islands in 1779. Overnight, the collection molted from meager to meaningful.
When word of Kiam’s gift got out, scholars poured into NOMA to see the collection. “It changed my life, because I was no longer struggling. I was now a contender,” Fagaly said. His and Bullard’s guiding principle had been to build an African art collection for a majority African-American city; in one gift, they’d done it.
In 1989, Fagaly curated “Shapes of Power, Belief, and Celebration: African Art from New Orleans Collections,” a show drawn from the museum’s collection and from private collections in Louisiana. In 1995, two more shows filled the African art galleries—one focused on work from Ghana, the other drawing a through line from African instruments to jazz.
Fagaly sought to honor not only the cultural traditions that made New Orleans unique, but, more pointedly, the people who made it so.
Almost a decade later, the collection dwarfed NOMA’s space for it, and the museum embarked on a project to double the size of its African art galleries, temporarily sending everything into storage. Fagaly floated the idea of sending the work on tour to Frank Herreman, a curator at the Museum for African Art in New York. In 2004, parts of the collection made their way north, culminating in the show “Resonance from the Past: African Sculpture from the New Orleans Museum of Art,” which ultimately traveled across the country, with stops at seven institutions.
Fagaly’s curatorial work was wide-ranging. During his 50-year tenure, he organized shows with the leading edge of contemporary artists across America, but also those from Louisiana. He carved out space at NOMA for the first exhibition to honor the famed Mardi Gras Indian chief Allison “Tootie” Montana, inscribing the black Mardi Gras tradition as one of the city’s most poignant, but African art remained at the core of his curatorial program. In 2011, Fagaly curated one of the most ambitious exhibitions of his career, “Ancestors of Congo Square: African Art in the New Orleans Museum of Art.”
“Ancestors of Congo Square” at NOMA
The show parsed the legacy of the hallowed ground known as Congo Square, just outside the French Quarter, because it served as the focal point of African culture in New Orleans throughout the city’s colonial period after it was settled in the early 18th century. On Sundays, enslaved and free people were allowed to gather, and so the space beneath a gargantuan live oak became a tether to Africa. Fagaly sought to honor not only the cultural traditions that made New Orleans unique, but, more pointedly, the people who made it so.
Looking around Fagaly’s home, a sense of place is tangible. Posters from Jazz Fest hang near gourds from the historic Melrose Plantation in Louisiana, where Clementine Hunter lived. In the dining room, what may be the only sculpture Hunter ever made sits next to Japanese ikebana baskets. A piece by Louisiana native
In the dappled, gauzy light of a courtyard that adjoined Larry Borenstein’s gallery in the French Quarter, Fagaly came upon
And as the medium of the Lord’s lessons changed, so did the venue in which Morgan delivered them. Across the industrial canal in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Morgan lived and held prayer services in what she called the Everlasting Gospel Mission on North Dorgenois.
In 1973, Borenstein became instrumental in Morgan’s ascension when he helped arrange a group show at the Museum of American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum) in New York City, which Fagaly helped curate. In the following years, Fagaly would devote himself wholly to self-taught artists. In 1988, he mounted a posthumous solo show of Morgan’s work at NOMA, and that effort only deepened his commitment. Over the next 16 years, Fagaly assembled the bones of what would become the seminal Sister Gertrude Morgan show, “Tools of Her Ministry: The Art of Sister Gertrude Morgan,” which opened at the American Folk Art Museum in 2004.
That show, which later traveled to New Orleans and then Chicago, marked a seismic shift in what the art world would ultimately deem as “high art” or as “
When Morgan died in 1980, her gravesite in Metairie bore no marker, but 17 years later, a ceremony took place to correct that. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band was on hand to honor her, along with a cadre of New Orleans’s artistic totems. As Fagaly wrote of the rededication ceremony in the Museum of American Folk Art exhibition catalogue: “April 7, 1997, was a beautiful day in New Orleans. Most likely Sister Gertrude had arranged it with the Lord.”
As you move through Fagaly’s home, the dining room opens onto the street, and the living room spills into a courtyard previously separating the boulangerie from the backend of the house, but it all seems to connect and flow together. Everywhere, residue of his career hangs on the walls and stretches out across surfaces. But in every room, there’s one artist’s work that seems to draw your eye again and again.
In the late 1960s, a friend sent Fagaly looking for an artist two hours west in Patterson, on the Bayou Teche in south Louisiana. Without so much as a name or an address, Fagaly found “Mr. David,” as folks called him, slowly pushing down the street on a bike adorned with whirligigs, animals, and a basket full of candy. On the first of every month,
Fagaly introduced himself, noting how gentle and curious Butler was, and once the two returned to Butler’s home, Fagaly was overwhelmed by his yard filled with sculptures and paintings. He was enchanted. Afterward, Fagaly made the drive to Butler’s periodically, and each time, he fell deeper and deeper under the artist’s spell. There was a sensitivity to him, a sage-like wisdom that captivated Fagaly.
When they first connected, Fagaly asked about buying some work for his personal collection, but Butler brushed him off. When Fagaly asked why, Butler explained that he didn’t have a license to sell. Instead, Butler offered Fagaly a piece as a gift, and in step, Fagaly made a donation to Butler as a gift. “That’s how it was to be,” Fagaly wrote in his memoirs. “Whenever he gave me a piece, I would make a donation.”
In 1976, Fagaly aimed to show Butler’s work at NOMA, but trepidation hung over him because Butler’s introduction to the art world might irrevocably affect his life. Fagaly sought advice to no avail, and he decided to go ahead with the show, which would then travel to the Morgan City Auditorium near Patterson. “To me, this art was important,” Fagaly noted. He wanted the world beyond Patterson to see it—to know the quiet power of “Mr. David.”
After the show opened, collectors flocked to Patterson, as Fagaly had predicted. Some even took works from Butler’s yard without permission. Presumably, many leveraged the artist’s good nature to their own benefit. “The people up North,” as Butler called some of them, had returned time and time again, filling a truck of sculptures each time. Another woman was “commissioning” Butler to make works for her home, but simply sold them on the back end. Artists “collaborated” with him, and one artist even acquired Butler’s bike, despite Butler’s reluctance to sell it. Even Butler’s family took advantage of him. Fagaly’s fears were realized.
But Fagaly’s introductions weren’t all for naught. When he took Jane Livingston from the Corcoran Gallery down, the experience stuck with her. In 1982, she and her colleague John Beardsley opened “Black Folk Art in America 1930–1980.”
“That exhibition was the beginning of the modern movement of self-taught art,” Fagaly said. “It opened up a whole new realm of art.”
In an issue of Time magazine that year, Robert Hughes lauded Butler’s work. When Fagaly drove out to show Butler, he paid no mind. For him, there was nothing impressive about a color photograph in a magazine, nor the increasingly blurred distinction between self-taught art and whatever critics considered “high art.”
If nobody had ever come to find Butler in Patterson, he would have continued to make sculptures. Fagaly said what he admired, not just in Butler and Morgan but in any artist, was their compulsion to create: “They did it, because they had to do it.”
Sitting with Fagaly in his living room earlier this year, his reverent respect for art and the stories bound up in it was all around us—the portrait of Morgan resting on a chair; the photograph of Fagaly and Butler taken decades ago. Stacks of books marched up toward photographs of lovers, friends, and other markers of the past. The residue of his career and the deep reservoir of curiosity it cultivated was everywhere. The bookshelves and mantles almost bowed from the weight.
In my mind, to make visible any part of our histories or our shared past is powerful, and I think Fagaly—through his interest in African, self-taught, and contemporary artists—made the city of New Orleans a little more visible to the world. He leant this resonant and at-times impenetrably dense city a little bit of clarity.
In 2016, a half-century after he first walked into the building, Fagaly retired from NOMA. In some ways, New Orleans would be less visible without Fagaly’s efforts, or at the very least, we’d be slightly less aware of why this city has such a magical pull. But naturally, he’d laugh if you suggested the idea to him.
In New Orleans, Bill––as he is affectionately known––is recognized for his myriad contributions, but more than any one thing, it’s his laugh that nobody can forget. It’s a sharp, high-pitched falsetto that rises to a piercing pitch and quickly dissipates to a gentle rumble. You could compare it to the Mississippi in Louisiana—serpentine, wide, deep, and unpredictable.
When I asked Fagaly about this, he couldn’t put his finger on where it came from, but he admitted that if he has to be remembered for something, he’s pleased that it’s his laugh.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed William Fagaly’s age as 79; he is 81. The text has been updated to reflect this change.