Ever since a group of New Orleans real estate developers bought the former Times-Picayune building in September 2016, there has been much speculation about the fate of the bas-relief plaster murals inside by noted Mexican-born New Orleans artist Enrique Alferez.
The piece, “Symbols of Communication,” adorns both side walls of the building's three-story lobby.
The new owners have thus far kept mum about the fate of both the building itself and the artwork, causing consternation among art historians, conservators, collectors and Alferez’s daughter, Ochsner physician Tlaloc Alferez, who notes the incredible labor that went into such an unusual piece of art.
“He designed every one of those symbols and letters by hand out of plywood,” she said. “I’m not going to reveal his big secrets as to how he actually put this massive piece together, but let’s just say it was very complicated."
She recalled how Alferez assembled it in a friend's warehouse. "Every hour a train came by on the Elysian Fields overpass, shaking and vibrating the unfinished piece, while my father lay on top of it to protect it," she said.
What to do with “Symbols of Communication” has posed something of a dilemma for the building's new owners, developer Joe Jaeger, Mardi Gras float builder Barry Kern, developer Arnold Kirschman and businessman Michael White, all part of 3800 Howard Investors LLC.
It is massive, making it difficult and expensive to remove. And it will have to end up somewhere large enough to display it. There have even been questions from art purists about the wisdom of removing it at all.
“It is always very unfortunate to have to remove artwork from its original context, especially when it is architectural artwork, conceived for a specific location," said art conservator Elise Grenier of Grenier Conservation, who has been involved in numerous restoration and preservation projects in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Florence, Italy.
“It’s important to remember that this piece was intended for this location,” said Katie Bowler Young, director of global relations at the University of North Carolina and author of an upcoming biography of Enrique Alferez, done in conjunction with the Historic New Orleans Collection.
“Edward Silverstein, the architect who designed the Howard Avenue structure, shepherded this project with Alferez, as to exactly how it would come together in terms of the overall breadth and scope of the building, and how this communications piece would be an integral part of its surroundings,” Young said.
For Alferez, the subject matter was personal. He knew all about the trials of communicating, so when this particular work was commissioned, it hit home.
“My father, who had fled Mexico after serving under Pancho Villa, arrived in El Paso and didn’t speak a word of English,” said Tlaloc Alferez.
“With nothing more than a Spanish-English dictionary, he taught himself English by studying the comics in the newspaper every day," she added. "While at the Art Institute in Chicago, he radically improved his English before later coming to live in New Orleans.”
“This work is a prime example of that thought process,” said Katie Pfohl, curator of modern and contemporary art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. “This piece may look very different from most of his other art, but I think it speaks to what he was thinking about through most of his career, related to questions of cultural migration between far-flung places all across the world, and how people come together through language and art. This mural encompasses Arabic, Spanish, ancient hieroglyphics, Morse code, and the list goes on.”
Jaeger, who spoke on behalf of the four owners, said the group is still trying to find a new home for the sculpture.
“We, as a group, feel a sense of responsibility to find an appropriate new home for the Enrique Alferez panel installation in the building," he said. "We continue to reach out to numerous museums, collectors and public spaces, and are hoping to find the location that best pays tribute to this amazing artist.”
Jaeger said his group is talking with several prospective tenants, whom he declined to name, for the site at 3800 Howard. But with the building likely to end up as some kind of distribution center or else knocked down entirely — the City Council has approved a rezoning of the site — removing the Alferez piece is probably the only way to preserve it for public display, he said.
“Generally, these big projects solicit multiple requests for bids on the excavation and removal of very large art pieces,” said Julian Baumgartner, president and CEO of Baumgartner Fine Art Restoration and Conservation in Chicago.
“If you can find someone who will do it for $200,000, you can find someone for $150,000, and the last guy will undercut everyone, providing that company is still making a profit," he said.
"Some bids will include removal and conservation of the piece. Others will say, 'We’ll remove it and leave it on the street,' and yet others will remove it and store it for a specific price. In another scenario, the owners could pay to have it removed, donate it and take the tax write-off."
He concluded, "One thing is clear, once art is gone, it’s gone, and you’ve lost an important part of civic and cultural history.”