The Port of New Orleans finished installing a new mural in its executive offices last month. The painting, a 19-by-eight-foot depiction of a port workday in the 1850s, cost $51,588 to purchase and install.
The purchase was reported by Fox 8 last week in a segment that questioned whether the Port, a government agency overseen by a board appointed by the governor, should be spending so much cash for a painting on the building’s fourth floor outside the executive suite, where few members of the public would ever see it.
But the mural has sparked a different conversation among Port employees, according to three current and one former employee that spoke to The Lens. Rather than discussing the issue of fiscal responsibility, they said that employees have been focused on the depiction of people of color in the mural, some of whom are shown hauling bales of cotton.
Although the scene is set in the 1850s, the mural was painted in 1993 by a French artist, Pierre-Marie Rudelle. Rudelle, who was white, died in 2015 in Paris.
“It’s been a really hard week at the Port,” said a current Port employee who asked to remain anonymous, citing concerns about her job. “There’s just been a lot of anxiety surrounding that painting.”
A fact sheet distributed by the Port emphasizes the city’s large population of free people of color in the 1800s, seemingly suggesting that at least some of the figures depicted in the painting are not meant to be slaves. But the backlash was enough for Port President Brandy Christian to send an email to employees on Monday, less than two weeks after the mural was installed, announcing that it would be relocated.
“Our purpose was to honor our maritime industry’s fundamental historic importance to the region’s growth, inclusive of everyone’s contributions. We recently became aware that some employees have concerns about the mural that are inconsistent with that commitment to inclusivity,” the email said. “I and the rest of the Port leadership team did not intend to be insensitive in any way and have decided to relocate the piece as the best path forward.”
According to the email, the Port will now work with the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism “to ensure it can be displayed with proper historic context in a publically accessible setting.”
An immediate reaction
Port employees took issue with the art purchase almost immediately after it came in the building. The same day the installation was completed, Human Resources Analyst Destiny Hinson contacted The Lens.
“The initial reaction from employees seems mixed and there has already been talk of the huge oppressive image that shows people of color working along the river, while others are at leisure,” she said in an email. “The location of this painting also says a lot and is an intimidating ‘welcome’ to the executive offices for many working employees. It doesn’t support a workplace culture of diversity and inclusion and sends a rather insensitive message that is sure to offend some people.”
Two other current employees and a former employee reached out to The Lens shortly after. Those three asked to remain anonymous for fear that speaking out would have an adverse impact on their jobs. All of the sources who spoke to The Lens are people of color, three of whom are black.
“A lot of emotions and anxiety came across me when looking at this mural at work, I didn’t understand why it was there but I don’t agree with it being in the workplace,” one of the current employees said in an email. “The picture is showing us black people with bags of cotton working like we are on a slave plantation while the master has his feet sitting up just watching us work.”
The Lens spoke with Hinson and one of the other employees after the Port announced it was relocating the mural. Both said they appreciated the move but were still concerned about the decision making process that led the senior staff to buy the mural in the first place. According to the two employees, executives never reached out to the rest of the staff for input before the purchase was made, warned employees that the mural was coming or provided employees with information about the mural once it was installed.
“I recognize it’s a step forward,” said one of the current employees. “But I don’t think the racial aspect is being fully addressed. I just think they’re trying to not talk about it as much as possible.”
She said that the issue was nuanced and that people had differing views on what the mural represented, saying “art is subjective in many ways.” However, she argued that regardless of how individuals wrestled with the image, it was telling that the executive staff couldn’t predict and didn’t prepare for the complex emotions that the mural would spark for people of color working at the Port.
“I just feel that we don’t have leadership in place that can deal with this,” she said. “And I feel that if we had more people of color in those positions, perhaps it wouldn’t have been dealt with in that manner.”
Port employees told The Lens that the debate over the mural evolved into a wider conversation among some employees over how the Port leadership handles issues of race, the treatment of non-white employees and the lack of people of color in senior staff positions.
‘The only thing we’ve done is give women positions of power’
The former employee was not at the Port when the mural was purchased, but she told The Lens that when she was there, a senior executive regularly made racist and sexist remarks to her.
“He said so many things while I was there that made me uncomfortable, belittling me and my role,” she said. “I’m surprised he’s still there.”
She said that one reason she thinks the mural struck a chord with employees is that some people see in the mural a reflection of the current dynamic at the Port, with white people dominating positions of power. Three of the employees said that they believed that people of color were passed over for promotions and senior staff positions.
“When you look at [Port employees] who made under $40,000, those people were primarily people of color,” she said. “I think if there’s one person right now who would stand up, I think there would be room for a class action lawsuit because more people of color would stand up.”
In an emailed statement, Port Chief of Staff Michelle Ganon said that diversity is one of the Port’s core values.
“We strive to create a culture of inclusiveness at the Port and want to ensure a welcoming, respectful workplace,” the email said. “We have made strides and we are committed to continue to weave these core values into the work we do together to move our city and state forward.”
Still, employees that spoke to The Lens believed that the Port could and should be doing more to boast diversity.
“The Port, the last few years we’ve boasted diversity, but as diversity goes, the only thing we’ve done is give women positions of power,” Hinson said. “I’ve seen companies put real thought and effort into diversity and inclusion, and ours is not one of them.”
According to the Port, 50 percent of employees at “the director level and above” are women. That’s consistent with the Port website’s list of 22 senior staff members, 11 of who are women. Almost all of those senior staff members are white. The Port also said that 45 percent of “supervisory staff” is non-white.
But the morale problem, according to two current and one former employee, is not just about race. They say that the hierarchy between senior staff and the rest of the employees has become more pronounced in recent years.
“It’s not just a racial issue,” said one of the current employees. “I do think our current leadership is strong in so many ways, but I feel like they haven’t made enough effort to connect with the employees.”
Those three former and current employees said that many of these morale issues were exacerbated when Christian took over as CEO in 2017 after former CEO Gary LaGrange retired.
“Unfortunately, the change in employee morale did decline with the CEO change,” Hinson said. “Employees are visibly down. We don’t have any real inclusive programs or policy.”
In her email, Ganon said that “it is impossible for us to provide a comprehensive response to the vague and unsubstantiated allegations presented in your emails.” The Lens offered to take Port officials through this article over the phone to clarify the allegations, but they declined.
Ganon also said that the Port’s dedication for diversity is “further proven” by its effort to provide more opportunities for small business enterprises and disadvantaged business enterprises, firms that are typically run by minority or women business owners. The email said that the Port had increased “small and emerging business contracting from $909,000 in 2016 to approximately $4 million in 2019.”
The Port’s response did not include similar statistics for the value of contracts going to disadvantaged business enterprises.
“There was never a set plan,” Hinson said. “It was checking boxes and, hey we did this, we’re including minority business. See, see, see. But nothing much happened.”
The painting was originally commissioned by art collector Fred Feinsilber and Carol Allen for their French Quarter apartment. The mural is large, measuring 19 feet by 8 feet, according to a fact sheet provided by The Port.
According to the fact sheet, the mural depicts the port in the 1850s, prior to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the country. The Port’s fact sheet addresses the people of color in the painting, saying it is “showcasing the racially diverse population of the city.”
“Although slavery was an intrinsic part of the southern agrarian world, beginning in the 18th century, large numbers of Free People of Color lived in New Orleans with significant status, represented in the mural as entrepreneurs, money lenders, and other roles,” it said.
Three of the employees who spoke with The Lens said that the Port’s attempt to pass off the mural as a celebration of the city’s community of free people of color was a cop out.
“You look at that time period, and you look at those boats, and you know it’s not about free people of color,” said one of the current employees. “I think [senior staff] is just very disconnected from how this painting could be offensive to people of color. I feel like they don’t see visible shackles, so they feel like what’s the problem?”
According to information from the Whitney Plantation, a plantation museum that is focused on the lives of enslaved people, rather than plantation owners, the time period reflected in the painting saw a surge of new slaves in Louisiana.
“Over the course of the nineteenth century, the population of free people of color in Louisiana remained relatively stable, while the population of enslaved Africans skyrocketed,” the Whitney Plantation website says. “Just before the Civil War in 1860, there were 331,726 enslaved people and 18,647 free people of color in Louisiana.”
The Port purchased the painting from Allen over a year ago in January 2019 for $31,500. It cost another $18,500 to restore the painting and $1,588 to install it. The purchases were not approved by the Port’s publicly appointed board. According to communications manager Jessica Ragusa, the Port’s CEO is authorized to make purchases up to $125,000 without board approval.
The mural wasn’t installed until last month. In the year between the purchase and installation, the Port didn’t disclose the acquisition to staff, according to the employees who spoke with The Lens. They also said that the information about the mural that was sent to The Lens wasn’t disseminated to staff even after it was installed.
Although the Port’s fact sheet says the mural would be on a “prominent wall” to “welcome visitors,” the mural was placed on the Port building’s fourth floor, just outside of the executive suite.
“That floor is reserved for the executives,” Hinson said. “When you turn into the executive wing, the carpets turn purple. It’s on the ‘purple side of the carpet.’ It’s kind of a joke here that when you go up to the executive suites it’s different.”
‘I wondered, is it just me?’
According to the Port employees, the initial reaction to the mural was complicated when it was first unveiled. Hinson said that her first reaction was shock.
“That shock turned into being upset and then offended,” she said. “I wondered, is it just me? And I ran this by my friends to see if I was wrong. Just asking, ‘How does this make you feel,’ just like any piece of art. And, once again, most of my friends gasped. The initial reaction from people is silence. They don’t know what to say.”
The employees said that it wasn’t easy to wrestle with the emotions that came with taking in the 152 square-foot mural.
“I know I feel icky walking passed it every day,” said a current employee.
She said that employees were uncovering their feelings about the mural as they talked about it with others.
“One employee said she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when she saw it,” she said. “Another was just kind of laughing at what the fuss was about as far as the finances and stuff like that. But then when we started talking about it and getting to the deeper level of feelings, he mentioned that it was uncomfortable for him.”
The Port employees who spoke to The Lens said that there were differing views on the mural, and not everyone found it offensive. But regardless of whether there is a firm consensus among the staff, the employees who spoke to The Lens said the lack of foresight that the mural would engender these complex feelings among employees shows a blind spot in the Port’s senior staff.
“If we have a budget for art and if it’s going to be something that our employees are going to pass by and look at, perhaps if the Port president sent out an email with the mural saying, ‘This is what the Port is thinking about buying,’ “ said one of the current employees. “And I know that corporations don’t work that way but we’re supposed to be a state run agency.”