Read the original article in Where Y’at Magazine.
By: Laurel Shimasaki
“Art for All,” the popular program that provides Louisiana residents with free admission to local museums, is switching back to a Wednesday schedule. Beginning March 3, Wednesdays (not Thursdays) will be the “free day” for checking out the latest exhibitions at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The Helis Foundation also sponsors free days during the week at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans, and the New Orleans Botanical Garden, plus a monthly free day at the Louisiana Children’s Museum.
Launched in 2007, “Art for All” is a partnership between The Helis Foundation and New Orleans institutions. Though the Helis name is now closely associated with the arts, William Helis was a “hot oil” man. In 1939, The Pittsburgh Press described William George Helis as a man who had the “Midas touch” when it came to oil. Born in Greece, the archived article traces his story from a teenage “penniless Greek immigrant” to a man with “fantastic fortune and close association with leading political figures in Louisiana.”
In addition to being an oil magnate, Helis was a Thoroughbred owner and a horse racing sportsman. His Fair Grounds Hall of Fame biography states that Helis’s “biggest contribution to Fair Grounds history was his role in saving the track from the auction block in 1941.” Helis died in 1950 and, five years later, the family established The Helis Foundation.
Today, New Orleanians might not have heard of Helis himself, but they have certainly seen The Helis Foundation’s installations presented around the city. One such installation is the Poydras Corridor Sculpture Exhibition, which turns a 1.5 mile stretch of Poydras Street—one of the main arteries of the city—into an ornamented thoroughfare. Passengers in cars zip past 33 sculptures. Granted, the median is not an ideal place for art fans to observe the work up close, but most of the pieces, like The Guide (a towering figure holding up a light-up staff), are large-scale enough to admire from the sidewalks. Another installation presented by The Helis Foundation is Unframed, the multi-mural exhibition scattered throughout the Warehouse District.
And then, there are The Helis Foundation sponsored free days to the biggest art museums in NOLA.
Coming to NOMA from March 6 through May 30 will be the Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon: Masterworks from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection at Asia Society. If this sounds familiar, that’s because the exhibition was originally planned to run last spring. “The exhibition was on view for just three days before NOMA had to close its doors at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the press release explained.
Included in the exhibition are nearly 70 examples of Asian art. The highlights include “Chinese vases, Indian Chola bronzes, and Southeast Asian sculptures.” In total, the collection spans more than two millennia, ranging from a 6th century B.C. food vesselthat was found in Shandong Province to a Japanese drum-shaped pillowdating between the late 18th to early 19th century.
“The stunning range of works selected by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller represent a multitude of cultures across Asia, showcasing the diversity and complexity of the region,” Susan Taylor, director of NOMA, said in the press release. “The collection rarely travels beyond its home at the Asia Society Museum in New York, and never with the range of objects presented in this exhibition.”
The Rockefellers began collecting Asian art after World War II. At the time, “political and economic circumstances informed the reception and availability of Asian artworks in the United States,” the NOMA press release said. Of course, today’s perception of Asian artworks continues to be informed by political and economic circumstances. It may be a few generations later, but the timing on this exhibit arrives amidst another fraught moment in history: a rise in hate crimes and racist attacks against Asian Americans. Since the start of the pandemic, attacks have increased by a staggering amount, according to a report by the Asian American Bar Association of New York.
“With an emphasis on beauty, ingenuity, and tradition, Buddha and Shiva, Lotus and Dragon manifests the dynamic ideas and philosophies that animate histories of Asian art,” the press release for the exhibit said. In doing so, the exhibit strives to “renew the Rockefellers vision of promoting cross-cultural understanding.” In this cultural climate, that mission feels layered with centuries of complex history.