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Kenner to sell Mardi Gras Museum

27th February 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

The Lundi Gras festivities began last week, as they have for the last thirteen years, with the Zulu King and court greeting Argus, the Monarch of Jefferson’s Carnival, his Queen, and Dukes, in front of Kenner’s Rivertown Mardi Gras Museum, and the two groups proceeded to second-lined down two blocks of Williams Blvd.

As Mayor Mike Yenni of Kenner led this year’s Zulu, Elroy James, along side of the 2012 Argus, Newell Normand (the Jeff Sheriff), out of the Museum’s front door, the throngs of people along the street might be surprised to learn that the contents of Mardi Gras museum will be individually auctioned to the highest bidder on March 8.

The walls of irreplaceable Krewe favors, photos, costumes, mementos, and even a few floats will be sold to the highest bidders, and no one knows if any significant profit will come for the city of Kenner in view of the economic temper of the times.

The museum has already been partially gutted. The Boeuf Gras that stood on the entrance float has been ripped aside and returned to his original owner, along with the collections that were specifically on loan to the museum. The remainder, including the artifacts donated over the last two decades, will be sold.

Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni argues that the auction is the only answer. His city needs the money. One ally of the mayor, who spoke to The Louisiana Weekly privately, admitted, “Mike may not be making the right decision. This may be pennywise, but not otherwise. We need to keep this collection together. And, it may not be too late.”

No effort was made by Kenner officials to contact the Louisiana State Museum’s Permanent Collection of Mardi Gras Memorabilia, but this newspaper has learned that the LSM might be able to provide a permanent home for the priceless carnival collection.

“No one is coming to Kenner to go to a Museum,” argued Mike Yenni to The Louisiana Weekly Editorial Board as he ran for Mayor of Kenner. He quickly qualified his comment “comparatively few” were going to visit Rivertown for that purpose, despite the presence of the Freeport Planetarium, Heritage Hall, Toy Train Museum, Native American collection, Science Museum (with its walk-through International Space Station), Children’s Castle, and, of course, the Mardi Gras Museum. The history of the previous two decades seemed to support the future mayor’s argument.

“People go to the French Quarter or downtown to go to a museum. I can’t tell people that we have to close a playground, or cut police patrols, to keep the Rivertown Museums open. With the budget the way it is, we have to have priorities,” Yenni maintained.

It was the logic he used as Kenner’s Chief Administrative Officer to close the Toy Train Museum, located in Rivertown’s historic Rail Station Depot. The City paid the curator $29,000 per year. In exchange, he not only ran the museum five days a week, but had let the city a collection of Lionel and model trains that had drawn national attention.

What the museum did not produce was $29,000 per year plus utilities. Ticket sales did not even come close to approaching that sum. Yenni’s then-boss, Kenner Mayor Ed Muniz, said it was a question of dollars and sense. Only so much money was in the budget.

“It was all about the pennies; no thought about the bigger picture,” lamented a member of Rivertown’s Development Council. “It wasn’t much money, but it gave people a reason to come here. It’s about synergy. Ed didn’t see that. He was just looking at saving pennies in the budget.”

The row of museums down the historic Victorian-era mainstreet was born one night three decades ago—as Muniz recollected in an interview—when then-Kenner Mayor Aaron Broussard pulled the then-Councilman “out of in the middle of the night, drove me down Williams Boulevard, and began to tell me his vision.”

The 19th-century architecture of Kennerville, built on the even older Native American Settle­ment dubbed by French explorers as Canes Brullé, seemed a perfect place to give the suburban, bedroom community a city’s self-identity. Competitive museums matched with a local Theatre and retail would spawn selective gentrification and a wider tax base.

Millions of dollars in private donations and capital funding formed the row of museums flanked around a heritage park of historic Kenner, but the promise of business and homeowner in-migration never came about. Beyond school groups and a trickle of tourists, the street remained quiet year after year. Corridor retail struggled, and Yenni’s observation that metro New Orleanians did not see the neighborhood, dubbed River­town, as a museum destination proved all to true.

After Katrina, when roof damage rain soaked the state-owned Wildlife collection, upon its repair, Kenner city government opted not to reopen its display building. Instead, the Council turned the Heritage Hall on River Road and the Heritage Park into a (far more profitable) venue for wedding receptions and other party rentals.

Then, the Saints Museum relocated to the Superdome. (Some said that it had to do with a funding dispute with the museum’s director. Others called such charges untrue. That the official reason, greater foot traffic at the Dome normally and on game day, was the factual testament to Rivertown’s failure as a destination.)

The Toy Train Museum was the next to be closed, and while never officially shuttered, story time at the Children’s Castle effectively ended. Muniz, may have closed the train depot to visitors, but the Captain of Endymion drew the line at the Mardi Gras Museum. The central complex of museums, where a single ticket desk could serve the Science Museum, the large telescope, the planetarium, and the Carnival collections remained—for a while.

After the failure of a large citywide tax hike, though, his successor Yenni cut visitor hours to Saturdays, and by appointment at the main museums. The center room used post-Katrina for Native American studies, was cleared for another a rental hall, and many of the rooms of the Mardi Gras Museum were quietly blocked off.

The central hall and its paper maché life-sized figures recreating a parade remained accessible (sans Boeuf Gras). Otherwise, the chambers dedicated to carnival balls and costumes, history and heraldry, underwent a quiet appraisal valuation. The private collections that were lent to the museum were returned to their owners, and the Mayor’s Office began a two year project to sell off the remainder.

With a March 8 public auction scheduled, sale of the museum seems a done deal. However, The Weekly has learned that some Rivertown and Kenner insiders are pushing for a solution that could keep the remaining collection together, even if not on display in Kenner. Could the Cabil­do collections be an answer?

The second floor of the Presbytere on Jackson Square is a guided carnival cornucopia. From the float in its entry room, to the ball costumes in photos in the next, to the Cajun Mardi Gras of the out-chambers and the collections of Ball favors, tiaras, and ultimately parade throws, it was the inspiration for Kenner’s museum. (In one hallway, there are six doors of port-a-lets along the walls. Four are false doors, but two are the actual entries to the men’s and women’s lavatories.)

Most carnival enthusiasts know of this display, but the majority are unaware that just a few blocks away, in an old macaroni factory, is the real carnival treasure.

The permanent collections of the Louisiana State Museum sit on the four floors above Irene’s Restaurant. Converted into a state-of-the-art climate-controlled facility during the Foster Administration, art work, furniture, costumes, machines, pottery, and a myriad of other artifacts lay cataloged on shelves.

Every six weeks or so, in cooperation with the Friends of the Cabildo, the curators assemble showings on a weeknight, or series of them, of the “Hidden Treasures” of the collections. And no series of nights is ever as subscribed by eager ticket holders than the yearly Mardi Gras open houses.

Sitting on a oversized table, 12ft-by-12ft square, lay invitations to Comus and Rex, circa 1912, dance cards of the time, the tiara and regal chains of a century-old queen of carnival, sketches of costumes, masks from formal carnival, and costumes of the Mardi Gras Indian, of the drag queen, and the streets of the French Quarter on Shrove Tuesday.

“This is incredible,” Mardi Gras historian Ryan Waldron, author of the blog Searsucker­andSaz­, noted on the variety of artifacts, from the royal scepters to the sublime remains of a post-Katrina costume made of a Blue Tarp. “This is the greatest carnival collection I have ever seen, and almost no one knows its here.”

“We’re always looking for memorabilia,” noted the curator of the collection, “but we don’t have much a budget to acquire it.” What little is bought, typically comes not from state funds, but through the generosity of the Friends of the Cabildo—the volunteer group which raises money through guided tours and events throughout the year for the LSM.

“Carnival is our history. We need to conserve as much as possible,” the curator (who was speaking privately). “It used to be just the ball costumes, but our collection of artificats stretches to all aspects of Mardi Gras.”

In other words, it is the perfect resting place for the Kenner Museum’s collection, but the Yenni Administration seems focused on a sale. It’s a contention that does not even make fiscal sense, argued Kenner City Council Candidate. “He’s selling off a collection now for a hundred thousand or less, that under different circumstances could be worth a million..We talk about economic development for Kenner. Selling off museums to the highest bidder is not economic development. It is a step backwards.”

Local Kenner businessman and civic activist Michael Gonzales explained to The Louisiana Weekly, “These are incredible museums, but no body knows about them. They could have been profitable, but there was no real effort to market them. Now we are selling precious artifacts of Mardi Gras. The museum is part of the reason that we have the Lundi Gras festival atmosphere in Rivertown. What happens when it is gone?”

And, what will become of the collections, Gonzales wondered. Richard Brown, a local political activist in Kenner, argued that the museum should not be sold. “Some of us are trying to fight this, and stop if before March 8. A lot of people are angry. Still, there are better solutions [even if we close the museum] than breaking it apart at an auction…Some have suggested lending it to the Louisiana State Museum.

“If you want to talk about selling it, we can always do that in the future. Let’s stop this before it is too late,” Brown concluded. “Somebody needs to step up and save this collection. We don’t need to be selling our history.”

This article was originally published in the February 27, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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