The nonprofit institution continues the spirit of philanthropy begun by Edgar and Edith SternThose of us who grew up in the greater New Orleans area can’t help but know Longue Vue Gardens, the home and gardens of Edgar Bloom Stern and Edith Rosenwald Stern. A powerful pair, Edgar was an important cotton broker and Edith’s father, Julius Rosenwald, was president of Sears, Roebuck & Company. The Sterns designed their house and landscaped their eight-acre gardens from 1939 to 1942. In 1968, after Edgar’s death, Edith opened the gardens to the public. Upon her death in 1980, she left the property in trust to be operated as a nonprofit institution. Today, both the house and the gardens are open for tours.
Longue Vue also has a history of involvement with the local community. This commitment to public service traces back to the Sterns: Edgar and Edith promoted voting rights, helped found Dillard University and Metairie Park Country Day School and, during segregation, developed Pontchartrain Park—the first middle-class and professional African American community—and Gentilly Woods. Today, it is collaborating with Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods during their rebuilding efforts. In addition, it sponsored an event with NOCCA, resulting in a student photography exhibition on display through April 30.
Longue Vue Gardens recently hired Joe Baker, a respected artist and educator with a strong background in museum administration, as executive director. Baker was drawn to Longue Vue because of “the incredible legacy of the Sterns. Their ability to respond to the needs of the New Orleans community in terms of urban development, education, economic growth, arts and culture is a guide for how we express ourselves today,” he says. He moved here in early January, in time for the Saints’ thrilling run to the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, and quickly fell in love with the city. “It’s complex, it’s magical, it feels very real.” Recently New Orleans Living spoke with Baker about his new job and about Longue Vue Gardens.
You’ve worked a lot in administration in museums. You’re also an artist yourself.
My background is in museum practice as a curator. However, I bring the experience of an artist. My interest is in experimenting with ideas. I’m also interested in how communities animate themselves. I believe that they can be a laboratory for inclusion, assurance and continuity. We in the museum profession can respond to that.
As a museum director you have tried to make art institutions more accessible. How does that relate to your plans for Longue Vue?
I believe that house museums just might be the next frontier of museum practice. It’s a model that hasn’t been thoroughly explored. It’s been couched in history and preservation yet has a vital message for today and can contribute to society in profound ways. The incredible legacy of Longue Vue allows us to explore this idea and work on the edges of arts exploration.
To what extent do you feature indigenous plants, flowers and trees at Longue Vue?
We have an amazing collection of Louisiana iris, which are indigenous to this region. This is another phenomenal aspect of Longue Vue and the forward thinking of the Stern family. Mrs. Stern brought [Louisiana botanist and conservationist] Caroline Dorman and [renowned landscape architect] Ellen Biddle Shipman to design the gardens. In fact, an early example of a wild garden, a native indigenous plants garden, has been a part of the garden experience from the onset. We have a program called Native Now, a free program open to the community. It’s a walk-and-talk led by botanists and plant enthusiasts. They talk about the native plants, their role in wetlands restoration.
You have a strong background in education, and Longue Vue has some wonderful educational programs as well.
We were just part of the initiative called Gutter to Gulf, a collaborative research and teaching initiative [involving students and teachers from] the University of Toronto and Washington University in St. Louis [guttertogulf.blogspot.com]. We had a design studio two weeks ago, including 30 students from the universities who had been in New Orleans doing field research. They presented their water management solutions in this three-day design show.
New Orleans is a great place to explore issues relating to the environment and rebuilding.
It’s a city that’s being rebuilt and refashioned and reinvented. It’s a center of innovation, a center for exploring new ideas. There is such an influx of new, vibrant, dedicated and passionate individuals who’ve come here to join an amazing local community. They’re creating a new model for cities for the future. In some ways New Orleans has been a model for the greater United States about how to rebuild. The collapse of the financial structure was the country’s Katrina, and I think the entire country is looking to New Orleans for inspiration. How do we come back? How do we recover from devastation? It’s a very exciting place to be today.
For more information about Longue Vue Gardens, including its dinner and auction fundraiser on April 15 and 16, go to longuevue.com.